In-game ads are the rule, not the exception these days. According to Omdia surveyGaming companies around the world earned over $ 42 billion in 2019 solely from in-game advertising. Free-to-play giants like Genshin Impact and Call of Duty Mobile are heavily backed by a combination of ads and expensive in-app purchases.
This is not a mobile or even free phenomenon. EA received criticism last year for running an equivalent ad at the start of the commercial in UFC 4, a full-price console game. But when did it all start?
When did game developers realize that their environment offered opportunities for ad monetization? What did the first in-game ad look like? In this article, we’ll take a step back and take a quick look at the history of in-game advertising.
Adventureland: first in-game ad
Back in the 1970s, many video games didn’t even have visual graphics, let alone room for full-screen ads. But that didn’t stop Scott Adams, the developer Adventure land, from placing a short advertisement in the game for their next title.
Pirate Adventure ads aren’t exactly what comes to mind when you think of in-game ads. There were no graphics as Adventureland was a text game. And the ad wasn’t about an unrelated product or service: Adams wasn’t trying to convince you to buy a pair of Yeezys, he was trying to draw attention to his next project.
1980s: the golden age of advertising games
In the years since Adventureland, the video game landscape has undergone a rapid transformation. In the 1980s, the popularity of arcade cabinets and home consoles such as the NES and Sega Master System skyrocketed. At the time, product placement was common in other forms such as television and film. In films such as Back to the Future, brands such as Nike and Pepsi have featured prominently. Marketing executives viewed video games as fertile new ground for product placement.
The first recorded ad game was “Tapper” from 1983, a game about serving Budweiser beer to bar diners. Tapper arcade cabinets were often installed in bars. The graphics of the game featured a prominent Budweiser logo that highlighted which beer brand was promoting the game.
Image: Doron Grunsky
Tupper did not intrude into conventional slot machines in their original form – the Budweiser ad was interpreted as promoting alcohol to young people. Instead, an updated version called Root Beer Tapper, devoid of beer references, was made available to a younger audience, but no longer in the form of advertising.
After the collapse of the Great Video Game in 1983, there has been a lull in advertising games and in video games in general. However, by the late 1980s, brands were again using video games as a product placement tool.
Ford Simulator, Pepsi Challenge, and Domino’s Avoid The Noid were just a few of a growing number of games that featured product placement either as logos or as an integral part of the gameplay.
1990s: new consoles and technical advances
The 90s saw an exponential increase in the complexity of video games as developers moved from side scrolling to fully polygonal 3D graphics. Consoles such as the Playstation and Nintendo 64, designed for 3D gaming, as well as more powerful PCs, have opened up new possibilities for advertising games.
Interestingly, many of the best ad games of the 1990s didn’t suck. Games like Chex Quest, Doom’s full cereal-themed conversion, have been well received by mainstream gaming media and gamers. Consoles have seen their fair share of ad games, too. Pepsiman, a budget PlayStation game, featured full 3D graphics, a Pepsi superhero, and tons of third-person action shots.
In particular, Chex Quest is still remembered as one of the best advertising games ever made. Chex Quest is a complete makeover for Doom, replacing virtually all resources in id’s game with a more kid-friendly theme. The game has five full levels, and you play as a Chex Warrior in search of the Flemoids teleporting back to their home dimension.
7-Up also featured in a promotional game with 1993’s “Cool Spot” and 1994’s “Spot Goes to Hollywood”. These two games featured a red spot on the 7Up logo as the protagonist. The first was a side-scrolling game that received good reviews. Pelit, a Finnish tech magazine, described Cool Spot as “one of the most addicting platformers in a long time.” On the other hand, Spot Goes to Hollywood has been criticized for being poorly designed and difficult to control.
Cool Spot (first) demonstrated that ad games don’t have to be terrible. Since Fido Dido was the favorite 7Up mascot in Europe, the Cool Spot was released in European countries with the 7Up brand removed. As such, a positive Pelit review showed that Cool Spot’s gameplay went by on its own.
2000s: ad games or games with great product placement?
There has always been a fine line between ad games specifically designed to promote a particular product and product placement in a game. 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 its best, as with Crazy Taxi on the Dreamcast, product placement contributed to the immersion, with players ferrying passengers to and from real-world destinations, including Lewis and Pizza Hut. This was the case in racing and sports games, where in-game ads improved the experience as stadiums and race tracks were displayed more realistically if the ads were shown as real locations.
FIFA and other popular licensed sports franchises made extensive use of in-game product placement and advertisements on billboards, jerseys, etc. The reasoning here was simple: sports events are largely commercialized through sponsorship, so bringing brands to gaming games like Madden. NHL, or NASCAR, required licensing fees, which, ironically, game developers compensated for by posting notable products (just like in real life).
In other cases, poor product placement turned into an immersion breaking. Battlefield 2142, with its Titan gameplay, was a groundbreaking multiplayer shooter in many ways. However, there was one (very) unwelcome innovation: digital billboards. In a game set 100 years in the future, players had to deal with billboards from Pepsi and Intel: the moment they scratched their heads wondering what a particular advertisement would make in the Battlefield 2142 world was often enough to get into line of sight.
EA, to give credit, recognized the flaws of this approach and removed in-game ads entirely from the Battlefield franchise entry.
Growth in mobile game advertising
Mobile games have been a fundamental paradigm shift in both how games are developed and how they are used. Until recently, games for consoles and PCs were primarily sold at retail. Mobile games have completely changed this system by adding more independent development teams to it. With the many in-app advertising options available, in-game ads are often the main source of income for mobile game developers.
With the advent of smartphones, in-game ads in popular games have grossed billions of dollars. Their format and complexity have changed significantly over the years. In the beginning, regular full-screen and banner ads were the norm. Many free games will have banners at the top or bottom of the screen that advertise products that are relevant to individual users. Static, synchronized full screen ads often play between levels or lives. Video ads also appear at key transition points.
During this period, in-game games became so common (and annoying) that they actually influenced the way the games were developed. Many free mobile games, including entire genres such as endless runners, are built around frequent advertisements. This often means developing small levels and frequent “death” or “failure” states: players are shown ads when they are losing and also when they are progressing.
Recently, advertising has become more interactive. In-game ads for free games such as Home landscapes often contain interactive gameplay elements in the advertisement itself: a mini-game within the game you are playing. We’ve also seen brands and artists appear virtually in games, like Ariana Grande’s Fortnite-only concert.
AR is another area where we are seeing innovation. In games like Pokemon Go, the developers added in-game ads that used real-world locations, blurring the line between real and in-game ads. While mobile is definitely in the lead these days when it comes to in-game advertising, there are plenty of examples to look out for in the consoles and PC space.
The Yakuza franchise for PC and consoles 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 the billboards for the Nico Nico streaming service has real-life counterparts.
However, product placement doesn’t always work that smoothly. Take the Monster energy drinks in Death Stranding, for example. The ubiquity of Monster in the game, or even how the water in your dining room turns into an energy drink, is never really explained. Fortunately, Death Stranding: Director’s Cut gets rid of all references to monsters.
In-game ads are now everywhere. From Adventureland 40 years ago to Chex Quest and Crazy Taxi, developers have looked for ways to integrate product placement with games, sometimes for more immersion and others for extra profit. Player interest hasn’t always been a top priority, but ad-based games and in-game ads don’t seem to be going anywhere.