It’s a sunny day in London, but a high-stakes battle has broken out between mystical forces after a cataclysmic event. If you know where to look, there is hidden treasure to be found, but there are also ghoulish creatures that will require magic to overcome.
No, that’s not the script for a summer blockbuster but the premise for Harry Potter: Wizards United, a new smartphone game by Niantic, the developer behind 2016’s wildly popular Pokémon Go. Released in June, Wizards Unite inserts JK Rowling’s popular characters in a mystery adventure in which players can join forces to battle common enemies as well as collect virtual items from real-world locations.
The game hasn’t exploded on the scene like Pokémon Go did, but it could turn out to be among the most important among an array of big gaming moves in 2019. Google and Apple are entering the space with Stadia and Apple Arcade respectively, while the popularity of mobile gaming and esports is continuing to soar – so much so that in July a 16-year-old beat 40 million players to the Fortnite World Cup and $3m (£2.42m) in prize money.
So why, then, do developers and advertisers warn us that video games remain an untapped market? The video-games sector now accounts for more than half of the entertainment market in the UK, according to Entertainment Retailers Association figures for 2018. This is double the value in 2007 and, for the first time, means gaming now constitutes a larger market than film and music combined.
David Jones, founder of You & Mr Jones, was an early investor in Niantic. He points to the vast improvement in quality in Wizards Unite, and suggests the game is likely to have greater longevity, despite it lacking the same meteoric rise in users that Pokémon Go had.
"Wizards Unite has been worked on for a long time. It was never going to have the surprise effect that Pokémon Go had, because Pokémon Go was the first time anyone saw tech like that," he says. "Pokémon Go was incredibly easy for anyone to pick up and play, from my three-year-old to my mother. But there’s an enormous amount of depth to Wizards Unite and you’re much likelier to see higher engagement levels around it."
He adds: "You will maybe see Wizards Unite have a lower number [of users] but people will keep it a lot longer."
EE, through its digital agency Publicis.Poke, has already secured some exclusive content for the game in the UK as part of the mobile network’s 5G marketing push. The deal is likely to be worth more than £1m.
Warren Lewis, creative director at Publicis.Poke, played a key role in getting EE and the developer together, which took 18 months of negotiations to bring the deal to fruition. But EE is betting it will be worth it. Wizards Unite will not simply mirror Pokémon Go, for which players had to travel around cities to collect virtual items from real-world locations. Instead, it is hoped EE’s faster 5G mobile internet will enable potentially hundreds of Wizards Unite players to meet regularly to battle each other or coalesce against a common enemy.
Moreover, because Niantic owns the real-world map that games such as Wizards Unite and Pokémon Go are played on, Lewis predicts a massive potential for brands to become a part of the game’s fabric directly.
"You could go to Niantic and say: ‘We want to create a real-world map for brands that allows them to have digital hoardings or create branded games within the game’," Lewis says.
Yet he goes on to admit that this is unlikely to become a common request. "For brands to get involved in these niche games, there needs to be a serious commitment and ambition from decisionmakers up top because there is no simple, cheap way to get involved," he explains.
"But if companies are looking to do AR-based activations on a smaller scale that don’t require any major upfront investment or build, companies like Snapchat are offering simple, easy-to-adopt AR activations, such as Snapchat Lenses for buildings. An example would be McDonald’s paying Snapchat to recognise any McDonald’s storefront and launch a custom lens that animates content on to its storefront and windows when looked at through Snapchat."
For Dave Ranyard, founder of three-year-old VR gaming start-up Dream Reality Interactive, the chasm between the worlds of marketing and video games is a function of culture. "Games were seen as the awkward second cousin of film and TV – no-one wanted to admit they existed," Ranyard says. "Then games made loads of money but they still hadn’t ‘arrived’. It’s like we’re the Beverly Hillbillies: all money and no class."
Ranyard is a gaming entrepreneur, having run Sony’s London studio for 17 years and pioneered AI research while undertaking his PhD. Through Dream Reality Interactive (in which Mother has a stake), he evangelises about how virtual reality will transform the gaming sector as an entertainment medium. He points to the seminal scene in Lloyd’s 1923 silent film Safety Last! as a powerful example of how filmmaking can connect us with characters even without dialogue. And yet the visceral nature of VR takes human emotion to a different level by virtue of making us believe we are in the movie ourselves.
"You have to fall in love with Harold Lloyd, whether he falls off the clock or not," Ranyard says. "But if you’re the one who is hanging on for dear life, well, then your inner sense of self-preservation kicks in."
Meanwhile, Dream Reality has recently picked up a D&AD wood Pencil for Sky VR’s Hold the World, which features Sir David Attenborough as a tour guide of the secret rooms inside a virtual version of London’s Natural History Museum.
In spite of all of this, Ranyard’s annoyance at the broader state of affairs is clear. "I just heard something this weekend on the radio. They were asking: ‘Should video games be considered art?’ I mean, of course they should," he says. "It’s still mildly frustrating that games are not reported in The Sunday Times’ ‘Culture’ section, for example. Even though the games industry makes double what Hollywood does."
This lack of recognition is, in Ranyard’s view, the driver behind video games still not being seen as a legitimate marketing medium. He struggles to think of examples of brands that are doing a good job of collaborating with video-game titles in their marketing, with the exceptions of "some product placement here and there".
The term "gaming", meanwhile, has expanded into a spectrum of what is loftily described as "interactive entertainment". The ubiquity of smartphones means games are regularly played by commuters and second-screeners, while leaps in technological advancement are quickly making VR and AR a real option for gamers.
However, marketers are still not taking to video games, primarily because they are still seen as a "guilty secret" in society, according to Uncommon Creative Studio founder Nils Leonard.
"It kills me," Leonard says with clear frustration. "You look at the level of technique, of craft, of beauty, of art that now goes into these games. This eclipses anything [the ad industry] is doing. I watch case studies for Cannes every year for innovation, and there’s a bus with some holographic windows or something. And then you get to those games and they’re incredible: they’re super-immersive, they can be physical and digital – that’s genuine innovation. And they just do this stuff in their sleep."
Leonard cites sportswear brands and the Fifa football-game franchise as being the most effective examples of in-game product placement, but admits they generally set a pretty low creative bar. He was more excited by Kevin Spacey’s 2014 cameo in Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, in which the actor reprised his role as President Frank Underwood from the Netflix political drama House of Cards.
"I always thought that [the Spacey cameo] was absolutely fucking genius," Leonard says. "I mean, it was the merging of two completely fictional worlds to make something really, really powerful happen."
Why aren’t brands featuring their long-running brand campaigns within the pop culture of a video game, Leonard asks. Although he has not worked on gaming to date, Leonard insists it is high on his agenda at Uncommon, promising that there are "some interesting irons in the fire".
Adam & Eve/DDB, which recently won PlayStation’s global ad account, demonstrated how the real and virtual worlds of football can be blended in novel ways to market the game itself. In 2017, for EA Sports’ Fifa 2018, it worked with star player Cristiano Ronaldo to create a new skill – "El Tornado" – which was unveiled within the game itself. The brand also encouraged people to try the move out in real life on the football pitch.
The key lesson from that campaign, Adam & Eve/ DDB’s joint chief executive Mat Goff recalls, is that the advertising was "the last thing to drop in a long tail of comms". Usually, the opposite is true – the ad launches the overall marketing activity – but because gamers are so knowledgeable about the game’s content and brand, social media and word of mouth play a much greater role.
"People take it really seriously. Fifa has had game designers getting death threats," Goff explains. "You’ve got to be authentic to the experience that players are trying to have. That game belongs to them, it’s their special time. It’s not an opportunity to disrupt with advertising but enhance that time."
However, such a collaboration requires initiative and communication between brands and games developers and, in the main, this simply does not happen.
Tanya Laird, founder and chief executive of immersive gaming company Digital Jam, explains that developers are focused on creating great games and are not interested in marketing or advertising. That is, until it becomes clear that the game is no longer selling and "suddenly Angry Birds wants to make a movie".
Laird adds: "Anyone who goes into the games industry on the commercial side gets in there by accident." This pretty well sums up how Laird herself got into the industry eight years ago when she joined UK game developer Jagex as a marketer.
"The way the games industry tends to work is you start with a couple of developers in a bedroom who come up with a great game concept but have to bring people from outside to bolt on commercial things," Laird says. "That’s why working with brands is usually an afterthought."
In his role as chief strategy officer at Bartle Bogle Hegarty, Ben Shaw has been quick to recognise games companies’ lack of brand-friendliness.
"They haven’t got enough people in their organisation yet to understand how to sell to creative agencies," he says.
"They can with media agencies, though – games have things you can activate. With Fifa, for instance, there are advertising hoardings that can be replicated online. Or freemium mobile games have a mobile banner – that’s easy to put in. But we’re crying out for more creative opportunities."
According to Jakub Jakubowski, a creative technologist at gaming production studio Unit9, however, this is precisely why gaming has been so successful. "Games are made for the sake of being games. They are not marketing tools. The game should be the priority and that isn’t a bad thing," he contends.
Jakubowski is in charge of designing and developing games such as Storm VR, one of the first VR survival games, as well as titles for brands that are interactive ads, such as Adidas’ football kick-ups challenge in Snapchat or the Crackables mobile puzzle game for OnePlus. "When you’re targeting a specific audience, you most likely have an idea of what games are being played by those people," Jakubowski says. "The best example would be the enormous success of Fortnite – it’s a great pipeline to push marketing content to young people. That’s what Marvel’s Avengers did by introducing a Thanos cameo into the Fortnite gameplay. The key is to help players experience marketing content without it being intrusive."
But it seems that advertisers face a conundrum: because in-game advertising is not yet mainstream, there are no standard formats. And because there are no standard formats, gaming as a medium is prohibitive for advertisers compared with the tried-and-tested formats of TV, outdoor and so on.
Louise Gaynor, chief operating officer of Target Media (part of Havas Group Media), says that in-game advertising has always had its limitations due to game development and localisation. "There is no platform to deliver advertising on a global scale with localised advertising for each market," she adds. "Games take over four years to make, so the advertising opportunities have to be agreed on and built at the design stage, years in advance. This is especially true for static advertising. Partnership deals are more successful – Tomb Raider and Lucozade, for example."
Laird, meanwhile, advises brands to focus on "behavioural outcomes" when working with games companies. "Too often a brand will have a shopping list of things they want, like ‘shift X units’ or ‘get Y engagements’. But this requires thinking about the brand’s long-term relationship with a gaming audience. A good game becomes part of the living, breathing world of the player. A shallow approach doesn’t work," she says.
Global gaming giant Activision Blizzard is, like Ranyard’s Dream Reality Interactive, trying to offer more than "bolted-on" solutions for brands, having launched a media division that appeals directly to advertisers to get involved.
Greg Carroll, Activision Blizzard Media’s media director, started the enterprise about a year ago, having joined from subsidiary King (maker of the supremely popular Candy Crush Saga mobile game) in 2016. He grandly claims: "We’re a gaming company that wants to build the marketing platform, not the other way around."
In his view, people are "starting to understand that gaming is an entertainment platform, like books or TV". "There are myths that have to be busted," Carroll adds. "When we talk about gamers, they are not young lads in basements any more – 40% of all console players are female and the split between mobile and casual gaming is closer to 50:50."
So why, then, do agencies rarely discuss video games as an ad medium? "As an industry we are still only just starting to explore gaming culture, and it can feel unapproachable," Gracie Page, innovation lead at VMLY&R, says. "The best gaming ideas arise from thinking differently, so a commitment to diverse hiring, coupled with putting in the leg work to forge relationships with gaming companies, will set us up for success."
Carroll insists that Activision Blizzard Media is trying to work more closely with brands on being more "engaging" as a format.
"We started with traditional media – vertical versus horizontal video – and our creative studios are working with brands to make the creative more engaging," he says. "If they can give us a horizontal video, we can create different assets to drive to a website or get people to do different things. This could also mean integrating some brands into the game themselves. This has to be done very carefully, we want to do it in a sensitive way that is targeted and aids the gaming experience."
Mobile gaming, which can be bought programmatically, causes a degree of "brand trepidation" because of the high-profile brand-safety issues that have dogged programmatic on social media and digital display in recent years, Carroll admits. However, his advice for brands is to make sure that they "don’t forget [to do] the grunt work" before getting their creative agency talking to games developers. "People forget about all the work that goes into research partners, verification partners," he warns. "You need to make sure the game is going to do what you need it to do in terms of brand awareness and uplift."
Brands could also invest in creating their own games. Ranyard says this has become simple now that off-the-shelf solutions exist. "You used to have to write your own game engine but [off-the-shelf solutions] Unity and Unreal are ubiquitous – now you can do it on an iPhone," he says. "If you do that, there is more support to focus on the creative."
But Jones is sceptical that brands will be able to create their own games in any kind of meaningful way that will resonate with consumers, with the exception of brands such as Adidas, which have a "huge reputation and image" that sets them apart.
"Developing brilliant games is really expensive and takes a long time. It’s not like a six-second video," Jones says. "It’s more likely you’ll see clueless agencies leading clients down a bad path. It’s much better to integrate and plug in to someone who’s already doing it well."
This suggests a future where brands become more game-focused rather than games becoming more brand-focused. Which would mean the Beverley Hillbillies really had been accepted.