Moving beyond Wipeout’s Red Bull billboards

When we think of gaming advertising, most of us may cast our memories back to the Red Bull billboards on Wipeout from years ago, but then struggle to recall many impactful campaigns since… why?

Executive Creative Director, Simon Richings, feels passionate about this missed opportunity. In this Q&A, he discusses how the power is all in the creative when it comes to in-game advertising and why it’s a relatively untapped market.

What projects do you think the ad industry generally thinks of when it considers in-game advertising?
Our industry thinks of creative, disruptive stunts like Wendy’s ‘Keeping Fortnite Fresh’ or the Uber Eats ‘Bring It’ campaign on Twitch. But gamers in general would likely think of the sports-style ads in games like the FIFA pitch hoardings, Street Fighter V’s pre-bout ‘sponsors’, or the sponsored skins in Fortnite.

Why has so much of it been forgettable?
It’s forgettable because anything too interruptive can diminish the experience to the point of gamers literally switching off (or at least over to another game). So, marketers have this additional (and most often justified) pressure to get out of the way of gameplay and disappear into the background.

Why is all the power in the creative when it comes to in-game advertising?
The power is all in creative as there are few established, and not-hated media formats within games. Many games have expansive, beautifully considered and immersive worlds, and their players are leant forward and fully engaged – not passively viewing. No developer or gamer wants to break that narrative immersion or have something brash and incongruous get in the way of gameplay. 

In 2019, the game Death Stranding featured a unique and rich post-apocalyptic world. It had a complex, multi-layered story – characteristic of game designer Hideo Kojima. Obscure technology combines with vast, devastated wilderness, idiosyncratic characters and dark, unsettling entities. So, when cans of Monster Energy Drink showed up in one of the game’s playable areas it created exactly the wrong sort of “WTF” moment. 

So, creativity to the rescue, because the challenge is often about partnerships and ideas that give some value to the gamer, without getting in the way or popping the immersion bubble.

Why do you think it’s relatively untapped as a market?
On top of the immersion breaking/gameplay interrupting problem, there is the fact that there is rarely a way to easily take integrated campaign visuals and drop them into a gaming space. Even when there is such a possibility – like in the case of FIFA’s pitch-side hoardings – the infrastructure is not particularly advanced. You don’t yet see programmatic placements in sports games, despite the tech having been around for years. And going back to the narrative problem – even in games where our avatars encounter some form of advertising like Grand Theft Auto, developers are often using those ‘placements’ ironically or cynically, to continue to build immersion and communicate story details. 

Cyberpunk 2077’s morally dubious and over-sexualised ads are building blocks in its dystopian, anti-corporate setting. And it’s possible that that is the last place that real brands want to show up. However, in some rare cases, striking and relevant in-game advertising can actually help with immersion. Way back in the ‘90s, the trackside ads for Red Bull made the sci-fi racer WipeOut seem more real and more authentically futuristic, despite the limited number of pixels on display.

What sort of projects would you most like to see developed in this space?
 I think there’s loads we can do with the extended spaces and environments around games, rather than diving straight into the games themselves. Throughout social channels, many of the most popular titles have dynamic, highly engaged communities. Again, the key is providing some kind of value, and contributing to the conversation instead of shouting brand messages at people while they and their friends are hanging out in another universe.

This article was originally published in Little Black Book.