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Communicate Online | Regional Edition | Advertising, marketing, public relations and media in the Arab world and beyond

Let the games begin

Digital

Let the games begin

Gaming is offering new avenues to the advertising industry. Here is why…

 

Gaming has come a long way from the16-bit cassettes jammed into plastic consoles, or even Mario Bros., which was considered nothing short of state-of-the-art in the 1980s. In fact, if Mario and his brother were to take a virtual walk in the gaming space today, they would find themselves dodging Crazy Taxi played during office lunch breaks and the wrath of some very Angry Birds while travelling on the metro, before being caught in some wars between orcs and elves in one of the numerous massive multiplayers online role-playing games (MMORPG) or sometimes called MMO games, attracting, simultaneously, millions of players on a common online platform.

According to a Havas Media’s eMarketer research, conducted between 2008 and 2012 in the US, not only does an average of 35 to 40 percent of the US population play games (excluding on mobile), but the expenditure on advertising is more than $900 million and increasing from year-to-year, with a majority being on in-game ads. Indeed, the rapid and all-consuming gaming scenario has prompted global brands and advertisers to consider and invest in in-game advertising (advergaming or IGA) in a big way. Media research firm, Screen Digest, reported in May 2012, that global spending on IGA is anticipated to grow to $1 billion by 2014. The eMarketer research shows that in some countries, advergaming as an industry is in fact bigger than music and cinema.

Arab fun. The MENA region too is showing a growing demand for online, mobile and social games among consumers, with the gaming category taking the top spot in terms of digital content. Juan Jose de la Torre, vice president of strategy and corporate development of digital content provider Intigral, says, “The gaming category is currently one of the most important categories of content in the digital media arena. The demand is continuously rising and consumers’ demands are constantly becoming higher. The Gulf region, and especially Saudi Arabia, presents major opportunities for us considering that the market is one of the highest in terms of online and mobile gaming demand. The customer base in the GCC is very savvy in the gaming space and expects games to be made available on different platforms.” Naturally, this popular demand spurred growing interest from advertisers and increased spending. De la Torre explains: “In terms of advertising by brands on gaming content, if it is strategically embedded within the gaming experience, it could be highly effective to drive demand for the brand. Therefore, advertising embedded into games can be a very effective channel to reach the target audience in a non-invasive manner, and we believe there’s something big in store for the region.”

Online and mobile gaming appear to be gaining momentum as a medium of communication for brands in the MENA region. Rami Hmadeh, managing director of branding agency Plan.Net Middle East, says, “By leaps and bounds, yes. Take Angry Birds for instance. [Abu Dhabi daily] The National reported in May this year how the Middle East has exhibited quite a surprising appetite for downloadable games; contributing substantially to the 700,000 Angry Birds downloads worldwide. Then there’s The Mobile Show, held in Dubai in April 2012, which was the first expo of its kind, dedicated entirely to the advancement of mobile phone apps [one of the main platforms for gaming] in the region. If these aren’t proof enough – of how mobile and online gaming has set its foot and planted its flag in the Middle East – then I don’t know what is. This is happening because mobile gaming works for advertising brilliantly. People are natural-born players, so gaming has become a revolutionary way for people to interact with brands in a natural, entertaining, and unobtrusive way. But both serious and non-serious gamers know that cool mobile apps usually cost some dollars. So if a brand gives away a free, good quality mobile game to its consumers, more than brand appreciation there’s the start of a possibly fruitful relationship.”

Advertisers seem to have understood what’s at stake, and to be willing to step up their game in the region. Sagar Shetty, director at Clique Communications Group, says, “We’ve definitely seen clients wanting to advertise on casual games. Branded apps are something that the regional clients are looking at, increasingly. We did an augmented reality driving game for Peugeot, where we integrated the car, its features, etc… in the online driving game across the desert for the MENA region-specific audience, which was a good first step for a brand into the gaming space.”

Media agencies too are increasingly open to investing their clients’ money in the online and mobile gaming space. Sayed Abou Diwan, associate media director-digital at Havas Worldwide, says, “We surely suggest advertising on games to our clients, as the metrics for such strategies do fall within the same ones we look at within industries we service. For example, it can help increase in-purchase consideration, lift brand perception being perceived as a ‘cool brand’, and create affinity within reach and exposure of the brand among the gamers.”

Games everywhere

A major portion of the $1 billion global advergaming figure goes into console game advertising such as PS3 or XBox games; but a large chunk is also spent on online and social gaming apps, because not all games fall under the same category, and not all games attract the same consumers – hence the same advertisers. For example, MMO games trail at the end, even though a few international game developers, such as Blizzard Entertainment, are working on incorporating advergaming in their next generation games. Shetty says, “We’ve been trying to get through to online multiplayer strategy game, Travian, for the past four years, for advertising on behalf of our clients. [But] popular online games have a cult following and don’t want in-game advertising, because they don’t want to dilute their equity and interrupt the experience for gamers. They have other revenue channels and they don’t need to clutter the environment and game play with in-game advertisements.”

On the other hand, mobile game is where advertising is catching up in the region. Not only do consumers’ numbers increase, but local game applications and regional developers are multiplying in number. Waleed Kharma, co-founder of mobile game developing shop Piranha Byte, says “Mobile games are becoming very important because offline brands want to reach their consumers at the right place at the right time, and mobile has proven to be a 24/7 communication tool.” Piranha Byte is in the next phase of creating a mobile game called Peek!, which will allow product placement in the app by integrating it into the game. Kharma explains, “The mechanism of the game is to guess a photo; so we’ll [feature in the game] the advertising brand’s logo or product, and have the players guess the photo via peeks or hints. I haven’t seen this happen much in this region and we’re excited to give it a try.”

Hmadeh says that two international cases have really created a difference for branded mobile gaming, inspired by the tenets of the gaming industry: the launch of the Volkswagon Golf GTI in the UK, where they introduced the car only via an auto race game; and the Mercedes SL game, which has approximately 4 million downloads in Germany alone. “Given the current pool of talent, the knowledge transfer that is currently seeping into the region through conferences and the increasing demand for mobile and online games, predominantly in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Egypt and the UAE, replicating international successes like the Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz apps is a natural progression,” says Hmadeh.

However, social gaming apps – games played on social media platforms such as Facebook or Google Plus – are the vehicles that brands really should look at, and actually increasingly use: they’re easy to develop, easy to use, easy to reach and easy to measure. Karim Khalifa, founder and CEO of Cairo-based digital agency, Digital Republic, says, “Social gaming is being used effectively by brands from an advertising perspective. Since the brand is already on the social media platform with a fan page and an [existing] engaged audience; that’s half the journey made. The remaining task for the brand is to ensure stay time on the fanpage through a game. The next step is to make the game even more sharable and viral to amplify the exposure to the brands’ message.”

He adds, “What we’re seeing is that more brands are asking for the creation of their own simple apps and games in the social space. Having said that, the trends in Europe and the US – and picking up in the MENA region – are in-game advertising in existing popular games like FarmVille. Ad spend on in-game advertising is more than $200 million in the US, just on social platforms; it’s growing very fast.”Yousef Tuqan, CEO of Flip Media, agrees on the effective nature of social gaming, saying, “Facebook is much easier to use as the audience is there – it is the path of least resistance. There is no iTunes downloading needed like in the case of mobile apps. There are so many friends who could be engaging and challenging you on the social network… Thus it is more compelling.” Flip Media developed a social game application for Sony Xperia smartphone, aimed to increase product awareness and connect emotionally with fans of the page by tapping memories of games played in the past decade. The game was played 47,000 times by 27,000 fans over a span of two weeks, according to Tuqan, who adds, “In social media, the best thing a brand can offer is entertainment. Because, if you think about it, you cannot really talk to consumers about your brand all of the time; there has to be some sort of value-added experience offered for entertainment and fun, and that’s what the fans are really looking for. Thus, out of all the avenues, Facebook is the place where you can achieve this, where a brand can cast the widest net with minimal efforts.”

According to aggregator of online research data Socialnomics.net released in January 2012, more than half (53 percent) of worldwide Facebook users play games; 81 million people play games on Facebook daily, and 50 percent of users log in specifically to play games. Out of these 81 million, 69 percent are women and 19 percent claim to bes addicted to social games. No wonder, then, that ad spending on social gaming has increased by 60 percent between 2009 and 2012, with key players such as McDonald’s, MTV and Volvo, among others…

In fact, Digital Republic developed a social game app for McDonald’s in Egypt, which it claims is a success story. Khalifa says this Mario-style obstacle arcade game, designed to promote the restaurant’s value “Fakka” menu, was based on the idea that “Consumers don’t really care about brands; they care about themselves, and they want to gain something out of playing a game. It’s usually about fun but it can be more than just entertainment. They want to be challenged by the game, they want to be rewarded by freebies, and smart brands will use these methods to make it rewarding and offer some value for consumers by driving the person offline for rewards to be redeemed in the store,” he says. Therefore, McDonald’s in Egypt forayed into gaming allowing players to complete different levels and get vouchers for the new value meal; the coins picked along the way in the game determined the value of the voucher to be redeemed. “So there was a synergy with the overall idea of promoting the new menu and its proposition that the meal was so inexpensive that it could be bought from loose change or coins,” Khalifa says.

Many ways in

However, apart from the creation of a new branded gaming content from scratch, advergaming also spans over the various forms of display advertisements on gaming hubs, be it online or mobile. This approach is very popular in the MENA region and gaining even more momentum, “because gaming portals rank among the highest in terms of traffic; so, needless to say, media agencies have tapped these sites,” says Khalifa. There are many reasons why media agencies would favor such types of display advertising, rather than integration within games, as Shetty explains: “Integration of the brand is a time-consuming process and also much more expensive. There’s a lot of planning, thought and strategy involved before either creating a branded game or integrating the brand into an existing game. This is probably why some brands are discouraged from investing here. For casual games such as online, social apps, etc… there’s a minimum of two or three months of planning, strategy and development, in order to integrate the brand. Costs will obviously be much higher versus deploying display ads on popular gaming hubs, which are done by online and mobile ad networks. This difference can be up to a whopping 1,000 percent between the two methods.”

The long developing process is, in fact, a challenge for both agencies and clients. As Hmadeh says, the costs involved can only be justified by the popularity and longevity of the game itself. According to Tuqan, costs can vary radically from as less as $5,000 to $6,000 for simple social apps, to thousands of dollars. But “what is important is putting a premium on the production and the idea of the game – it is very hard to make animations look good without capital investments. There is no alternative to a good idea,” he says.
Moreover, “we believe cost should not be an inhibitor. Depending on what the objective of the brand is, integration within games could work wonderfully for brands, as opposed to display ads, and vice versa. It depends on the brief and objective of the advertiser,” says Shetty, explaining further that since heavy cost and strategy are involved in the process, the impetus for including gaming as a channel of communication for brands should come from the brand custodians – traditional creatives. He says, “Digital agencies don’t have the budgets to push something like this. Initiative should come from creative agencies because they are brand custodians and to come up with the ideas is much easier for them. It’s more difficult for media planner or digital strategist to do the same from a brand’s standpoint.”

Unfortunately, “There is lack of awareness among agencies on how to integrate their clients’ brands into games or advertise on gaming platforms. There is not enough education in this space and I think the inquisitiveness should come from brands – which trickles down to agencies,” says Shetty.

Down to earth

 It may all seem very obvious and simple, but as often happens, things are more complicated than at first glance. Shetty points out more potential danger that brands can face when communicating via games: “If a multiplayer game has a lot of brands and ads, it will put off the players. What [advertisers] need to then do is not push their brands too much, but integrate them; they need to consider the value they can add to the game and the gamer; [in short] they need to cleverly integrate themselves into a game so that it’s relevant, and adding value to the consumers’ experience. The focus should be on the pull mechanism as opposed to the push.”

Moreover, Khalifa says that any use of games as promotional or branding vehicles has to go beyond the mere entertainment factor. He says, “There are certain pillars which are important to consider while creating a game for brands: Fun, integration, simplicity and ease-of-use for consumers. But the brand should also get data and information, and the game should be in synergy with the brand. It has got to be a win-win situation for the brand.”

The hassle doesn’t stop there, especially for specifically developed games. Once it’s created, and like any commercial product, the game has to be marketed properly. “From a developers point of view, the main challenge is to come up with great game ideas and be able to market it effectively. Afterall, in order for the game to be monetized efficiently, and for brands and media agencies to see the potential, developers must invest in marketing – something which has long been neglected,” says Piranha Byte’s Kharma.

Add to the mix the lack of adequate research and numbers, and backing up the case for gaming becomes a challenge in itself. As Abou Diwan says, “Advertisers need to develop a strategy that can fit game advertising into larger media activities – for all on-ground, online and offline – to deliver a value proposition that fits with the specific gamers target. Also, experimental marketing needs to be set within the clients budget to test such upcoming platforms now, in order not only to stand out, but also to learn, refine and set standards in advanced marketing mix.”

At this point, regional advertisers and agencies are just starting to take risks and invest in the gaming space, but the scope is far from sufficient. For Khalifa, “It’s a wait-and-watch game. There has to be a more forward thinking approach, and willingness to learn and adapt along the way. Understanding the return on investment is also very important.”

Whether they like it or not, brands in the region need to realize that gaming can be, and is in other parts of the world, used to effectively engage consumers, get data from them, drive footfalls to the outlet or store, and achieve overall business objectives.

In short, brands  need to be at the top of their game.

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