The Year Ahead for ... Gaming

Dave Roberts predicts that immersive gaming will be huge, with rewards going to those with first-mover advantage.

Way back in October 2010, in his IPA Excellence Diploma Essay "Gaming Brands", Tim Jones of Bartle Bogle Hegarty looked in detail at how "play" and the more structured principles of "gaming" can provide lessons for brands and brand strategists.

As any parent of a young child will tell you, this approach of behaviour manipulation via the "gamification" of life can be very powerful. Only this morning, my sixand four-year-old girls found themselves thrown head first into a dad-induced race to get dressed and brush their teeth.

But putting aside those brands that are willing and able to radically shift their brand strategies, and focusing more on brands with an interest and eagerness in exploring the opportunity that gaming offers: what is 2011 likely to hold? This isn't an easy question to answer as the concept of "gaming" has evolved to be enormously broad. Personally, it still brings back memories of the glory days of Horace Goes Skiing and Daley Thompson's Decathlon. For my kids, it's Nintendogs on the DS.

The most established and well- recognised gaming platform remains the console, boosted most recently by technological hardware developments, in functionality.

In 2010, the movie and music industries could only look on longingly as this £60 billion-plus industry churned out launch after launch, with fans queuing around the block at midnight to part with their hard-earned £45. The demand for console games creates as much of a challenge for brands as it does an opportunity - as a successful developer, why do you need to concern yourself with potentially problematic commercial tie-ups?

However, just as with the film industry, for every blockbuster smash such as Call of Duty: Black Ops, there are hundreds of smaller successful games released by independent developers, who are more than willing to look at how they can work with brands. One of the biggest difficulties to date for less well-known developers has been finding an outlet and an audience, something that brands via their relationship with consumers and their marketing spend can bring to the table.

Something all developers will have been paying close attention to over Christmas is the runaway success of the new gestural console interfaces, Kinect and Move. Placing less emphasis on mind-blowing graphics, these systems are speeding up the development cycle and making it easier than ever to create engaging game experiences at a far lower cost. Few brands have had time to fully explore the opportunities yet, but it's a dead cert that many will in the year ahead. Especially as we fly towards London 2012 and marketers look for innovative ways to cut through the Olympic clutter.

With this increased penetration of consoles, especially Xbox and PlayStation 3, has come vastly increased traffic to their associated online destinations - Microsoft's Xbox Live and Sony's PSN and PlayStation Home virtual world. As hardware manufacturers make a loss on every console they sell, commoditising the virtual world via virtual items offers a potential goldmine thanks to the advent of simple micropayment transactions. From a brand perspective, this need not solely be about revenue generation; for the right audience we could see loyalty initiatives rewarding consumers with virtual benefits - free rooms for your PlayStation Home apartment, a personalised cinema streaming your favourite films; the opportunities are endless.

However well-established the world of console gaming has become, last year the buzz was about an altogether different trend, social gaming. There can't be anyone reading this who didn't at some point find their Facebook news feed inundated by the latest antics of friends addicted to the likes of Farmville or Mafia Wars, something capitalised upon by Electronic Arts with its $300 million purchase of the developer PlayFish in 2009.

But why is it so important and why has it created such buzz among marketers? For me, social gaming comes into its own on quite a pragmatic level - simple Flash or HTML5 programming, easy access to the Facebook API, a whole new gaming demographic and the associated (theoretical) ease of tapping into the mystical "social graph" makes it an attractive and relatively low-cost engagement solution.

The big watch-outs for the coming year will include the potential risk of oversupply and user-fatigue. Firstmover advantage will be as important as it was with apps; after all, if Carling's iPint were launched now, would it really have achieved the same level of success? In much the same way that the words "you need a branded app" have carried us through the past two years, the agency mandate that "you have to have a social game" is likely to become a core constituent of this year's brand planning process.

The early social games have been simple but player expectations will grow as technology evolves. Any brand wishing to score a social smash should expect to integrate far more ambitious content, increase cross-platform functionality and include more options for personalisation.

So what will be the "new social gaming" in 2011?

"Immersive" gaming, where real and virtual worlds collide, is already showing signs of breaking into the mainstream consciousness. Bubbling under the surface for a number of years, events such as New York's Come Out & Play and London's Hide & Seek Festival demonstrate how much fun can be had when you gather likeminded people with a playful purpose. 2010 saw the likes of Reebok make a break for a more populist positioning with its alternate reality game Lewis Hamilton: Secret Life. Delivered in nine languages, over nine months, this placed as much emphasis on street-level interaction as on the digital world.

Closely linked to ARGs and immersive gaming, there's no escaping the explosion we're going to see in mobile over the next 12 months. Increased smartphone (and tablet) penetration, improved location-based technologies and consumers who have a better understanding of the opportunities they offer mean we'll see a new dimension added to the concept of mobile games - where check-ins and geo-tags translate into actual prizes.

But, of course, central to the success of any game on any platform will be the quality of the idea and execution. Finding a collaborative way to work with those who have cut their teeth in structuring quality compelling gameplay is going to be paramount for clients and agencies keen to tap into the opportunity that's on offer. In other words, kick off your new year by making some new, specialist gaming friends - they'll be useful people to know.

Dave Roberts is the head of entertainment at M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment.