As an 18-rated title with themes of violence and crime, GTA IV is not an advertiser's dream. However, the scale of its sales shows there is potential for brands to join the party. The critically acclaimed Xbox 360 and Sony PlayStation 3 game sold 609,000 copies in the UK alone during its first 24 hours on sale, demonstrating the rampant consumer demand for games.
More people are now splashing out on games, rather than going to the cinema, buying DVDs or downloading music. Indeed, GTA IV has now overshadowed Microsoft's Halo 3, which had held the record for the sum earned in a day by an entertainment product, raking in more than £84m in sales within 24 hours of its launch last September. The shoot-'em-up topped figures set by last May's cinema release of the Spider-Man 3 movie.
GTA IV is one of few new games not to offer in-game advertising opportunities, allowing only fictitious brands within its virtual world. However, other top-selling series including Counter Strike, Splinter Cell and Pro Evolution Soccer feature in-game ads that can reach millions of consumers worldwide.
'The success of GTA IV is the clearest sign yet that video games are going mainstream,' says Paul Jackson, principal analyst at Forrester. 'They are now capable of challenging the box-office takings of Hollywood blockbusters.'
In-game advertising is also emerging as big business: eMarketer estimates that the sector will grow by 23% a year to be worth more than £1bn globally by 2011. Several top brands have experimented with the platform. Ford supported the launch of its Fiesta ST model with ads in racing games Need for Speed: Carbon, TOCA 3 and TrackMania Sunrise, while Nike, Samsung and Unilever have run test campaigns in shoot-'em-up titles.
Burger King has taken things a stage further, partnering with developer Blitz Games last year to create three titles for the Xbox 360, which it distributed through its US outlets.
'Blue-chip advertisers are turning to games to engage previously hard-to-reach audiences,' says Tom Hosking, regional sales manager, EMEA, at Massive, the in-game advertising network owned by Microsoft.
Jean-Paul Edwards, head of media futures at Manning Gottlieb OMD, also stresses the potential. 'Forward-thinking advertisers know that video games will emerge as the biggest entertainment platform,' he says. 'Games based on films already make more money than the films themselves.'
The range of in-game ad opportunities on offer is extensive, but the most popular formats are the simplest. Most brands use virtual billboards and shop fronts that can be dynamically updated. Marketers are also starting to embed their products in the game. However, this approach can have drawbacks, with brands wary of an association with violent images. 'There's no point putting a Coke logo on a virtual vending machine if it's going to have a zombie's brains splattered all over it,' points out Jackson.
Consumers are highly receptive to in-game marketing messages, with research from CNET Networks UK and the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) showing that gamers accept that ads do not spoil their experience, provided they are placed sensitively.
Perhaps more important for advertisers is the fact that in-game spots are highly accountable. Brands can track in-game behaviour, identifying what gamers see, from what angle and for how long. This means marketers pay only for the impressions they receive, making campaigns highly cost-effective.
'No other form of entertainment can engage consumers like a video game,' argues Ed Bartlett, co-founder and European vice-president of IGA Worldwide. 'In-game advertising is a highly emotive, targeted and accountable form of marketing that guarantees results.'
While the platform is starting to have a significant commercial impact, in-game advertising is still in its infancy. However, the latest generation of internet-enabled consoles are connecting gamers globally, providing advertisers with additional opportunities to target a valuable group of consumers.
Datafile: in-game ads
- Male gamers play 12.5 hours of games a week but spend only 9.8 hours watching TV.
- Seven out of 10 gamers believe that contextual ads make games more realistic.
- The average age of a gamer is 29. One in three is female.
- More than 25% of gamers noticed ads in the last game they played.
- More than half of heavy gamers - 52% - like their games to include real brands.
- A top-selling game can generate 1bn 'eyeball hours'.
- Source: IGA Worldwide