An exploration of advertising in mobile games
There are a lot of mobile games on my phone, an almost infinite amount of genres ready to launch whenever a mood or moment urges me toward the game zone. This indulgent affair has gone on for years and is only growing more prevalent and profitable for developers. I now ask myself, where is my power in this relationship?
If you don’t count the now defunct Miitomo, gaming giant Nintendo’s first major entry into the mobile game market was Super Mario Run” On its release in late 2016, social media platforms were flooded with rage—fans balked at the $9.99 purchase price. What these consumers expected was another free-to-play (F2P) style game, the likes of which had saturated the market—games that have zero cost to entry, but gate content behind timers or microtransactions. Lo and behold, future Nintendo Mobile releases like Fire Emblem: Heroes and Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp were released under F2P models.
The concept of F2P is not new. Since the 1970’s, critics have been scrutinizing television broadcasters for utilizing their viewers to sell commercial space. What F2P games bring to the equation is choice—I, the “gamer” am prompted to launch the ads myself.
In my experience with them, F2P games could rarely trick me into spending my cold hard cash on microtransactions—but I’ll sure as hell tune out for a 30 second ad for the same benefits.
Countdown clocks? Watch an ad and it’s skipped.
Collectables earned? Doubled.
Short on energy? Refilled.
These simple victories that trigger our brain’s sweet sweet reward juice become linked to that beguiling “watch ad” button.
If “player choice” to launch ads was not innovative enough, a new level of marketing sorcery has been mixed into the equation: interactivity within the ad.
Why show a commercial when you can insert a game demo? A minigame created with all the powers of an advertisement—standard manipulative marketing gimmicks and the dopamine rush of defeating the final boss. We happy players no longer pause a game to watch an ad, we are taking a break to play another game—which feels as familiar as switching between apps.
Month to month a mobile game’s marketing strategy will shift, to the extent that the gameplay on display will do genre somersaults. I’ve become obsessed with imagining what these games are actually like when played. Is it a time management game serving burgers or solving puzzles with sexy ketchup dances? Both? The ad wizard clearly wants me curious, as long as it gets them those clicks.
Something horrifying has started to occur—I have been seeing multiple ad campaigns for games I already play. Commercials are inventing gameplay familiar but subtly skewed. I don’t remember a versus mode to this racing game. There’s no gachapon element to my dragon farm. Or is there? I have began questioning my own memories. Am I loading an ad or just switching to the game already installed on my phone?
My mobile gaming experience has become an advertisement oroborus. The lines between ads and game are blurred to the point of delightful absurdity, and I cannot be the only human slowly drifting into a Lovecraftian mobile experience. What exciting future of chaos and rewards await as we continue to click “Watch Ad”?