Almost exactly a decade since they were given their name, advergames are at a bit of a crossroads. Consumer resistance to viral hype is growing all the time. That's not to say much of the world isn't still spending its working life covertly assassinating stickmen or practising its virtual free kicks; just that the challenge of cutting through has become an increasingly stiff one for branded games.
The good news, meanwhile, is that marketers now know what advergames are, which means the demand for content remains high, even if budgets have slipped somewhat. The maddening quest for viral ubiquity still lurks between the lines of every brief, but it is now tempered with a strategic sense of how games can be used in a targeted fashion, in keeping with more traditional forms of marketing.
Advocates talk about the long tail, the opportunities for sponsorship activation and the absurdly long dwell times. Detractors counter with the argument that consumers don't pay much attention to branding - they just play the game. Of course, you could make an equivalent case against TV ads. And with tens of millions of plays for the more successful advergames, anyone would have to admit that the scale of the engagement is impressive.
Chris Kempt, managing director, Kempt
Most advergames are aimed at a mass consumer audience and usually prove to be most popular among consumers in their teens and those in their early twenties. But they increasingly work across a wider market than that, and Kempt believes the modern appeal of advergames is too broad to narrow down to any particular type of brand.
"We talk about the medium these days in terms of play and engagement," he says. "Play is a universal phenomenon - it is one of the key ways we learn. And basically, advertising is a form of teaching. Fundamentally, games can be used very effectively to communicate a multitude of messages."
The key thing in each instance, Kempt adds, is to create a business case for advergames. "Let's say you create a game for a brand whose target audience is upper management in blue-chip companies," he says. "Initially, it might not seem like the best approach, because a lot of advergames are virally distributed and are seen as mass-market entertainment. But on the other hand, if you are clever about it and you have a database, you can send advergames directly to your target audience."
To broaden the reach in a targeted fashion, he suggests, you might showcase your game via a kiosk at a trade show where a strong cross-section of your target audience is likely to be present. "At the end of it all," he says, "you sit down and you might find that your typical cost per engagement or acquisition stacks up quite well against other media."
One big challenge facing brands attempting to use advergames to reach mass audiences is the perception that viral distribution is essentially free once they have built the game, but that is not always the case.
"If you want your game to go viral, you are going to have to invest in a seeding campaign," says Kempt. "Some agencies are really getting it and are realising that advergames do not always go viral. If they do, that's a result, but it's about targeting your existing audience, too."
Kempt's biggest single tip for success with advergames, he adds, "is to think about the long term, rather than the short. The real value is in the long tail, and it's the brands that understand this that reap the rewards."
Will King, founder, King of Shaves
By King's reckoning, the company he founded has achieved about 115 million plays across its portfolio of advergames in the past four years.
"It started when King of Shaves sponsored a guy called Kristan Bromley, who was in the 2006 Winter Olympics in the skeleton bobsleigh,"
says King. "We launched a game called King of Skeleton and got a huge amount of brand awareness through that, both in the UK and internationally." King of Shaves signed John Terry as a brand ambassador in April 2006, and launched another game, King of Defenders, which has achieved more than 64 million plays and is currently the world's most-popular game on viralchart.com.
"It was a lot easier to seed advergames a few years ago before other brands began to realise their appeal," says King, who adds that games with good playability and a clear hook can still cut through and drive brand awareness. "The majority of consumers that play advergames tend to be young, but that can be a bonus for brands looking to build awareness of their products over time."
King doesn't mind whether his products are available in the countries where the games are played. "I'm not terribly worried about where people encounter the King of Shaves brand," he says. "Because we are gradually globalising - Japan, South Africa, the US, Brazil - having advergames out there, even in countries where our products aren't yet available, means we are associating our brand with performance, precision and humour."
When King of Shaves launched in football-mad Brazil, it quickly emerged that the nation was already the fourth-highest-playing country of the King of Defenders game globally.
Ten years ago, everything was about brand broadcasting, but over the past few years a huge amount of eyeballs have shifted online, King explains. He adds: "I'm trying to build global brand awareness for King of Shaves in a cost-effective manner so that when people see the product, they say, 'Oh, I saw that in that game, I'll give it a go'."
Jim McNiven, managing director, Kerb
The idea that you can get a lot of exposure for no media spend still holds true, according to McNiven, but it is getting harder and harder. "It certainly used to be a lot more Darwinian, in that the traffic levels were clearly dictated by the quality of the game," he says.
When Kerb launched a decade ago, it would regularly get 10 million people playing its games. Portals were glad to host them, because even if the game was branded, media owners were pleased to be able to sell ads around content that had cost them nothing.
"From about five years ago, games portals started to understand their worth and media buyers got involved," says McNiven. "Some of the bigger ones started asking for quite healthy media spends to add branded content. Since then, it has become much more like the traditional advertising model. And because the traffic levels are more determined by the media spend, naturally that eats into the production budget, often at the expense of the quality of the game."
At the same time, advergaming has never been bigger, and for brands with real budgets to spend, there are some excellent opportunities - especially in social gaming, which allows for a much longer and more regular engagement with the consumer.
"In the pre-Facebook days, we ran a community game called Project Rockstar, which at its peak was getting 24 million page impressions a month," says McNiven. "To create a big, exciting, multi-player social game today, you are talking a couple of hundred thousand pounds, but there is no reason why big brands shouldn't be interested in doing something like that if it means that, for the next couple of years, they have customers coming and looking at that game once or twice a day."
There's still a place, he adds, for the throwaway, one-play Flash games. "I think they are a great way of driving traffic and they get some decent dwell times - people spending five, ten minutes interacting with the brand in a game," he says. "That doesn't seem like a lot, but compared to the 0.1 of a second they need to ignore a banner ad, it is still pretty good."
Chris Kempt is managing director of Kempt, an independent agency specialising in the production/promotion of advergames
Will King is founder of King of Shaves, the men's grooming brand he founded from scratch
Jim McNiven is managing director of Kerb, the online ad, viral marketing and advergaming agency
Smart thinking Advergames
1. Advergames don't need to be viral - they can be targeted like any other direct online marketing
2. Nor do they need to be aimed specifically at the younger generation of habitual gamers - targeting allows a game to find the appropriate market
3. European and global viral campaigns are clearly more cost-effective than local ones
4. The most valuable part of an advergame is very often the long tail, so plan for the long term
5. Viral doesn't necessarily mean free any more. But if money needs to be set aside to promote and place the game, don't let quality suffer
Casebook: How Sony used an advergame to push its PSP
To promote a full-blown PSP game, an advergame needs to be good, and a rhythm-driven adventure on the level of Sony's Patapon series is a stiff challenge indeed.
For last year's Patapon 2 sequel to the original 2008 game, Kerb built a Flash mini-game, which was hosted on its own microsite and seeded to game portals, allowing gamers to experience the action first-hand. Achievements within the game unlocked Patapon characters for use on a wallpaper-creator housed within the Patapon 2 microsite.
Nearly 1.5 million unique users played the mini-game on third-party portals, and more than 300,000 users played it via the microsite. Meanwhile, more than 100,000 user-generated desktop wallpapers were created, and the most popular design among them was downloaded by almost 7,000 people.
As for whether the game succeeded in selling the more complex, full version on the PSP, Kerb managing director Jim McNiven is convinced that a direct link can be made.
"There were regular instances of gamers commenting on portals that they'd never considered Patapon before, but after playing the minigame they were planning to purchase the box product," he says.
For more on advergames, visit brandrepublic.com