Burger King has it their way with advergame sales


When you sell an Xbox 360 game for $3.99 -- instead of the usual 60 bucks -- you're bound to rack up quite a few sales. But Burger King has sold more than 3.2 million (and counting) copies of a trio of what are, after all, just advergames, and people are sitting up and taking notice.

Especially since video games have come under criticism lately for not delivering everything advertisers hoped they would.

A recent study by an eight-year-old, UK-based behavioral research firm charges that gamers' recall and recognition of in-game ads -- which typically appear on posters and billboards within the games -- are surprisingly low.

"Our research has shown that the in-game ads aren't as effective as they could be," says Alison Walton, a cognitive scientist who is the head of visual engagement at Bunnyfoot.

She describes her company's eye-tracking process, by which two infrared cameras follow the eye movement and pupil dilation of gamers while they're playing. By measuring "eye-gaze fixation" and by using a proprietary software tool to aggregate data across many participants, Walton says she is able to analyze and understand whether a person is engaged with a product or not.

"We've had the process -- which we call Post-Experience Eye-track Protocol, or PEEP for short -- validated through a university here in the U.K.," she says. Walton used that process to test 140 gamers on such titles as "Gran Turismo 3," "NBA Live," and "Project Gotham Racing 3."

"The bottom line is that the games received a very low Sponsor Fixation Index metric -- or SFI -- indicating a significantly poor level of engagement with consumers and exposing an apparent weakness within games to efficiently capture consumer attention. Despite following the model of real-world sports advertising, current methods are failing to influence the consumer in any significant way, which is the key driver for any marketing campaign and its validation."

Bunnyfoot's study, however, didn't consider a different sort of video game advertising -- advergames -- which are designed and created specifically for one advertiser's product, such as the three titles that Burger King had developed for the Xbox 360 platform and which it sold (and is still selling at some of its restaurants) to consumers of its Value Meals.

Burger King's ad agency likes to say that the more than 3.2 million games sold in the last three months "puts them in the top 10 sellers for all video games in 2006." And, indeed, they have outsold huge Xbox 360 hits like Epic Games' "Gears Of War" which sold 3-million-plus units since its release on Nov. 7, according to Epic vp Mark Rein.

But one industry observer noted that "there's no way to compare what sells in a fast-food restaurant chain for $3.99 along with a meal purchase to what sells in retail [for $59.99]. It goes well beyond an apples-to-oranges comparison. There's such a fundamental difference in the audience, demographics, reasons for purchasing, and so on. Besides," he adds, "Burger King's game sales total was for three different games, not one."

Regardless, 3.2 million is a lot of advergames. Which is why Philip Oliver is more than a little ecstatic. Olivier is the CEO of UK-based Blitz Games, the developer of the three Burger King games: "Sneak King," "Pocketbike Racer," and "Big Bumpin'."

The success of the trio of games was made all the more sweet for Oliver because it was his company's first venture into advergames. Previously Blitz's claim to fame was a launch title for Microsoft's Xbox called "Fuzion Frenzy," a collection of 45 mini-games.

According to Oliver, Burger King had approached Microsoft regarding an Xbox advergame, and it was Microsoft's previous relationship with Blitz that led to his company getting the BK contract.

"We had mentioned to Microsoft that we thought our small, 'Fuzion Frenzy'-style games would be very appropriate for marketing products," Oliver recalls. "And apparently Burger King agreed. But they made it very clear that the most important thing to them was to engage the target audience with high-quality fun. We were to avoid creating cheap, generic Flash games with logos plastered everywhere, which is what many advergames had been in the past."

Burger King's marketing people drew up the plan: There were to be three different games, each of a different game genre and playing style. There was much debate over how the games would be distributed -- perhaps downloadable from the Xbox Live network, perhaps boxed and sold at retailers. Finally the decision was made to sell them at a minimal price in BK restaurants, which would marry the game to the dining experience.

Subsequent discussions between the marketing team and Blitz pinpointed the specific nature of the three games: One needed to show BK's iconic king serving up burgers and fries and that became "Sneak King"; a second would take advantage of the popularity of racing games and that was "Pocketbike Racer"; and "Big Bumpin'" was a takeoff on a previous "Fuzion Frenzy" game involving bumper cars.

Talks began in the fall of 2005 and production started in February of 2006. Oliver and his team had exactly seven months to complete the three games from beginning to end.

"The Burger King people were involved every step of the way," Oliver recalls. "The first few weeks there was an awful lot of back and forth with Word documents and PowerPoints before we were actually able to start creating the assets and code. And then, every month, we delivered them builds which they reviewed and commented on. That was in addition to the weekly phone calls to discuss progress."

Deadline for completion of the game was September 2006 in preparation for the campaign's launch on November 19. Oliver began with a team of 25 which quickly grew to around 80, a fairly large development group even by retail game standards.

"There was a lot of technology that had to be developed on the fly," he explains. "It had to play live on the Internet as well as on the Xbox 360 console, and the three games are actually fairly sizable. We also had to convert them so they were backwards-compatible with the original Xbox console."

While he wouldn't reveal his budget to create the three advergames, he hinted that it came close to what it costs to build a full-size retail game.

"I'm sure Burger King believes it was worth it," says Oliver. "The success of the campaign surprised everybody. Nobody expected the games to be as rich, as engaging, as diverse as they turned out to be. And they got consumers excited about the Burger King brand, which was, of course, the intent of the exercise. We took advergaming to a whole new level -- a much bigger budget, much higher-quality games -- and I know Burger King intends to follow up with more soon. I can't tell you their exact plans because that's obviously confidential. All I can say is that I hope we'll be involved."

Whether Blitz gets that contract or not, Oliver believes there's a big future in creating games for the ad market, and he has set up a separate dedicated division -- Blitz Arcade -- to cash in on what he sees as a trend, and he's already signed on several clients.

"People have been aware of advergames for quite some time," he says, "but the Burger King campaign has certainly heightened the level of excitement and enthusiasm for using video games as an advertising medium."

Indeed, at the recent Online Media, Marketing & Advertising Conference (OMMA) in New York, a panel of ad agency execs noted that advergames are relatively cheap to produce, simple to distribute and don't require the same degree of coordination between different parties as in-game ads served while consumers are playing a game.

But not everyone in the advertising space believes advergames are more effective than in-game advertising.

Darren Herman is the co-founder of NY-based IGA Worldwide, which provides dynamic in-game ad services. He insists that he has had enough experience with both forms of advertising to provide an honest comparison.

"On the positive side, advergames let you have complete control over your brand message since you're the one making the game," he says. "But the biggest problem with advergames is in their distribution. Most companies don't have the resources of, say, a Burger King, to do that correctly. For every successful advergame -- like Burger King's -- there's a ton of failures, usually due to distribution. How do you get your game out there and who do you get it to?"

In addition, the advergame has to be part of a larger strategy. "Burger King didn't say, 'Hey, let's make a half-assed game and throw it out there and see how it does.' You saw TV commercials about it, you saw print ads, you saw ads in movie theaters, they put millions of dollars in promos behind it. The game wasn't a byproduct of their strategy, it was their strategy."

The second issue is the quality of the game. Most advergames, says Herman, come from templates that can be altered and a company's logo added.

"When your advergame is a Flash-based, rinky-dink affair, you can't expect gamers to get very excited about it," he notes. "The advantage of in-game ads is that you are piggybacking on huge titles that have great distribution, a retail presence, and big promotion budgets. If you get your ad into a popular, big-budget game like a 'Madden' or a 'NASCAR,' you don't have to worry about all the issues that surround advergames. People are going to play them over and over and over again. After all, they spent 60 bucks to buy them."

The real risk, says Herman, is that a company will create an advergame and no one will hear of it ... or want to play it.

"One in a million advergames gets the kind of publicity that the Burger King games got," he explains. "I liken the BK games to indie movies. How many of them are ever seen outside artsy theaters? The Burger King games became the 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding' of the advergame world."

Paul "The Game Master" Hyman was the editor-in-chief of CMP Media's GamePower. He's covered the games industry for over a dozen years. His columns for The Reporter run exclusively on the Web site.