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Nick Mawditt 

MMOs - the new virtual frontier for brands?

Nick Mawditt

The gaming industry is growing at an unparalleled pace with the take-up of massively multiplayer online (MMO) games and virtual worlds. Ed Bartlett, co-founder of in-game advertising company IGA Worldwide, details the opportunities that this new frontier offers brands...

Since Sony launched the PlayStation in 1995, gaming has stepped out of the confines of the teenage bedroom and into the mainstream arena of the living room. The more recent introduction of consoles like the Nintendo Wii, with its revolutionary motion sensing controller and family friendly product lineup, has helped to expand an already lucrative and difficult to reach demographic. Last year sales of high street games in the UK grew by a huge 26%, bringing total sales to £1.7 billion and eclipsing music sales for the first time. The recent launch of Grand Theft Auto 3 generated sales of over $500 million in its first week alone - making it the single largest entertainment launch in history and proving that the industry shows no sign of slowing down.

Unlike other more traditional mediums to feature advertising, such as television and print, gaming is unique in that it is actually enhanced by the presence of real-life brands and advertising. A recent study by Nielsen of 1,300 consumers showed that 82% of consumers felt that in-game adverts did not intrude on their playing experience, which can be attributed to the premium that consumers put on realistic, contextual and believable environments within modern videogames.

The development of 'MMO' games such as World of Warcraft and the introduction of the first videogame to seamlessly combine traditional and MMO game elements alongside a realistic virtual world - Football Superstars - has opened a whole new range of possibilities for brands looking to really engage with consumers.

As in other media, the presence of advertising has also led to new business models. Free to download and play, Football Superstars has mass appeal and will generate a huge international audience by eschewing a traditional box product retail model in favour of a clever mix of free to play, premium subscription and micro-transactions. Football Superstars focuses on the consumer as an individual, allowing them to develop their unique football skills and progress through various leagues alongside and against other real players, earning larger salaries as they go. They can then spend these winnings creating a lavish lifestyle in a fully interactive, photorealistic virtual world, where they can visit the gym or pose for the paparazzi. This opens doors for high-end brands to incorporate their products into the fabric of the game.

Puma is one of the companies that has already joined the in-game advertising revolution and signed up to incorporate its branding and products into Football Superstars. Players will be able to try out the Puma v1.08 Speed Boot within the game and visit a virtual reproduction of London's Carnaby Street concept store to kit-out their in-game avatar in the latest Puma clothing. The level of realism offered by this sort of game is integral to its appeal. In-game advertising not only facilitates this, but also takes the game experience itself to a more believable level for the end-user.

One of the major developments in this space over the last few years has been the introduction of dynamic adverts, where the content can be updated via hybrid online ad-serving technology, allowing brands to keep their messaging fresh, regionalised and targeted. It is also possible to track the delivery and viewership of dynamic ads, including the angle at which they view the ad and the overall exposure duration, providing brands with increased visibility of ROI on their campaigns.

It's no surprise that in game advertising is on an accelerated growth trajectory, with many analysts predicting that it will be worth more than $1 billion by 2010. As consumers become increasingly media savvy, brands are forced to fight harder to find more convincing and engaging methods of reaching them. With the average 18-34 year old male now spending the same time per week playing videogames as watching TV - coupled with their experience actually being enhanced by advertising - there is no doubt over the future success of the industry. But as always, it's those brands which embrace the medium whilst it's still in its infancy who stand to gain the most impact. Are you playing?

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