The Myth of Ad-Supported MMOs

One of the questions the moderator asked during our panel at ICE 08 was whether or not the virtual world/MMO racket was a bubble. i said “no”, emphatically, and i’m sticking to my guns.

i do believe that interest and expectations are inflated beyond what the market will bear, however. Just as investors sunk millions of dollars into dotcoms on or around 2000 and that bubble burst, the virtual world/MMO gold rush is sure to turn out a litany of bad projects, and the bubble will burst.


That sucker’s gonna blow.

But look at us now: eight years later and the Internetz are still around. That’s because it’s too good an idea to just die off. Likewise virtual worlds and MMOs, which triumphantly return gaming to its multiplayer roots. The idea won’t die, but once this first spate of me-too projects launch and flop and a great many people lose their jobs and their money, i expect investors to become much more gun-shy of the genre.

Then, as i mentioned on the panel, once companies produce the proper tools to lower the cost of development, we’ll enjoy a much normalized multiplayer game industry. But believe me, before all that happens, the apparent end will come, and with it much tearing of robes and gnashing of teeth. Ultimately, i blame Coke.

Ad Nauseum

i get nervous whenever anyone new to the game says that his or her virtual world or MMO will be ad-supported, as if advertisers are knocking down the doors trying to snatch up banner space near (or overlays within) these properties. i’ve been building web games for eight years, since the crash, and they’ve almost all been ad-supported. i have war stories to tell.

The debate over in-game advertising rages, and the questions that pops up run along the lines “How much advertising will players accept in your game?”, “Does advertising cheapen the player’s experience?”, and “How can advertising best be integrated into your game without ruining it?”

i’ve seen industry “experts” debate this topic on numerous different panels, and they invariably involve Coke in the debate. Someone will say “For example, if Coke wanted to advertise in our world”, or “i don’t really think our players would tolerate the presence of Coke in our in-game tavern …”

i heard Coke invoked most recently at ICE 08 during the Worlds @ Play panel. The speaker was Barbara Lippe, whose company Avaloop is behind the virtual world Paper Mint. i’ll have to paraphrase her because i don’t have a transcript of the session, but she said something like this:

Players don’t like in-game advertising. If we were to do it, we’d do it tastefully. For example, if Coke wanted to advertise in our world, we wouldn’t want to have Coke actually represented in-game, for example by having Coke logos everywhere or by giving the player actual Coke product. It’s too intrusive. We’d do something much more subtle. The player might find himself on a Coke-sponsored island, but he wouldn’t know it until he walked the entire periphery of the island, and the little fog-of-war mini-map at the top of the screen slowly revealed the shape of the island, and the player would see that the island was in the shape of a Coke bottle.

Ms Lippe earned a doctorate, so i don’t want to suggest she’s out to lunch or anything, but come on. The attitude – and she’s not alone – is so naive that i can actually hear the moving trucks pulling up to offices around the world to repossess all those Herman Miller chairs that virtual worlds start-ups bought with their investors’ money.


Pictured left is an arguably recognizable Coke bottle. Pictured right is the less-easily-identified “Fantabulous Mister FlimFlamm’s Sweet n’ Crunchy Pig Spankins”. Guess who wants to advertise in your virtual world?

News Flash: You’re Not Gettin’ Coke

Coke is invoked so often, of course, because it’s an incredibly strong brand, and probably one of the most recognized brands in the world. Why, then, would this brand behemoth be interested in advertising in your brand new virtual world to which you’re struggling to attract players? Coke has sponsored virtual worlds, sure, but by my count they’ve come in when the numbers were high enough and the opportunity was interesting enough to make it worth their while, as when Habbo Hotel was pulling in millions of visitors at its peak.

You should be so lucky to get Coke. And if you ever did land them, you wouldn’t dare try to sell them on a subtle campaign where a player would have to spend an hour walking the peripheral of an island to reveal the product-shaped outline on the mini-map. Coke would ask you to drop an enormous logo on the busiest screen in your world so that it obscured all the exits, and they’d ask that the word “the” in all chat phrases be replaced with “i like Coke because it is delicious and wonderful to drink”. And you know what? You’d do it.

You wouldn’t wax philosphical about how you’ll dilute the intellectual property or how the fanbase will criticize you for selling out. You’re running an advertising-based world, and as far as advertising goes, Coke is the holy grail. You will relax your muscles and allow the Coca-Cola corporation to ram its fistfuls of hot, sweaty cash wherever it so chooses.

Coke X-Ray

Welcome Coke to your new virtual world.

But realistically, that’s not going to happen. You’re not gettin’ Coke. You’re not gettin’ Pepsi. You’re not even getting Fanta.

You’re getting V-8. And not the V-8 vegetable drink that everyone knows. That brand is plenty strong. No – V-8 is branching out into vegetable crackers to take on category leader Mr. Christie. That’s who wants to advertise in your world. V-8 Vegetable Crackers.

You’re not getting Nike. You’re not getting Reebok either. You’re getting Dr. Scholl’s. And not the Dr. Scholls insoles that are adored by millions. No – Dr. Scholl’s wants to market their new vegetable drink to take on category leader V-8. (And due to category exclusivity, you actually have to cook up a creative way to promote Dr. Scholl’s Vegetable Symphony without pissing off V-8.)

You’re not getting the latest Harry Potter movie. You’re getting the latest Cuba Gooding Jr. family comedy. You’re not getting Grand Theft Auto IV. You’re getting DS Barnyard Friends. You’re not getting Mr. Peanut. You’re getting NutFun™ Brand Mixed Nuts, now in a resealable pouch.

Advergaming is Nuts

And what’s more, whatever ad overlay you develop for your deeply serious medieval fantasy strategy collectible card game MMO has to specifically promote the NutFun™ Brand Mixed Nuts resealable pouch, and you must convey the brand attributes “portable” and “snackalicious.”

This means that one of the food items you offer in your game has to be NutFun™ Brand Mixed Nuts. And it’s not enough for the players to voluntarily buy them – you have to make the offer more appealing by ensuring that the NutFun™ Brand Mixed Nuts *now in a resealable pouch, when eaten, instantly jack the player’s hitpoints up 300%. And the item has to be reusable, because the sponsor is concerned the player will forget about them once the NutFun™ Brand Mixed Nuts *now in a resealable pouch is consumed.

And just to make sure that as many players as possible buy them, the NutFun™ Brand Mixed Nuts *now in a resealable pouch appear in ye olde item shoppe for free. And to push those numbers over the edge just a leeetle bit more, you end up auto-inserting the NutFun™ Brand Mixed Nuts *now in a resealable pouch into the inventory of all active players. And you qualify “active players” as being anyone who has logged into the game at least once since launch. And the beta.

There – that takes care of exposure. Now, to convey the brand attributes “portable” and “snacktastic”. The “snackalicious” one is easy – whenever the player consumes NutFun™ Brand Mixed Nuts *now in a resealable pouch from the magically-refilling resealable pouch, the avatar shouts “SNACKALICIOUS!!” at the top of his lungs, so that the chat line is broadcast to every player within a 10-screen radius.

You argue to the client that the “portability” of NutFun™ Brand Mixed Nuts *now in a resealable pouch is obvious, since the players can take the NutFun™ Brand Mixed Nuts *now in a resealable pouch with them anywhere. But the client is not convinced, so you slap a NutFun™ Brand Mixed Nuts *now in a resealable pouch logo on the front of ye olde items shoppe and add the tagline “You can eat em anywhere!”

In your final round of revisions, you’re only asked to change two things: upsize the ye olde items shoppe logo 250%, and do something about the fact that players can’t see the NutFun™ Brand Mixed Nuts *now in a resealable pouch logo because the inventory item graphic is so small. You say that nothing can really be done about the inventory item size, because that’s just how the game works, but just to appease the client, you build a special case into your code so that whenever the player rolls over the NutFun™ Brand Mixed Nuts *now in a resealable pouch item, it enlarges to reveal the product logo at a reasonable size.

And all this work is worth it, because it will help you run your game for another month.

One question that often arises is whether or not there are enough interested players to support the coming glut of virtual worlds and MMOs. i think a better question is whether or not there are enough advertisers to support all the supposedly ad-supported projects. i hear a lot of companies bragging about this or that license, or this or that merger that will help them bring Virtual World X to market with all the splendour of Jesus riding a cloud and blowing a trumpet, but i don’t hear any of them boasting about their investment in a strong sales team. i’m talking about a kennel full of guys who all drive Jaguars and work on a high-octane blend of 100% commission and cocaine, who can sell the shit out of your virtual world. These guys bring in the dough it takes to maintain the game and grow the audience so that bigger advertisers – like Coke – come calling.

It’s not enough to have your cousin Larry pick up the phone and cold-call Duracell. You need a sales team. You need a vicious, snarling sales team that can either close the deal or rip out prospective clients’ hearts with their slavering fangs. You need this guy:

And if you think, as some virtual world owners apparently do, that you can implement some magical rule where only advertisers whose products make sense in your game are allowed to advertise, i’d kindly ask you to crawl back into your sparkle-tree in Fantasy Land, and give my regards to your marshmallow pixie pals.

i await you all on the auction floor! i could use your purple-felt pool table and a few Aeron chairs if they’re going for a reasonable price …

6 thoughts on “The Myth of Ad-Supported MMOs

  1. Pingback: » Blog Archive » The Myth of In-Game Advertising Perpetuated

  2. Pingback: Gamblog » Blog Archive » Making Money From Your Game

  3. A.J. Forester

    Great post, made me laugh a lot.
    I agree mostly, but the writer assumes that your virtual world is a half failing project that just isn’t going to make it. While this is probably true, I for one build my project and believe it will be a big thing.


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