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Book Excerpt: Game Design Complete: Advergaming and Sponsorships

This excerpt from Paraglyph Press' Game Design Complete looks at the challenges of advergaming and the gray line that exists between licensing and advertising, introducing various in-game advertising techniques, from including brand names on your product packaging as a credibility enhancement to putting branded objects into your game.

April 6, 2006

29 Min Read

Author: by Patrick O'Luanaigh

The following is a selected excerpt from Game Design Complete (ISBN 1-933097-00-0) published by Paraglyph Press.


“Ads are the cave art of the twentieth century.”
Marshall McLuhan

In the clean and pure world of a game designer's head, the idea of selling advertising space within a game, or having the logos of sponsors cluttering up a perfectly designed GUI, is often a horrible thought. It's very easy to feel that you're “selling out” by having in-game advertising. But it's something that you need to address, and in the modern world, where it's starting to cost more and more money to develop games, it can often make sense to raise some money back in return with some advertising if done subtly and tastefully.

In this chapter, we'll start by looking at the challenges of advergaming and the gray line that exists between licensing and advertising. You'll learn how to use various techniques, from including brand names on your product packaging as a credibility enhancement to putting branded objects into your game. Throughout, I've tried to introduce a number of different approaches to stimulate you to come up with some of your own ideas. Advergaming is a fairly new field, and the opportunities and constraints are likely to evolve and change drastically over the next few years.

The Challenge of Advergaming

Just as with the movie business, the challenge is to take advantage of the opportunity of using advertising without going overboard. You've probably seen a few movies (a recent James Bond film comes to mind) in which the advertising has been overdone and the final result becomes a never-ending lineup of overt car and mobile phone brands. But for every film like this, there are countless more that have successfully achieved in-film advertising and branding, and few viewers are put off by it. The trick is to keep the advertising as subtle as possible. Even back in the older days of film, when a lead character performed an action such as jumping into a Lamborghini, the action helped advertise the Lamborghini brand despite there being no payment or connection between the companies at the time; the director just wanted a Lamborghini because it looked cool on film.

Another example involves characters in films having conversations in bars. If the actors have a particular brand of beer in their hand, it's not going to look odd unless there is an obvious close-up on the label. Yet many people will still subconsciously notice the brand. This kind of brand placement in games isn't going to ruin the experience if it's done carefully. In fact, in many ways, it can make a game feel more realistic and authentic. If you're being chased down a street in New York, wouldn't you rather see real store names as you pass by them rather than obviously fake ones? If your character has a PDA that you access to get new information, wouldn't it feel more realistic if the PDA was one that actually exists?

Selling Your Soul?

From my point of view, it's up to you as the game designer and person responsible for the “heart and soul” of a game to be careful about what kind of in-game advertising you allow into the product. As I just mentioned, I feel that it's a balancing act. You need to be careful that any advertisements you include don't tip too far in one direction. If people pay $40 for your game, they don't want to be bombarded by blatant product promotion. Don't sell your game's soul, but keep an open mind, and try and find the balance that is right for you.

A Gray Line: Licensing vs. Advertising

You might encounter a rather gray area when it comes to licensing. At one end of the scale, you'll likely need to pay to license any major brand for inclusion in your game, and at the other end, the brand holder will pay you to feature its brand in your title. This gray area usually depends on how much clout you have with your game or brand, the relative skills of your licensing team, and the attitude of the company involved. By and large, the distinction tends to be about who really benefits the most. The question becomes: Does the addition of the advertised brand significantly improve the quality and overall impression of the game, or does advertising the brand in the game mainly benefit the owner of the brand?

Let's look at an example. Assume that you're creating a racing game and you want to include a Ferrari. This brand of car is probably much more widely known than your game. It increases the attraction of your game to consumers, so it's clearly a great thing for you. It makes your game feel special, and players want to drive the best cars. But the benefit Ferrari receives for being in your game is much smaller. The folks at Ferrari might feel that being in your game isn't going to help them sell very many cars. In fact, the risk of being in your game (which from their point of view might not be very good) is probably much more important to them than the reward of seeing their cars in yet another video game. Because of these circumstances, you may well have to pay Ferrari a considerable sum to include its car in your game.

On the other hand, including Red Bull drink cans within your game environment is unlikely to add much to your game at all. In fact, you may feel that unless you also include Coke, Pepsi, and a host of other brands, having a specific brand may look like an obvious advertising ploy and therefore make your game weaker rather than stronger. However, the makers of Red Bull, providing that your game is a high-quality one, might view your game as reaching an important demographic that they can't easily reach using other advertising vehicles. The message of linking fun quality entertainment with their drink could be an important one. Clearly, in this case, you'd expect them to pay you to feature their brand in your game. I'm using Red Bull as an example only because it has been in a large number of games (hopefully this has been successful from the company's point of view), and I'm sure the company would agree with me that its product is very different than Ferrari's in terms of what kind of advertising deals it could command. Unfortunately, neither company is paying me to mention them! (I wonder if you can get in-book advertising deals?)

Advertising in Games

Let's take a look at a few real-life examples of how in-game advertising has been implemented very well and some in which I think it has been implemented badly.

Good Examples of Advertising in Games

I chose these games because the advertising is fairly subtle and, when they were released, the games broke new ground for using advertising. One important lesson to be learned here is that you can make your in-game advertising more palatable and effective if you find new and clever ways to incorporate it.

Wipeout 2097

The Wipeout series has always been at the cutting edge, with many new ideas. In-game advertising was one of them. Wipeout 2097 (see Figure 11.1) advertised companies like Red Bull on in-game billboards and was one of the first games to do so. What's more, because the game is about a futuristic racing championship, the advertisements seemed in keeping with the game, so they never felt out of place. Along with the great licensed music tracks, they made the game feel very cool.

Crazy Taxi

Crazy Taxi (see Figure 11.2) was one of the very first games to really go to town with in-game advertising. It featured a whole load of national chain stores, such as Tower Records, KFC, Fila, and Pizza Hut. The advertising made the city feel realistic and definitely enhanced the gameplay. Again, the advertising was totally in keeping with the game, and because there was such a variety, it never really felt like you were watching an advertisement.

Bad Examples of Advertising

In certain respects, advergaming gets such a bad rap simply because it has been done poorly in so many games. I would imagine that you have your own list of games in which the advertising really annoys you, and here are a few that I would also put on the list.

Zool 2

Zool 2 (see Figure 11.3) didn't just have a few advertisements or product placements for Chupa Chups sweets—the game was basically an entire advertisement for them. Whole levels of the game were based around the sweets, with signs, banners, and products everywhere. If there is a line that you shouldn't cross as a game designer when it comes to in-game advertising, Zool 2 not only crossed it, but flew across it with a rocket pack on. Frustratingly, it was also a great game, but the advertising ruined it for many people.

Judge Dredd: Dredd Vs. Death

Red Bull's Australian arm bought advertising within the game and then insisted on having a huge amount of presence. Not only are there big crates of Red Bull all over the place, but there are moments where an in-game character throws a can, which bounces and lands right in front of camera, filling the whole screen with the brand name. I suspect that the developers probably didn't have a choice in the matter and were forced to do this by the publishers. Oh dear!

War Story : How Far Will You Go?

After giving Judge Dredd such a hard time over its use of Red Bull in its game, I should even things up a little by pointing out that I also had a major soft drink in one of my games, with the main character even drinking it at one point. I'm ashamed of myself. But some of the things they wanted us to do went far beyond this. For example, they wanted the main character to mention the brand name and say how good the drink was. Hmm. Maybe not!

Techniques for In-Game Advertising

There are many different ways to advertise brands in video games. Some are subtle and some are more obvious. Let's look at a few paths that are becoming increasingly well trodden. Often, games will use a combination of these techniques to keep a good balance between gameplay and broadcasting marketing messages.

To start, you'll want to review the various advertising opportunities listed in Table 11.1. Here I've compiled the types of advertising that are used for various categories of games.

Table 11.1 Some in-game advertising opportunities.

Game Type




On-screen timer

Brand the on-screen timer with a real-life clock/timing company as they do in athletics coverage on television.


In-game item

Use a real-life product as an item in the game, perhaps a drink can, a pair of trainers you can buy, a mobile phone, and so on.


In-game audio

Announce a new product on a PA system or in-game TV.


Loading screen

Feature the company or brand on all the loading screens somewhere.



Have the brand or company name as the name of a stadium, or in a management game, use the brand or company as an in- game sponsor.


Car/vehicle customization

Place a company's logo onto cars in the game, and allow the player to use the logo as a decal.

Character games

Customizable character

Have a company's logo on the character's clothing or as a decal that can be applied as a tattoo.



Include the company/brand in your storyline; in a similar way that FedEx was included in the story of the film Castaway.


Reward screen/medal

Have the company sponsor the reward screen ceremony or the podium that the winning athletes stand on.



Have a watch company sponsor the watch that your in-game character wears. In an FPS, the watch should be visible a great deal of the time.



If your game uses an in-game map or com- pass, why not get a real-life mapping com- pany or compass manufacture tied in, with a small logo on them?


FMV/cut scenes

Place companies' products subtly into your FMV sequences or cut scenes.


In-game pickup

Advertisers love this; picking up their product in the game has a positive effect on the gameplay. Not a very subtle example, but say if your character is getting tired, finding some Jolt cola could help keep them awake.



If a particular building is likely to attract visitors, why not get them to pay to be in the game? For example, you could set a level of your stealth game in the Natural History Museum in London at night and lots of young gamers globally will be made intimately aware of the museum.



If your adventure game features any kind of reference section (where the player can go to look up facts), why not base this on a real-life reference book?



Include a real-life person or company in your tutorial section so they are helping train the player.



Include a particular vehicle in the game, and use it in a cool way. Tomb Raider: Legend has a tie-in with Jeep that works in this way.


Building frontages

If your character or car is moving through a city, you can make it feel realistic while generating revenue by getting sponsors on board—banks, fast food establishments, gas stations, and so on.



Most racing games can get away with advertising billboards and signs, just as in real- life races. The same goes for sports games, especially those that take place in stadiums. So why not fill these up with real brands?

Understand the Brand

No matter what specific techniques you use to convey advertising messages in your game, you first should spend some time researching the brand that you are using. Really get to know it and make sure that you and your team understand all of the important implications. Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • What do people first think of when they come across the brand?

  • What demographic does the brand appeal to?

  • What are the strong and weak points about the brand?

  • Are there any negative aspects that people associate with the brand?

  • What types of advertising does the brand holder do with the brand?

  • Does the brand have staying power?

  • Will the brand be compatible with the “theme” of your game?

Take a look at how the advertiser has promoted the brand in other areas. What do its advertisements look like? Is there a consistent theme running through the promotion? Take a look at the company's Web site and see how it perceives the brand. If you understand the brand, you are more likely to use it in the right way within the game. This has two benefits: it keeps the advertisers happy, and if they're happy, they are less likely to insist that you do more in the game with their brand, thus reducing the chance of people noticing overt advertising in the finished title.

Branding a Game

One obvious route is to get a brand name either in the name of the game or on the box or packaging. Adidas did this with soccer games a few years ago, and Nike is apparently working with Sony on a fitness product as I write this. In order for this to be worthwhile from a game designer's point of view, either you need to be offered lots of money or the brand needs to help you sell your game. If you are developing an unbranded athletics game, for example, adding Reebok might help you sell the game, but it does add authenticity and is therefore a good thing regardless of whether the company pays you money or not. Having a brand attached to the name can damage games, though. If journalists feel that you've slapped on a brand name to try and sell a bad game, word may well get round, and you could end up with a more negative public reaction than if you hadn't used the brand.

In-Game Logos or Signs

A more traditional route involves getting a brand logo placed into the game. This is done in sports and racing games using standard advertising techniques just as in the real world, but game designers are starting to get smarter about other ways of using logos and signage. Fortunately, games don't have to copy real-life, and there is no reason why you can't allow the player to tattoo the Nike logo onto the virtual golfer when he's being created at the start of a game.

In–Game Objects

Using in-game objects involves the placement of products into the game. These objects could be anything from a bottle of beer to a Mercedes sports car. The idea is that the object is visible and recognizable to the player and the player sees it in a positive light. Ideally for the advertisers, the objects have a constructive use that benefits the player. For example, Pepsi might want its cans and bottles to be available from in-game vending machines to boost the players' health or skill level. From a designer's point of view, objects that add authenticity to an existing game design are good. For example, if you already have a gun in the game, branding it with a Heckler and Koch logo is probably a good thing because it will make the player connect more with the object. Objects that feel out of place and contrived are not good, and I'd encourage you to fight any pressure you receive to use such objects as strongly as you can. If you suspect there is a chance that an average gamer will see a branded object and think, “That's just a blatant advertisement,” then don't use it.

Music and Audio

Another underused way of advertising is through sound effects, audio, and music. If your character runs through a shopping mall in the game, for example, you may be happy letting real advertisements play over the PA system. Many games have strong musical sound tracks, and rather than paying large sums of money to license them, you might be able to get a talented new band to appear for free or even pay you to feature their name in the game and play their music to lots of new customers. There are also several examples of music being written specifically for games by well-known musicians or DJs. For example, Paul Oakenfold wrote an original track for a rally game that I worked on recently and has just been signed up exclusively for EA. I've heard that many new artists who are featured in major EA titles have had album sales jump massively, so there is no reason the same effect can't happen in your game.

Blatant Advertisements

You may decide to have proper advertisements in the game while the game is performing functions such as loading screens. You could also play video commercials on the walls in the game. Some online games have advertisements taking up part of the screen in the “chat foyer” when players are waiting for new games to begin. If you think you can get away with it and it won't annoy players, this kind of advertising is something you might want to consider.

Other Games

It's amazing how rarely publishers use their games to cross-promote other games. I believe that as our industry continues to get more professional, more and more titles will include trailers for forthcoming games and hopefully playable demos as well. By having a “trailers” section in the front end, it's fairly simple to promote other games that you are developing and help develop some hype. You need to be careful to stick within the guidelines of the console manufacturers (which includes not advertising Microsoft games on a Sony game and vice versa). Some publishers bundle in a second disc, which is a standard promotional DVD of their lineup. But it's easier and cheaper to include the trailers on the game disc if you can do so. If you have a realistic game world, why not include poster advertisements for your other titles rather than making up fantasy advertising?

Online Updates

One interesting aspect that has come about due to the rise in online-enabled consoles is the ability to download new content from a central server. In terms of in-game advertising, this offers fantastic possibilities. Say your game sells a million copies. That's a million people who will be playing the game at various points over the next two months (or probably more, since some people will share a copy). Assume the game lasts 10 hours—that's 10 million man-hours of advertising potential. With the facility to download advertising from a server, you can keep the in-game advertising fresh and attract multiple companies and brands. In a racing game, for example, the player can come back to a track to find that the billboards have changed. The sponsor on the loading screen can alternate each time the player starts up the game. And this also introduces the ability to show advertisements within certain time slots. If a TV company wanted to promote a particular show, there is no reason that anyone playing the game within a couple of hours of the start time couldn't be shown an advertisement somewhere (maybe just in the front end or on an in-game banner) that tells them the show will be commencing shortly.

Of course, I'm not suggesting that you should consider destroying your carefully created feeling of immersion by peppering your gameplay with real-world advertisements. But there are certain types of games that aren't about creating immersion and telling a story. One example would be sports and racing games. By considering the power and flexibility that online advertising updates offer you, it's possible to earn quite a bit of revenue that you can then spend on making your game even better.

Using In-Game Advertising Agencies

If all this sounds too much like hard work, there are companies that offer to manage in-game advertising for you. Some companies will even sort out the online updating of advertising I mentioned previously. Ideally, you should hook up with one of these companies at an early stage—you may find that a couple of tiny tweaks to your design allow new possibilities. Again, it's vital to keep a balance between revenue and not ruining the game, and you need to be careful when talking to agencies not to get carried away! But the advantage of using companies like this is that you can tell them about your game, who is publishing it, how big you expect it to be, and most important, what opportunities there are within the game (and packaging) for companies to sponsor or advertise. Video games are growing in terms of their reach and demographics. As more people ignore TV adverts, or skip past them after recording shows onto hard disc, advertisers need to look elsewhere to hit carefully targeted customers. Video games offer that, and I strongly believe that in-game advertising is going to grow rapidly over the next few years. I just hope it doesn't get too blatant!

Adding Authenticity

One excellent reason for adding licenses to your game is to build its authenticity and realism. The first step is to make a list of exactly what licenses/brands you'd like to use in your game. It's worth trying to push yourself. There is no harm in approaching massive companies; the worst they can do is say no. What is important is to have fallback options and to set a date at which, if you don't have the licenses, you will use something else. I've been in many projects where the licenses take much longer than you'd think, and the last thing you need is a license holding up your gold master. In fact, games have been pulled from the shelves after manufacture because the right permissions hadn't been received, which, as you can probably guess, is an extremely devastating and expensive situation to be in. Try to think about all the places in your game where a real-life brand might help. To convince these companies to get on board (and ideally pay for the privilege as well), print out some in-game screen shots with their logo put in, showing them the kind of result they'd get. You will find that you need to pay for many licenses—cars, real race tracks, some real-life buildings, and so on. But ideally you'll be able to convince the brand owner that they will benefit from the association, and you can reach a deal that benefits both parties.

Creating a Version of a Game for a Company

The ultimate destination when talking about working with other companies is to actually create a game for them. More realistically, this might be to create a special version of an existing game for them, since most companies can't (or won't) pay the $4 million to $12 million needed for a high-quality console game. If you're creating a racing game, you might want to consider developing special versions for some of the car manufacturers that you're working with, featuring only their vehicles and putting their branding on the front end and loading screens. If you're talking to a company about in-game sponsorship, then why not bring up the idea of a unique version just for the company and see if it is something it would be willing to pay for. Bear in mind that if a company wants a console game, you'll need to submit the extra version to Microsoft/Sony/Nintendo in order to manufacture gold discs, so you need to check this out before signing the deal and find out whether you'll be charged extra for QA and whether you can get a low-volume run manufactured. Otherwise, creating a tailored PC version of your game is obviously much simpler, and this route makes a lot of sense. Many companies have trade shows, and it's great for them to be able to run a game that features their brand at these shows to inject some entertainment and excitement. For them, it's a case of having something very cool and exciting attached to their brand—video games are great at attracting young consumers. For developers or publishers, it's simply a case of making some additional profit from their existing game engine.


Hopefully, you've seen the different kinds of in-game sponsorship and advertising that you might want to consider at some point. Although it may feel overly commercial, remember that you need to make money with your game, and by using advertising in the right way, you could add authenticity to your project while also earning revenue. This could mean that you wouldn't need to sell as many copies to start making royalties, or even that you have additional money to do a better audio recording or to employ a couple more level designers. Just don't sell your soul.




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