Facebook games and advertising: An honest perspective [Interview]

Rokkan's Charles Bae
Rokkan's Charles Bae

If you've played any of Zynga's most popular Facebook games in the past few months, you already know that advertising has exploded in social games. (Does "GagaVille" ring a bell?) To either the ire or joy of millions of players, in-game ad campaigns have become a mainstay in the busiest Facebook games--hell, The Sims Social launched with Dunkin' Donuts in-game items.

The effects of advertising and branding on social games dig even deeper: The advent of advergames like the Twix's FeedBreaker and branded games like EckoCode's Dexter Slice of Life are testament to that. Thinking it was about time to get an inside perspective on the matter, we sat down with Charles Bae (pictured), founding partner at Rokkan. Executive Creative Director of the New York-based digital ad agency, Bae has extensive experience working with video game brands and equally extensive opinions on the state of in-game ads and branded games on Facebook.

Could there be a reason other than the massive audience that explains why advertising has exploded in Facebook games?

I don't think there's a particular reason. I think to understand advertising in general is to know that it's going to pervade every medium that you can think of. So, advertising is a monstrous eventuality. And when we talk about gaming, we're seeing--especially because of social media--what advertisers have found is that there is a lot of money here. "Of course we're going to go into this space, but how are we actually going to do it?"

What I think is there's a systematic overtake of anything good that happens online through advertising. And I'm in the advertising industry, and I know why it's there and why it's relevant. It doesn't mean that I enjoy looking at ads that disrupt my experience of playing a game online. But I think people are savvy enough to understand that, when they are hooked into a social game, there will eventually be advertisements there.

That is an approach that works for advertisers as well. If we think about OMGPop, for example. They roll out, it's a beautiful site, tons of people are playing it and I'm checking it out just to see what it's all about--no advertisements, no nothin'. But again, you know advertisers are going to gravitate to it. OMGPop needs to make some kind of money to hit their bottom line.

The thing is, you will launch a product like that online for six months, you get critical mass, you have a user base that you were expecting--those people are not all of a sudden stop going to OMGPop, because of advertisements. They've already invested so much time into creating their profile, into playing games, scoring, making microtransactions and making friends that they will suffer through it. That's kind of my take on advertising in general in the social gaming space.

Indiana Jones Adventure World
Indiana Jones Adventure World

You use phrases like "suffer through it." Now, do you think this affects how well the advertisements are received on the platform?

Well, we know that for the most part and this is a generalization, the percentage of click-through and someone actually interacting with an advertisement on a social gaming platform is very low. So, I think what you're looking at are impressions, or people who at least get to see the ad. It might be a pre-roll before a game starts, and you put it on mute, because you don't want to listen to it. You could see the glimmer of a Coke or Mercedes logo, and that could be enough for them.

You know, I really think it's come to a point where it doesn't have a benefit for advertisers, and it doesn't have a benefit for consumers either. It's the standard, "This is how advertisements are going to work on a digital platform." No one has really done anything great with it. I think it's a tough challenge that a lot of agencies are trying to figure out.

That said, what do you think of how advertising has been handled within Facebook games thus far, and how can it be improved?

I guess, specifically with games like FarmVille, doing integrated advertising is probably better than just doing a banner ad or pre-roll before a game. So, when you're doing a partnership with FarmVille, and you have special items you will win for playing even more, those are definite bonuses. And I think people do generally enjoy that, but that's on a case-by-case scenario, though.

Someone like me playing FarmVille, if I had the opportunity to win a Red Bull-sponsored mow or something, I wouldn't really give a damn. Again, you would have to understand whether that's a space Red Bull should even be in--it's not really anything appropriate to them. But I think there are some good partners that would potentially benefit from doing something like that. These are new things, these were things that were created on the console platform long before FarmVille was around.

With these in-game advertisements, is there any way we can go up from here?

In terms of improvement, I would say just stop doing it. Again, I'm just going to say that with a grain of salt--I don't really mean that. If we're talking in-game advertising, I think honestly the way to improve it is really just pick the right partner. It doesn't make sense for Nike to partner up with FarmVille. You know, they can argue that the FarmVille audience is wearing Nike sneakers and that's the demographic they're looking for. But seriously, a Nike logo on a game like that just doesn't make sense from a brand perspective. I honestly think John Deere should be a premiere sponsor on FarmVille, because it has a direct association with the gameplay.

FarmVille GagaVille
FarmVille GagaVille

So, is there any particular piece of Facebook game advertising that you were particularly impressed by?

Not really. I have to be honest with you: I try to avoid that stuff. And again, because I'm in the industry I avoid it to a certain extent since I'm working on a lot of that stuff, too. I don't want to be on it 24/7. I just think that in general, they can perhaps learn a thing or two about console gaming and bring a few of those concepts into it as well.

What concepts are you referring to specifically?

Well again, I think it's that appropriateness of why a brand would be on a particular game. So, when you're thinking about a sports game, why do advertisements work really great on those games? They're recreating a natural experience. There's an experience of watching a football game on TV, and you're going to be inundated with ads.

But, you are expecting that. So, when it's in a game, it's makes perfect. It actually makes that game for the Xbox 360 or PS3 feel more legitimate. If you had a Madden on Xbox with no advertisements, that would feel really weird.

But I wonder how you would add that level of appropriateness--making it feel like it's a legitimate part of the game--to Facebook games. Do you think branded games, like Dexter Slice of Life and Indiana Jones in Adventure World, are a better or worse alternative to direct advertisements in games?

I kind of think this is a good way to go. Really, what brands want are people interacting with them. And this just gives people a different way to interact. It's not really new, but they just want people to spend time with them. Sometimes it could be ranting and raving on Twitter or "Liking" a post saying "I love Dexter." You need to occupy them with Dexter material. Other than watching the TV show, what else can you really do? I think gaming kind of fills that need: trying to interact with their fan base.

Dexter Slice of Life
Dexter Slice of Life

Most of the branded games I've played thus far feel a bit uninspired--Weeds Social Club is essentially FarmVille. Do you think there's an incentive for developers to create more original experiences? Would that be something these brands are even interested in?

I think developers have a natural need to innovate and always do something that they're passionate about. I think a lot of it has to do with a creative brief that's given. How can you challenge someone that comes to you that says, "We need to build a game that's FarmVille, but it's for Weeds."

You kind of look at that scope of creativity on that and say, "Well, I guess that makes sense, because FarmVille is so popular we'll just do it this way." This is a space where there's a high feeling for innovation. But at the same time when you're working with clients, it's kind of difficult to take that pure innovation and route, because they see an existing platform that works really well and the easy way to be successful is to replicate that formula.

I'm going to relate that to consoles: There are some publishers that just do game adaptations of movies. So, a movie will come out, they only have eight months to develop an actual game for, let's say, the Captain America movie. More often than not, that game is gonna' suck. Finally, they did Batman: Arkham [Asylum], and that was a Batman game that does not relate to the movies whatsoever.

They said, let's just make a really good Batman game, and it worked. I think if you take that same concept, and you put it to social/online, you will get the same result. If you say, "Let's make a kick-ass Dexter game," and that's it--you're going to eventually make a kick-ass Dexter game.

Where do you think social game makers and advertisers will draw the line when it comes to in-game ads or branded games? Is there even a line to draw?

I don't think there's a line. I think this medium is still so young, and it's always evolving. You really need to try everything you can to make an impact with advertising. You have to fail in order to find out what works.

And honestly, the ones that suffer through it are going to be the brands, because they'll spend a lot of money for this type of advertisement to get in there well. But you're also going to piss off the people, too. People have the tendency to just suffer through it, because they've already invested in playing these games.

Thanks for chatting with us, Charles.

What are your thoughts on advertisements in your favorite Facebook games? Have you found any branded Facebook games that you've enjoyed in particular? Sound off in the comments. Add Comment.

The Latest from our Partners