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Q&A: Double Fusion's Epstein On The Back Catalog Ad Game

How can advertising breathe new life into older titles? Gamasutra talks with Double Fusion president and CEO Jonathan Epstein, who explains how his new fusion.runtime technology, which can dynamically place ads in already completed titles, brings new opti
In early September, Double Fusion announced fusion.runtime, new technology to add advertising to games after code development has been completed, including back catalog titles and late-stage development titles. The initiative saw Ubisoft, one of Double Fusion’s partners for the new technology, use fusion.runtime in a selection of AAA PC titles from its back catalog sponsored by advertisers and made free to the gaming public. Shortly after the announcement, an initial set of games, including Far Cry and Prince Of Persia: Sands Of Time were made available for free, which included ads inserted between loading screens and introduction movies. To learn more about the technology and its impact both for publishers and advertisers moving forward, we talked to Double Fusion president and CEO Jonathan Epstein, who explained how the fusion.runtime can bring new life to old titles. What makes fusion.runtime significant? Jonathan Epstein: In a nutshell, as you know, Double Fusion has been active in the in-game advertising field for quite some time. We've always hailed ourselves as a technology leader. We've been able to do 3D ads and Flash and stuff that other people haven't done. The reality is that it's been really difficult in the market to get traction on a technology basis when the publishers are more interested in the business deal and whatnot. With the announcement of fusion.runtime, for the first time ever, we're seeing a really dramatic response from the community, because Runtime was designed to create some new business models for publishers and open barriers that have been in the way in the in-game ad business. Because you can put ads in already-released games? JE: Yes -- basically, Runtime uses a lot of our standard core technology, but doesn't require source code integration. It opens up three new possibilities. One is back catalog, which is very exciting, and I'll talk a little bit more about that. [Another is] casual games and the casual downloadable market like Pogo, Oberon, Big Fish, and people like that. There was more of an issue of scale there. You have a thousand games a year, you're dealing with smaller development shops and expecting them all to do code. It wasn't really a scalable, feasible solution. There've been a lot of situations where it just got to crunch too late in the development cycle, or the developer was in Korea and not really that interested in supporting what the U.S. guys want. Runtime gives us the ability to put that technology anywhere. You worry about the ad placements later. You allow developers to balance when they want to spend the time in thinking about where the ads should go, if they're a part of the process. Is that something that they then have to integrate into their game as it's in development? JE: The core engine is essentially patched in, and that's all that they need to do. At a later time, there's a tool we use where you essentially walk through the game and you can say, "Put ad there, put ad there." Essentially, it's all taken care of for you. The back catalog thing in particular is driving a lot of interest. For the first time, gamers have been saying, "What's in this for me?" It's a reasonable question. They're not thinking rising development costs for new platforms that don't have a lot out there yet, and some of the economic issues of publishers, which are real. With this, for the first time, we expect over the next 12 months to see publishers really creating a new window for their content and giving gamers the opportunity to play games that they didn't get a chance to play before. That's what's most exciting to everyone here. For the game publishers, here's a new way to utilize your old content. Otherwise, it's just on the shelf. It's marked down. What do you view it as? A way to bring someone into the franchise, or just a way to collect true fans? However they want to do it, we put that tool in the hands of the publishers. For the gamers, it's, "Hey, here's a new source of content that I don't always have to pay for." For advertisers, it's actually a better model for advertising, because it's not invasive. You still have to do it correctly and all that, and all the rules about "Don't screw up the game experience" are there, but it puts advertisers in the position to bring something, versus, say, a sign that didn't fit in that some gamers are not going to be pleased with. Is it integrated in the same way, in that it'll be ads inside the game? JE: It all depends on the game. It almost sounds like hacking. JE: It's not that way. I understand the analogy. Or like patching. JE: It is, in a way, a patch. One thing that I want to stress is that we do not put ads in games without the IP owner saying, "Yeah, that's how we want it to be." Theoretically, you could, but we work closely in partnership with the publisher. It seems a big concern would be whether developers would have any say. The publishers might own the IP, and could put ads into a game where the developers might be very against it. JE: The relationship between the publisher and development is something that we'll let the publisher manage. It's not correct to say that publishers don't care about their IP. They're the ones who ultimately know that they have to strike the right balance with games. Our sense is that none of the creative rules really change. A lot of what we're seeing in the initial uses of our tech is not tons of in-game placements, but is really along the lines of interstitials and other things that are level-based and natural breaks in the action. We actually offer really good value for advertisers. As long as it's a short ad, it's less annoying to gamers. As in load screens? JE: Yeah, that's been the initial paradigm. We can do full in-game. We can do signs, and we can do textures. It's all about, "Does it make sense?" When we're doing some of these free MMOs, no, it doesn't, really. Sometimes in the futuristic worlds, you can have signs and logos, and that's okay. We let them ride that decision. As we install the ads, we need the advertisers to feel like their ads are relevantly placed as well. There's a good balance there. Have you had much difficulty getting advertisers to feel like they're getting value for their money? It's hard to know what your return is right now. JE: We've done something like a dozen studies over different campaigns, and all have produced results that the advertisers have been happy with. I think one of the things that Runtime makes easier is when we do things like interstitials, as well as in-game ads -- sometimes they're clickable -- it is more easy for the advertiser to relate those formats to what they know, as opposed to, "Here's a sign, and there's this angle thing and this size threshold," and all that. And we're still just talking about PC games at this stage? JE: That's right. This technology and this approach could work on consoles, but that would require the blessing and approval of the consoles. Sony's not declared yet, and Microsoft for the moment is focused on maximizing its Massive investment. That's actually a humorous turn of phrase. JE: Yes, yes. I said it and I was like, "Hmm!" So these games being re-released free to play? JE: We'll see that, and we've had outreach from big and small publishers alike. If you think about the franchise nature of the larger publisher, giving away a previous game in a franchise that's still good and relevant [makes good sense], and games from two or three years ago are still good. It didn't used to be the case, but right now, the PC graphics technology hasn't advanced that much. Would there be a separate portal for this sort of content from multiple publishers? JE: Those are great questions and plans under development. In our initial work, we're allowing publishers to focus on the distribution on their own, but it seems clear that whether directly through our efforts or, more likely, in partnership with some of the leading audience sources -- whether it's portals or ISPs -- that we will build out a center for these activities. You want people to know, "I can come to this destination to enjoy high quality ad-supported free gaming or free demos or free levels," or whatever. And it helps people know exactly what they're getting into from the onset, if it's all centralized. JE: Exactly. In every event, we always want people to know that there are ads here. It's free, but this is ad-supported. If you don't like it, there are usually ways you can buy some of these games still. It's a choice for the user, so we're not going to force ads on people that don't want it. Most people have said -- in some of the initial blog postings -- "We love this idea. I'll be mad if someone hacks it. Keep the flow. Let's see more of this." Presumably publishers would be much more interested in that than having people download a torrent. JE: Exactly, or off of a warez site. In fact, they could use it as a way to put that on the torrent and P2P networks, and sort of crowd out, statistically, the illegitimate copies.

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