-[GSW and Gamasutra correspondent Mathew Kumar was at the relatively obscure ICE 08 conference in Toronto, but this particular panel was really interesting - because it shows how games can be great for advertising engagement, and because the cheeky chaps at Kerb plugged their slightly outrageous strip poker game - pictured - along the way. Blimey.]

As an engaging ‘new’ form of entertainment, games are being courted by big brands as a platform for advertising, through in-game billboards and branded web games. But can their money allow developers more freedom?

In this panel at the ICE conference in Toronto, a panel including Ian Bogost (Persuasive Games) and Jim McNiven (Kerb) discussed the influence of marketing money, including social and ethical issues, on advergames.

Moderator Austin Hill, Co-Founder & CEO of Akoha, opened the session by stating that the preface was that “the traditional advertising industry is dying,” and initially asked “what does it have to learn from the games industry?”

Ian Bogost opined that the opportunity presented by games was the ability to simulate experiences, and as a result offered a new way of presenting products and services via interactive media.

Creating Compelling Advergame Content

Jim McNiven stated that currently advertisers are trying (and failing) to advertise online with games by “throwing their brand in your face” with pop-ups that shout “look at us, look at our brand.”

“You have to create games that people want to seek out and play,” he said. “Build an experience around a brand. Once players have experienced the brand’s message, they will click through.”

McNiven recounted working with gambling companies as a “perfect example.”

“They don’t care about fuzzy marketing, they want acquisitions,” he explained. “We worked on a project to ‘educate’ people to play poker online by creating a video strip poker title that ‘taught players to read their opponent.’ The woman who was stripping… Well, when you got her down to the point where her bottom came off it became clear she was, well, pretty much still a fella. It was quite outrageous, but the click through rate was incredibly high."

“I was receiving e-mails from the company every day saying ‘thank you Jim, thank you ladyboy!’ I’m pretty sure they weren’t referring only to me in those e-mails,” he quipped, “Gambling is for over 18s, so that kind of advertising makes sense, and 60 million people played that worldwide."

McNiven continued by discussing the way in which a traditional ad agency would try and reach that many viewers.

“Ad agencies have always made their money through the media buy – purchasing as much media space as possible rather than putting the effort into creativity, production. The mentality is still the media buy. If you have a million dollar ad campaign, $900,000 is going to be spent on the media buy.”

Can Marketing Fund Creativity?

Hill asked, “What does the games industry have to gain or lose from advertising getting involved in the industry? Can it fund creativity?”

Bogost wasn’t completely convinced. “From the perspective of the large commercial game industry, the sorts of companies that the in-game adverts want to get (to get in-game billboards in front of adolescent boys) it’s not that big a revenue generator, and it can detract from the experience."

However, “at the lower end there’s a lot of space for inspiration when the idea comes from a product or services. There’s a lot of stagnation in the industry when it comes to design, so anything that comes from real life that can be made playable is something that is very valuable to me,” he said, recounting positive and creative titles such as Yoshinoya - a PS2 title that allowed players to run a Yoshinoya (a popular chain of restaurants in Japan), and the recent Burger King/Xbox 360 collaboration.

“They took the character of ‘The King’ and made three very small scale but very polished Xbox 360 games -- packaged and everything -- for $5 with a BK value meal. For $5 I’ll buy anything that runs on Xbox. Games cost $60-$70, so for $5 who cares? The games were kind of interesting and unusual experiences. You can imagine doing more with this -- not only offering new ideas but new distribution --how many people go to Burger King compared to the ghetto that is the game shop? Moreover the promotion was profitable. That’s one example, but how many more are there out there?”

“There’s the John Deere American Farmer game, the Yoshinoya games. These are big games that you would buy and spend a lot of time on, a really deep experience immersed in a brand. There are theme park simulators like the Sea World game. They’re interesting because they teach you how to manipulate people and make you knowledgeable about how you are manipulated, place a gift shop next to the seal enclosure to sell more merchandise, that sort of thing.”

Bogost continued, “Unfortunately the advertising-based games on the web are very repetitive,” he admitted. “How many games are made from Bejeweled, replacing the jewels with M&Ms or whatever?”

McNiven cut in, “Most of these come from traditional advertising agencies, though.”

“Yes, they’re basing their development on proven metrics about game playing – but it’s not the Bejeweled-ness that would make the brand attractive.”

“We find that creating games based around brands has helped us do more valuable stuff,” said McNiven. “Not only do you get a budget but you have the freedom to try and really create something good. We’ve worked with BBC and other companies like that, and they’ll ask to own the IP and even the engines, whereas advertisers aren’t interested in that. It’s very hard to build unique games around a brand. We’re one of the few companies that actually budget play testing, for example.”

Social And Ethical Issues

However, are there social and ethical issues in creating advertising based games?

McNiven felt that there wasn’t: “People make a rational choice to do something, and if games were able to make people ‘do stuff’ without thought then we’d all in trouble. Thanks to GTA everyone would be going out and stealing cars. If the worst thing that happens as a result of games is that people go out and buy burgers then I think we’re alright.”

Bogost did feel that when it came to creating games built to advertise children there were some issues. “Creating desires in kids is a real problem. We’re not just seeing large portals of online games with advertising, but so many games have become about consuming in commercial worlds, teaching that life is about buying stuff. Branded games reinforce this perverse relationship with consumption.”

“It’s funny, because the original game that is the most about consumption is the most critical of it,” concluded Bogost of the social satire of The Sims, ending this entertaining and wide-ranging panel - which went some way to pinpointing ways that advertising and games might work together in constructive ways.