Free to Play: Two Big Advertising Questions

Mark Stephens

A few stories about advertising and social games have hit mainstream media in the past month, prompting a couple of questions about the relationship. Firstly, where are we at with how we advertise free-to-play (F2P) social games?; and when is the much-promised revenue from advertising going to materialise and make us poor game developers rich?


Advertising standards: when is ‘F2P’ misleading?

We thought it was generally understood that “Free to Play” means free to download and get started, but not generally free to play all levels, at maximum throttle, with all that you need to succeed.

But when does advertising a game as “F2P” become misleading? At what point is the line crossed and in-app purchases take over so much that the game is unplayable unless players cough up some cash?

The Advertising Standards Authority in the UK stepped in recently to ban Dungeon Keeper, an app game created by Electronic Arts (EA). The authority came to the decision that describing the game as “free” was misleading.

This is the first time in the UK that such a ruling has been made, though it was on the cards after the Office of Fair Trade prepared its Principles for online and app-based games amid calls for greater regulations of social gaming standards (after a series of negative stories about children running up credit card bills).

The ASA acknowledged that the average game player understands that F2P games usually offer in-app purchases and admitted that the game in question could be played without spending any money.

This could send a few shockwaves through developer studios. Although the ruling is just for the UK and doesn’t mean that the word “free” can no longer be used to describe games, other areas of the world are following suit. mobileThe US Federal Trade Commission is currently taking action against Amazon after children ran up bills from in-app purchases without the consent of parents.

This signals the need for developers to be clear about what exactly is available for free and what is charged via in-game purchases. Also, any marketing material for the game must reflect the experience of the non-purchasing players, if it is being marketed as a ‘free’ game; disclaimers about in-app purchases are not deemed enough.

When will social gaming get its slice of ad pie?

The second question concerns advertising revenue in social gaming.

As social advertising revenues continue to set new records, with a 31% growth for 2014 forecast in the US back in February, there has been big talk that social gaming is the next big platform for advertising. An article in the Wall Street Journal recently asked “Are Mobile Games the Next Great Ad Medium?”

In truth this question has been regularly trotted out over the past few years and we are still waiting for advertising as a monetisation strategy to really take off in social gaming. In-app purchase strategies still rule the roost and the biggest developers like King are raking it in.

The article in the WSJ acknowledges that not everyone in the industry sees eye to eye on the matter:

“Talk to executives from both the online ad industry and the mobile gaming sector and you’ll find opinions are sharply divided on this issue. You’ll hear sentiments ranging from ‘this is the future of advertising’ to ‘this is never going to happen.’”

It goes on to point out that Google usually knows what’s going on and its technical infrastructure is geared towards attracting big advertisers in this hugely popular area of digital media: 32% of time spent with apps is spent on gaming, after all.

One clear advertising target is the 90 percent of players of freemium games who never make an in-game purchase. As the article suggests:

“Surely, advertisers would be interested in reaching a portion of King’s 485 million monthly users.”

One type of in-game advertising that has seen some traction is ads for other mobile apps, often other games. These may be viewed as more palatable than intrusive product advertising by game players, and the likes of Facebook have used it successfully.

However, this does seem to be “beating around the bush” a little. As the WSJ article points out, Vogue magazine doesn’t advertise other women’s magazines!

It’s a question of finding a form of advertising that works with game players within the reasonable limits of game play. That may not be as simple as banner ads or billboards in driving games for instance. It will need to be more creative, more reward-based, and will involve forming mutually beneficial partnerships.

Social gaming and advertising presently have an uneasy relationship that needs to be worked at and matured, if social games are to meet the expectations of becoming the “next great ad medium”.