Game Plan Sees Brands as Video Players

NEW YORK In Test Drive Unlimited, a racing game from Atari set on the Hawaiian island of Oahu released last fall, gamers had the option of “purchasing” a car (with game points) at a Lexus dealership and driving it in the game. Some 125,000 people chose a Lexus, versus the approximate 45,000 who chose cars from a generic dealership, according to Atari.

“It’s a good measure of how engaged people are with the brand,” says Brian Bolain, national interactive and contextual manager for the Torrance, Calif., division of Toyota. (Lexus worked with Atari directly on the game and placement.)

This kind of deep integration—which lets the gamer either interact with, or be surrounded by, the brand—represents the richest form of in-game advertising. But it also represents just a small fraction of game ads, thanks to hurdles having mostly to do with the long lead time required to embed ads into a game, and the fact that it is hard to replicate deep integration across multiple titles. (The in-game advertising market, which New York-based eMarketer values at $502 million this year and projects will rise to $928 million in 2010, is predominantly made up of billboards.) But as more deep-integration success stories pepper the gaming landscape, some media agencies, marketers and game publishers say it will become an increasingly attractive gaming option.

“Every metric gets heightened when a brand is deeply integrated,” says Bob Lonigro, senior director of national ad sales, Pogo, a casual game company owned by Electronic Arts. “Everything from click thru, intent to purchase, brand favorability and brand awareness. It’s that extra re-enforcement of awareness.”

“Just a few years ago, there were [only] two or three publishers who did deep integration in a significant way,” adds Dario Raciti, group director, gaming leader, OMD, a media communications company in New York. “Now you have tier one, two and three publishers in the market recognizing the fact that the cost of games has skyrocketed, and that revenue per user needs to go up to maintain the business.”

OMD brought together Visa and the PC game C.S.I. last year for a deep-integration promotion in which users needed to use Visa’s fraud protection to beat the game. “In C.S.I, the average engagement time for Visa was 10 minutes, which actually surpasses your average for a TV drama,” says Raciti. OMD also worked with State Farm on two recent game launches: Electronic Arts’ March Madness and 2K Sports’ College Hoops 2k7, where it sponsored such things as highlight replays.

Two other recent examples of deep integration are: Tony Hawk’s Project Eight from Activision, released last November, in which an entire level was dedicated to a Jeep Wrangler manufacturing plant where skaters can do tricks on the cars (via its creative agency, BBDO, Detroit); and Adidas’ sponsorship of the soccer game, Power Challenge (via its media agency, Isobar, Boston). Gamers can choose between two different Adidas shoes, which give them different powers.

In each case, in order to be embedded in the game the marketer has had to work with the publisher during production, which means some 8-14 months before the game even launches. Says Jeff Cole, associate media director, WPP Group’s MindShare, Chicago, “It hurts a brand’s ability to stay current as a campaign is tweaked or changed. For deeper integration, you have to be in the game from the get-go, and in that time you may not know what the creative idea is. Are brands willing to do something that may not match with their TV or print?” (One solution to long lead times, Cole notes, is using generic branding and then adding a dynamic element that matches the brand after the game launches.)

There’s also the matter, adds Cole, of keeping a brand fresh: Once in, the marketing can’t be updated, while billboards can be swapped out and re-run with minor changes across many games.

Compared to billboards, it’s not cheap to be embedded in a game. Each in-game ad network uses its own formula to determine marketing costs, but the average price of getting a brand integrated deeply, per sources, is around $250,000 with the maximum topping out at $1 million. Dynamic billboards cost, on average, between $12 and $20 per CPM.

Lastly, some clients are averse to the risk of being in a game that could tank post-launch. “It’s hard to know which games will be successful,” says Mathew Ammirati, president of Ammirati in New York. “We need a few big successes before deeper integration becomes the norm.”

But because the return on investment for a dynamic ad pales in comparison to what is available on the Internet, say some, it makes sense to give deep integration a try. “What is a dynamic ad going to be able to give to me, when all I can do is count impressions?” says Ricetti. Is that enough in the digital world today? If I want to count impressions, I can do that online with better metrics.”

New brands are jumping on the bandwagon. Sprint, which has several billboard-like elements in Electronic Arts games such as MadNascar 07, is exploring deep integration advertising. Says Kevin McDermott, manger of media innovations for Sprint, based in Reston, Va.,”If there’s an opportunity where there’s communication element where we can integrate a wireless phone, we will.”