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Console Games Offer Brands a New Playing Field

By Feb 01, 2009

The big purple reptile stomps through town, demolishing buildings as tall as he is, sending plumes of water and flames into the air, tossing delivery vans in his teeth and crushing them with his mighty jaws.

All in a search for his favorite Doritos snack chips.

“Dash of Destruction” is a branded video game hatched from a joint 2007 promotion from Doritos and Microsoft’s Xbox Live platform. Contestants were challenged to dream up and program their own games featuring Doritos. The public played demos of the top five games at Doritos’ Web site (www.SnackStrongproductions.com) and voted for their favorite.

The winning contestant, chosen in November 2007, got to work for months with a professional game-development agency to see his winning concept released as a download on the Xbox Live Arcade game network.

That came to pass last December when contest winner Mike Borland and Doritos found themselves with the most-accessed game on the Xbox Live Arcade for the second half of the month — just under 1 million downloads.

“Our consumers are passionate about many things, and gaming’s one of them,” says Rudy Wilson, brand manager for Frito-Lay’s Doritos products. “We asked ourselves, what is the most intense, bold thing we can do to invite fans to partake in our brand. And we came up with an option they never thought possible: Develop your own game.”

The “Unlock Xbox” campaign may have launched 18 months ago, but the arrival of the “Dash of Destruction” product could not have been better timed; 2008 was the year the video game moved into the family room and onto the entertainment center. Gaming consoles like Xbox 360, Sony’s PlayStation and Nintendo’s Wii are recruiting new audiences and opening possibilities for marketers who want to engage those players.

“Think of all the things you’re doing when you’re watching TV — talking on the phone, doing homework, working on your laptop — or you’ve got a DVR and you’re skipping commercials,” says J.J. Richards, head of Massive, Microsoft’s in-game-advertising subsidiary. “None of those options are available when you’re playing a game. You’re fully engaged with a lean-in experience, hands on the controller, facing forward. That’s why brand recall from appearing in games can be through the roof.”


The money spent on video-game hardware and software last holiday suggests those audiences may continue to grow despite the current economic downturn — and possibly because of it.

Year-end data from market researchers NPD Group shows that Nintendo sold almost 10.2 million Wii game consoles, the first time any video-game system has broken the 10 million annual sales threshold in the United States. Some 2.2 million of those sales happened in December.

Other consoles also did well last year, although less spectacularly. Microsoft sold 4.7 million Xbox 360 consoles in the United States, 1.4 million of those in December. Meanwhile, Sony’s PlayStation 3, with a higher price point than the others, moved 726,000 units at Christmas, and 3.7 million overall last year in the U.S.

In the past, console game play had been the province of young teenage males, while adults tended to favor PC-based casual games. But the console-gamer audience is shifting in ways that make it perhaps more interesting to marketers. At a gaming summit last August, Nintendo of America President Cammie Dunaway stated that 79% of Wii game buyers are male. But of the non-buyers who play the game in households, 45% are female and 38% are older than 25.

As next-gen consoles proliferate, marketers may find benefits in that they’re all capable of connecting to the Internet, either through a broadband cable or a home Wi-Fi router. Wii and PlayStation 3 owners can access Internet channels provided by the manufacturers; Xbox 360 users can pay to subscribe to the Xbox Live online media service. Statistics suggest that some 65% of Xbox 360 units are Internet-enabled, along with 70% of PlayStation 3s and about 30% of Wii consoles.


That Internet connection means console video games can now offer “dynamic ads,” promotional messages that rotate into and out of a game to suit a marketer’s campaign, just as TV ads do, rather than being hard-coded into a game when the software is built.

These ads often appear as billboards in games where they would be appropriate — for example, in sports and racing games. That’s the strategy taken by Subway Restaurants, which put billboards into select Xbox titles last year that offered game cheats and hints to players who texted a password into a mobile short code. The signs, served by Massive, appeared in multiple titles — as outfield signs in the Xbox Live version of the “MLB 2K8” baseball game, in “Guitar Hero III” and others.

Massive’s research found that gamers who saw the in-game ads visited a Subway restaurant 20% more often in the month afterward than gamers who did not. The ads also created a 19% lift in gamers who rated the chain as excellent or very good, a 12% jump in purchase consideration, and a 9% increase in players who would recommend Subway.

“Last December we held the first in-game upfront, bringing all the top publishers, advertisers and agencies together to show off what games will be coming down the pike next holiday,” Richards says. “That’ll help people think ahead in their budgeting.”

And in-game advertising has a chance of competing with spending in traditional media because it’s directly measurable.

“In online you get what you spend, and you can increase or decrease your budget depending on the results you’re getting,” Richards says. “I think dynamic ads will pick up in a down economy, where everyone’s looking for more efficiency out of their ad budget.”


Some firms have sought a deeper integration into games than simple billboard displays. They’ve opted for making their brands central to the game experience, on the theory that the better the game plays, the better their association will be.

For example, “Grid,” a highly anticipated 2008 racing game from publisher Codemasters for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and the Nintendo DS handheld device, integrates the real-life car auction platform eBay Motors deep into its strategy. Players can buy and sell performance cars in-game at the eBay marketplace, optimizing vehicles to suit the track they’ll be competing on.

“EBay Motors’ core audience is 18- to 34-year-old males who are real auto enthusiasts,” says David Smith, president of in-game ad agency Engage. “They already do a great job of marketing to that audience. But if there are roughly 61 million males of that age in the United States, and if 65% are playing games, that’s taking away from other digital media. So eBay felt this would be another way to reach that audience and form a deeper connection with them, really get that quality of engagement.”

The placement let eBay Motors take its real-life functionality and transport it into the world of “Grid,” where drivers race on actual tracks from around the world. “Because it let players buy and sell cars in a simulated auction, the eBay Motors market let players advance more quickly through the game,” Smith says. “They could realize a higher value for their cars. The more money in your virtual bank account, the easier to buy better cars, play the other circuits and win. And for gamers, it’s all about winning.”

EBay also took part in promotions around the game’s launch last summer. A demo of the game debuted online in May and included among its car choices an eBay-branded Ford Mustang GT-R. Contestants were able to download the demo, race the tracks, and compete in real-time races at the “Grid” Web site during the month before the June launch. If they beat the fastest lap time, players received a unique code that would let them go to the co-branded “Grid”/eBay Web site and enter their results.

The top five drivers were then brought to San Francisco to compete in a real-time “Grid” race for a notable prize: an eBay-branded custom Mustang just like the one in the game and valued at $90,000.

Tricked out with alloy wheels, racing suspension and a 445-horsepower engine, the car was won by a 16-year-old from Gretna, LA, who’d just gotten his driver’s license.

“I asked how many times he’d raced the demo course to get into the finals, and he said it must have been about 800 times,” Smith says. Multiply that kind of brand exposure by the 2.4 million downloads of the demo in the month before the game launch, and that means a lot of people learning what eBay Motors does in the real world.

“Dash of Destruc-tion” goes even further toward brand integration, structuring the entire game as a chase in which a “snackivorous” T-Rex pursues Doritos trucks on their delivery rounds, gobbling their contents and demolishing the environs in the process.

Building a game around a brand can be a risky move, however. Game development costs money and takes time, and in the end you might be left with a poorly received game. Doritos got around the cost and time issues by throwing the challenge open to amateur game programmers and letting the online public pick a winner.

But Wilson says he was less concerned about reviews of the winning game than about talking up the Doritos brand with advocates enthused enough to build a game about it.

“I didn’t get involved for the destination; I got involved for the journey,” he says. “We told contestants we wanted something that embodied Doritos, bold and intense. Then we heard them dialogue with each other and with us through our forums, talking about what the brand is really about. That was what was most valuable to us: all the time spent with our fans both before and after the game.”


Sony has taken a different approach to bringing brands and gamers together with last December’s open beta rollout of Sony PlayStation Home, a free, high-definition virtual world accessible only via the PlayStation 3 console and meant to foster a community in which PS3 gamers can socialize.

“Our vision for the Home platform is that most of the content will not be created by us, but by our partners, either in-house or though a managed vendor network,” says PlayStation Home’s director Jack Buser. “As the platform scales, it will do so mainly by content from our brand partners.”

A number of brands already have checked into Home, including a Diesel store that sells apparel to members’ avatars for micropayments and a Ligne Roset furnishings store to decorate members’ virtual apartments.

Two other brand members are promoting not virtual goods, but experiences. Later this year game maker Electronic Arts will open a sports arena that lets members watch trailers for upcoming titles or challenge other users to Home-exclusive online games.

And Red Bull has built a Home version of its real-life air races on Red Bull Island. Visitors get to race planes modeled after those used in the real Red Bull races and navigate through pylons. The site will soon have a leaderboard like the live events so that players can compete for standings.

“Red Bull Island will expand in early 2009 to include other mini-games and social experiences influenced by global Red Bull events and athletes,” U.S. company spokeswoman Ellen Applen said in an e-mail response. “The Flugtag game will challenge users to launch flying machines modeled after those from actual Red Bull events off the end of a pier with the goal of flying the farthest.”

PlayStation Home users also will see a Home version of Red Bull Illume, a live exhibit of action-sports photography displayed on 8-foot-high illuminated cubes.

“Red Bull had the foresight to build a branded kiosk on the edge of the island,” Buser says. “You can go there any time of the day or night and find members of the community actually pretending to serve Red Bull to each other. Here you have this interactive community that’s so engaged by this mini-game and this immersive activity that they’re willing to stand there and serve Red Bull. As a promotional target, you can’t ask for better than that.”


It was the ad seen ’round the virtual world — or rather, 18 ads.

Last October the Obama campaign began placing dynamic ads in the online versions of some 18 games running on Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and Sony’s PlayStation 3 video-game consoles. The games, which included “Burnout Paradise,” a racing game from Electronic Arts, were served almost up to Election Day to players in 10 states considered hotly contested.

Game blog GameSpot turned up a filing with the Federal Election Commission that revealed a $44,500 payment from the Obama campaign to Massive, the in-game-ad agency that placed the ads on the Xbox 360 network. But it’s not known if that constitutes full payment for the ad run on that console. IGA Worldwide handles in-game ads for the PlayStation 3 version of “Burnout Paradise.”

With that one effort, Obama’s reach for the gaming audience raised the visibility of in-game ads among all brands, says J.J. Richards, head of Massive. “The response was huge because that campaign made global news,” he says. “It was seen in Germany and in London’s Victoria Station. People all over the world saw not only the technology, but the power and effectiveness of it. “I was a little disappointed he didn’t work it into his inaugural speech.” — BQ


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