These days, in-game advertising is the rule, not the exception. According to an Omdia investigation, game companies around the world made more than $ 42 billion in 2019 from in-game advertising alone. Free-to-play giants like Genshin Impact and Call of Duty Mobile are largely supported by a combination of high-value ads and in-app purchases.
It is not a mobile phenomenon or even a free-to-play. EA was criticized last year for posting the equivalent of pre-roll ads in UFC 4, a full-priced console game. But when did it all start?
When did game developers realize their media offered monetization opportunities through ads? What did the first in-game ads look like? In this article, we’ll take a step back and briefly explore the history of in-game ads.
Adventureland: the very first in-game advertisement
In the 1970s, many video games didn’t even have visual graphics, let alone space for a full-screen advertisement. But that didn’t deter Scott Adams, developer of Land of adventure, to place a brief in-game announcement for their next title.
The Pirate Adventure ad isn’t exactly what comes to mind when you think of in-game ads. There were no graphics since Adventureland was a text-based game. And the ad wasn’t for an unrelated product or service: Adams wasn’t trying to get you to buy a pair of Yeezys, he was trying to publicize his next project.
The 80s: the golden age of advergames
A few years after Adventureland, the video game landscape underwent a rapid transformation. During the 1980s, arcade machines and home consoles like the NES and the Sega Master System saw a rise in popularity. Product placement was common in other forms like television and film at the time. Movies like Back to the Future featured brands like Nike and Pepsi. So, marketers saw video games as a new breeding ground for product placement.
The first recorded advergame is “Tapper,” from 1983, a game about serving Budweiser beer to bar patrons. Tapper arcade machines were often installed in bars. The in-game graphics featured a prominent Budweiser logo, highlighting exactly which brand of beer was promoting the game.
Picture: Doron Grunski
Tapper didn’t break into classic arcades in its original form – the Budweiser ad has been interpreted as promoting alcohol to young people. Instead, a modified version called Root Beer Tapper, devoid of any references to beer, made its way to a younger audience, but more in the form of an advertising game.
After the great video game crash in 1983, there was a lull in advergames – and video games in general. However, in the late 1980s, brands began to use video games again as a medium for product placement.
Ford Simulator, Pepsi Challenge, and Domino’s Avoid The Noid were just a few of a growing number of games where product placement was either in terms of logos or as an essential part of the gaming experience. .
The 90s: new consoles and technical advances
The 90s saw an exponential growth in the complexity of video games as developers moved from side scrolls to full polygonal 3D graphics. Consoles like the Playstation and Nintendo 64, designed around 3D gaming experiences, as well as better performing PCs, have opened up new opportunities for advergaming.
Remarkably, many of the best advergames of the 1990s haven’t, well, sucked. Titles like Chex Quest, a total grain-themed conversion for Doom have been well reviewed by mainstream gaming media and gamers. Consoles have also seen their share of advergames. Pepsiman, a low-budget PlayStation title, featured full 3D graphics, a Pepsi-themed superhero, and plenty of third-person action.
Chex Quest, in particular, is remembered to this day as one of the best advergames ever created. Chex Quest is a total conversion for Doom, swapping pretty much all of the id’s game assets for a more kid-friendly theme. The game offers five complete levels and puts you as the Chex Warrior, on a quest to teleport the “Flemoids” to their home dimension.
7-Up also got into advergame action with 1993’s Cool Spot and 1994’s Spot Goes to Hollywood. Both of these games featured the red spot on the 7Up logo as the protagonist. The first was a sidecroller which actually received great reviews. Pelit, a Finnish tech magazine, described Cool Spot as “one of the most enjoyable platform games in a long time.”
Cool Spot (the first) demonstrated that advergames don’t have to be terrible. Because Fido Dido was 7Up’s mascot of choice in Europe, Cool Spot was released in European countries with all of the 7Up branding removed. Pelit’s favorable review therefore showed that Cool Spot’s gameplay stood out on its own.
The 2000s: advergames or games with high product placement?
There has always been a thin line between advergames, explicitly designed to promote a particular product, and in-game product placement. From the late 1990s to the mid-2000s, we saw developers partnering with brands to integrate real products into games with varying degrees of success.
At best, as with Crazy Taxi on Dreamcast, product placement facilitated immersion as players transported passengers to and from real-world locations including Levis and Pizza Hut. This was the case with racing and sports games where in-game advertisements improved the experience, as stadiums and racing tracks were represented more realistically if the advertisements were displayed as real locations.
FIFA and other licensed sports franchises have made extensive use of product placement and advertising in the game, on billboards, shirts, etc. The reasoning here was simple: Sporting events are marketed heavily with sponsorships, so bringing brands into game titles like Madden, NHL, or NASCAR incurs licensing fees which, ironically enough, game developers compensate by including placement. important product (as in real life).
In other cases, poor product placement has turned into an immersion breaker. Battlefield 2142, with its Titan mode gameplay, was an innovative multiplayer shooter in many ways. There was, however, one (very) unwanted innovation: digital billboards. In a game set 100 years in the future, gamers faced the Pepsi and Intel billboards: a moment spent scratching their heads, wondering how a particular advertisement made sense in the world of Battlefield 2142 , was often enough to be spotted.
EA, to its credit, understood the downsides of this approach and completely removed in-game ads from the Battlefield franchise entry.
The rise of mobile game advertising
Mobile gaming has been a fundamental paradigm shift, both in the way games are designed and in the way they are consumed. Until recently, console and PC games were primarily sold as physical retail units. Mobile gaming has completely changed this system, adding more independent development teams to the mix. With a variety of in-app advertising options available, in-game ads are often the primary source of income for mobile game developers.
Since the rise of smartphones, in-game ads in popular titles have garnered billions of dollars. Over the years, their format and complexity have changed dramatically. At first, basic full screen ads and banners were the norm. Many free games would have banners at the top or bottom of the screen, promoting products that are relevant to individual users. Static and timed full screen ads are often shown between levels or lives. Video ads also play at key transition points.
During this time, gaming became so prevalent (and boring) that it actually had an impact on the way the games themselves are developed. Many free mobile games, including entire genres like Endless Runners, are designed to allow ad serving at frequent intervals. Often that means designing bite-sized levels and frequent ‘death’ or loss states – players then get advertisements when they lose, but also as they progress.
More recently, advertisements have become more interactive. In-game ads for free titles like Interior landscapes often contain interactive play elements in the advertisement itself: an in-game minigame you are playing. We’ve also seen brands and artists make virtual appearances in games, like Ariana Grande’s Fortnite concert only.
AR is another area where we see innovation. In titles like Pokemon Go, the developers added in-game ads that used real-world locations, blurring the line between real-world ads and in-game ads. While mobile is definitely leading the load these days. Here with regards to in-game ads, there are plenty of examples to look at in the console and PC space as well.
The Yakuza franchise on PC and console stands out: Yakuza games make extensive use of in-game product placement to create a more believable world: everything from the Don Quijote supermarket to billboards for the streaming service Nico Nico has equivalents in the real life.
However, not all product placements work seamlessly. Take the Monster energy drinks in Death Stranding, for example. Monster’s ubiquity in the game, or even how the water refills in your canteen turn into an energy drink, are never fully explained. Death Stranding: Director’s Cut thankfully gets rid of all references to Monster.
In-game advertising is now everywhere. From Adventureland 40 years ago, to Chex Quest and Crazy Taxi, developers have looked for ways to integrate product placement into games, sometimes for more “immersion” and others to generate additional revenue. Player interest hasn’t always been a top priority, however advergames and in-game advertising seem to be here to stay.