Last week, the Internet Advertising Bureau launched a Game Steering Group to promote advertising in and around computer games. Hardly necessary, you might think. According to the IAG Worldwide showreel, the global in-game advertising market is expected to be worth $2 billion in 2012.
Except that it might not be. Not as such. According to Massive, the in-game specialist owned by Microsoft, quoting research undertaken by Screen Digest, the market will be worth nearer to $1 billion by 2014.
But then the closer you get to this market, the more you suspect that it's having problems achieving the full firmness it would like. Back in 2006, for instance, Microsoft was confidently predicting that it would surpass $1 billion by 2010. It clearly hasn't. And, what's more, the lack of reliable revenue numbers in this sector is yet another measure of its immaturity.
It's easy to see why the industry is hopelessly optimistic, however - the sales of games for PCs and consoles passed the $10 billion per year mark many years ago, and that's since been supplemented by the online gaming market and games on emerging platforms, not least mobile, especially the iPhone. This is an entertainment sector that's clearly, as the famous comparison has it, "bigger than Hollywood".
And, though reliable audience figures are, like ad revenue numbers, hard to come by, it's indisputably true that for some sectors of the population, games account for a huge chunk of leisure activity. For many people, it's their primary media choice - ahead of television and the internet. And that's before you consider the fact that game-playing is a growing form of shared activity on social networking sites.
This sector, in short, commands an awesome share of mind. And there are those who argue that computer games represent, at their best, the most compelling entertainment content ever produced - and thus the most powerful advertising medium ever invented.
It clearly should be a $1 billion global medium. And hopefully, the Game Steering Group will lead it in that direction, dovetailing as it does with a similar initiative in the US. It also furthers the work of the IAB's UK Game Advertising Council, which was established in June 2009.
1. The new group will bring together the interests of the core IAB membership - online publishers and site owners on the one hand and digital advertising agencies on the other - and the commercial divisions of the major games developers, including Electronic Arts, Microsoft and Sony Computer Entertainment Europe, alongside in-game specialists such as IGA Worldwide and Double Fusion.
2. The group's collective remit will "support the breadth of formats represented within the industry, including advertising within console games; online games, such as those in social networks and advergames; and games publications (for example, advertising to games audiences on relevant websites)".
It acknowledges that there remains a substantial lack of knowledge and understanding in the UK of the true volume and effectiveness of advertising within games, "even though it's been on the marketing agenda for some years".
The main aim of the group will be to fill in these gaps, principally by instigating research into audience sizes, attitudes and behaviour patterns. It will also gauge current levels of adspend, undertake advertising effectiveness studies and begin an "education programme" aimed at advertisers and agencies.
3. Leading specialists in the field include IGA Worldwide, which claims to be the leading dynamic in-game advertising network, representing a broad spectrum of PC and console games, not least those on PlayStation 3. Reports suggest that it is up for sale. Microsoft's in-game advertising subsidiary is Massive Inc, which works with 40 game publisher partners and claims to have placed in-game advertising campaigns for "100 blue-chip advertisers". Microsoft denied speculation last year that it was attempting to sell the division. Double Fusion is an independently backed company - it announced that it had successfully attracted new investors in March.
4. The best-known in-game advertising opportunities include virtual billboards in virtual cityscapes and virtual perimeter advertising opportunities in virtual stadiums - and, in fact, sports games generally have the most potential. There's not much advertising in games at the more violent shoot-'em-up end of the spectrum.
WHAT IT MEANS FOR ...
- This is a sector that has, to date, sold itself largely on patchy, out-of-date or even anecdotal research evidence.
- If the electronic games industry is at all serious about growing its ad revenues, it's absolutely essential that it begins to supply reliable audience data.
- Happily, research is at the top of the Game Steering Group's agenda. It will be interesting, when push comes to shove, to see who's actually prepared to make the real leap of faith - putting up the cash to pay for it.
- Many advertisers have, in the past, expressed frustration with the games developers - who, they say, pay lip service to their concerns.
All too often, games developers see advertisers as an easy source of extra funding for games that are already on the verge of existence.
- Some advertisers would like more of a creative input. As Mark Eaves, the managing director of Drum PHD, puts it: "Our view is that if you're using this wonderful interactive opportunity as a means to deliver a flat advertising message, then you are missing the point.
"Sometimes in-game advertising gets positioned somewhere between outdoor and digital - agencies seek to take their existing poster campaigns and place them by virtual roadsides in games. The question is how they can lead your comms strategy - and that can be achieved by brands working at an upstream level with games developers.
"The games industry and the media and advertising industries have much they can teach each other - and if this IAB initiative helps that process, then it has to be welcomed."