For those not in the know, in-game advertising can often seem like an obscure little cul-de-sac in a far-off corner of the virtual universe - more of an in-joke than a true advertising opportunity.
When you first see them, you tend to think that the perimeter stadium ads on, say, a football game are there for a touch of authenticity rather than a serious marketing proposition.
You'd be wrong, of course. Against certain demographic groups, console games account for a huge chunk of leisure attention span - that's well known. What's less well known is that an increasing number of serious advertisers see this as an important advertising environment.
Car manufacturers vie with each other to have their marques tested to destruction in virtual races and chases. That's the most obvious example, but it's not just about cars - it's everything from fast food and drinks to mobile phones. Product placement in video games is becoming a big business.
And now the research company Nielsen Media Research is teaming up with the games publisher Activision to begin the first piece of comprehensive games-audience research. It will be conducted in the US, where Nielsen runs the main television audience measurement panel - and, indeed, a feature of the research is that it will be able to make direct comparisons between TV watching and games playing behaviour in the young male audience.
The growing sophistication of the games business is a driver for this sort of interest from Nielsen, as it demands creative involvement of the advertiser at the basic planning stage of a game. The aim is to embed the brand in such a way as to deliver a fundamental emotional engagement.
To date, the sales pitch of the gaming software companies has been powerful but broad brush. So far, no-one has produced much in the way of research into detailed audience behaviour. The Nielsen/Activison tie-up may change this.
Bobby Kotick, Activision's chief executive, comments: "The video games industry is one of the fastest-growing entertainment businesses today and video games will soon be as mainstream an advertising medium as TV. Given the tremendous popularity of the medium, we wanted to take a leadership position in generating a standardised method to measure advertising metrics in video games."
As mainstream as television? Is he serious? According to forecasts from Forrester Research, the worldwide in-game advertising market could be worth more than $700 million by 2005. Not in television's league as a medium, but not exactly to be sniffed at either.
Maryam Bazargan, the managing partner of the UK games communication specialist, Symbiosis Media, points out that it's still early days yet. Most in the industry say the most important deal to date was the one that Electronic Arts signed with Intel and McDonald's two years ago for The Sims game.
But it's almost impossible to get a true fix on the market's development since then because lead times are so long. It will take two years, for instance, to see on-screen evidence of a deal signed today. So if the market goes bananas tomorrow, we won't really get a fix on that for a while.
Bazargan says that where growth is concerned, it helps that the business is becoming more structured. She explains: "In the past, the publisher might have done some deals because someone just happened to know someone at an advertising agency. Now it's more systematic - and that in itself will help to stimulate the market, not least because advertisers need an early 'heads up' about what possible opportunities are coming along so they can integrate product placement ideas at an early enough stage to make a difference."
She adds: "We're now seeing a more proactive approach from the publishing community - it is starting to become more of a routine consideration within the development process. Now brands really need metrics to measure what they are buying."
The most common currency at the moment is a raw circulation figure derived from an estimate of the number of units likely to be shifted.
But the market desperately needs an "exposure" metric based on the number of times that viewers see the brand, plus recall and brand-awareness numbers.
That's where Nielsen, hopefully, will come in.
There are one or two possible wrinkles here, though. By common consent, this is a global business. It has grown up that way and there are, of course, sound economic reasons why that should remain the case. Tweaking the product for local sensibilities starts to hurt the bottom line.
And yet it is in the advertising field that local sensibilities (and laws) can be at their strongest. The Swedes, for instance, have tough restrictions on advertising aimed at children. Would they ban a game that contained brand placements from McDonald's? So far, this proposition hasn't been tested, but someone is bound to get round to telling them. And there are, of course, a hundred possible permutations of the Swedish scenario across the globe.
That's not yet a problem for the likes of Symbiosis Media. It is doing rather nicely, thank you very much. Surely, though, the UK is ultimately a bit of a sideshow as far as this market is concerned. The major games publishers are, by and large, US-based, as are the multinational advertisers that are likely to be their global advertising partners. The Nielsen research is also US based.
The UK is hardly going to be a hub, is it? Don't bet against it, Bazargan says. "It's true that a lot of the people involved come from the Hollywood camp or have experience of product placement in the television business. But let us also remember the games development business is an international phenomenon and the UK is well represented in that," she says.
GAMERS AND ADVERTISING
- Three-quarters of homes with a male aged eight to 34 own a video games
- One-quarter of gamers recall ads from the last game they played
- One-third of gamers say in-game ads help them decide what products to
- TV viewing among 18- to 34-year-old gamers is lower than among that
age range in general
Source: Activision/Nielsen Media Research.