The Dilemma of Advertising


One of the major decisions every mobile game maker faces is whether or not to include advertising as part of the gameplay experience.


I remember back in the early days of mobile development, as we transitioned from feature phones to smart phones, in-game advertising started to emerge. Apple’s i-Ad system enticed us with the promise of a new source of revenue, quickly followed by a raft of other advertising plug-ins that allowed us to easily place adverts anywhere, anytime, in the game. And with the growth of free gaming, advertising revenue was seen as the natural alternative to charging upfront for your game.


But it also created serious friction in the game teams between those responsible for ‘surprising and delighting’ players - the creative designers, artists and coders tasked with getting 5-Star reviews - and the folks responsible for the business performance of the game, without which the game ceased to be. Adverts were seen by many as an enemy of Quality. They stole screen real-estate from what were already small displays leaving less room for the game to communicate with the player. They interrupted the flow of the game, breaking the fantasy that the game had worked so hard to create. They jarred with the particular graphic style and aesthetic of the game. And to some they polluted an art-form with blatant and unnecessary commercialisation.


In an attempt to compromise, the concept of the ‘Helpful Waiter’ was evangelised by producers, trying to placate the concerns of their teams and help inform a responsible way of adding advertising into the mix. The idea was to serve adverts at appropriate moments in the game, when the player was most ‘ready for them’ - in the same way that a helpful waiter will recognise your needs during a meal and offer you a second bottle of wine. or the dessert menu, at the time you are most ready for it - not rushing you / pressuring you - but helping you.


Nowadays in-game advertising has become ubiquitous in mobile games, with certain genres using them more than others, and clearly the gaming pubic is largely accepting of them.


So when I first approached the design of Smart Numbers my expectation was to use advertising as part of the business model, knowing that historically ad-revenue could be as much as 30% of the total revenues from a freemium title. The Beta-version featured full-page adverts that appeared after completing a level (known as ‘interstitials’). I designed them to begin appearing after level 10 (once the player was already past their initial ‘is-this-a-game-for me’ decision), and thereafter with increasing frequency as the player progressed. I added the option to pay for the adverts to be removed. And watching a video-ad for 30 seconds would turn off the interstitials for the next 30 minutes. I didn’t use banner ads (strips at the top or bottom of the screen) because I loved the clean look of the game board and didn’t want to spoil it.


Beta feedback on the ads was interesting. A small vocal minority said they didn’t play games with ads, period. A larger number accepted them in principal but complained about their frequency. And on a personal note, as I played the game from level 1 all the way to 150, I really HATED my ads!!!! They just created a frustration as I had to wait 10-15 seconds before continuing to the next level. I have also become less tolerant of the deplorable practice of making ads ‘easy to click by accident’, such as hard-to-see ‘cancel’ buttons, ads that pose as demo’s or surveys, and banner ads close to frequently clicked parts of the screen.


So after a lot of deliberation, I decided back in April to abandon the interstitial ads. In order of importance, these were my reasons:


My vision for the game, fundamentally, was to make the most entertaining experience I possibly could, without pressures of corporate expectation. A game that I personally would enjoy playing and could be proud of as a legacy. Adverts just don’t sit well with this vision.


The largest hurdle I face is acquiring players. I will have to rely on virality and word-of-mouth. Having no ads maximises the number of people willing to play.


The ‘premium’ games in my genre don’t have ads. Candy Crush, Two Dots, and all the match-3 titles from King, avoid having ads. It is like a badge of quality. (Interestingly I have recently read that King is now speculating on adding adverts to their games - I guess since being acquired by Activision and with such a saturated user-base the pressure they have to show continued growth must be huge)


I don’t have large overheads, I am a one-man band and simply don’t need that ‘extra 30% advertising revenue’. (Assuming the game does OK!!)



There is one development in the world of advertising, the ‘rewarded video’, which is truly a win-win between game make and player. Offering the player the opportunity to gain something of value, in return for watching a 30 second video-ad, is a simple and elegant mechanism, which I do intend to use in Smart Numbers. It has the highest click-through rate of all types in in-game ad, not least because the player has said they are OK and ready to watch it. And I also think the quality of video ads has been improving dramatically - many of them are actually quite fun to watch!


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© 2016 Christopher Gibbs