Gaming in 2021 Download report

No recent success story better justifies in-game advertising (IGA) than Fall Guys, the free-to-play hit so successful, it prompted developers Mediatonic to launch a charitable fundraiser for brands hoping to feature in-game.

With companies racing to stand out in an increasingly competitive digital environment, brands should consider the opportunity of IGA, and the expectations from the gaming community.

Using data from our core survey and custom research fielded in the UK and U.S. in July, we answer the following questions:

  • How do gaming audiences respond to ads in general? 
  • How do mobile gamers feel about in-game ads?
  • How can branded video games offer an alternate means of reaching gaming audiences?

There’s a need to diversify in-game ads.

When we redefined gamers, we noted that 87% of global internet users play games via any device. 

In an audience this broad, it’s important to focus on why they play gamesnot everyone will have the same reasons for doing so. 

To better show how diverse gamers are, we’ve used data from our core survey to compare attitudes toward ads, based on gaming activities users performed in the last month.

Gamer attitudes to ads

No matter what activity they’re performing, gamers are more likely to respond to advertising than avoid it. 

Creators (those who broadcast or share their content online) are the most ad-receptive, with 39% saying they tend to buy brands they see advertised. 

Being at the epicenter of social-gaming content, creators are more likely to see ads, explaining their greater receptiveness to them – and their likelihood of trying to avoid them.

They share similarities with viewers (those who watch esports or gaming livestreams) of whom 37% buy from advertised brands and 22% say they try to avoid them.

But for players (those who play free or digital games), or subscribers (who purchase games, content or subscription services), their attitudes reflect that the gaming experience is more important.

For these audiences, ads prove both less impactful and concerning – particularly for players, who are the least likely to buy from advertised brands (32%) and avoid adverts altogether (20%).

In the last month, 52% of gamers on any device used an ad-blocker. But a closer look at gaming audiences who do this reveals ad-blocking is likely for more practical reasons than we might perceive.

For example, 1 in 4 creators and viewers use ad-blockers to prevent using up their data – putting them around 20% above the average ad-blocker in saying this. Similarly, subscribers are 15% more likely to cite a drain on battery life as a motivator for ad-blocking (23% say this).

Players, however, are primarily game-oriented meaning ads that hinder this experience are less welcome – they’re 10% more likely to use an ad-blocker to prevent ads taking up too much screen space (41% say this).

Gamers are willing to accept ads if they can seamlessly blend with the activity, but there’s an important balance to be aware of here, with careless brands risking easily avoidable criticism.

Though ads are a concern, they fall behind other priorities.

For in-game ads to reach their full potential, we need to look at smartphones. Considering their prominent day-to-day use in consumer’s lives, smartphones are a key vehicle for dynamic advertising, where quick, reactionary ad-strategies work best.

The Biden campaign is a perfect example of this, offering Animal Crossing players access to optional in-game items to decorate their homes ahead of the U.S. election.

As gaming devices, smartphones are immensely popular – 74% of all internet users have played games on one in the last month – up five percentage points since Q4 2019.

In support of this, our custom research from July in the UK and U.S. reveals 55% of users played mobile games during lockdown, compared to 36% on PC/laptops and consoles. 

Of these users, 42% say the most important aspect of mobile gaming is that games have as few ads as possible.

Important features of mobile gaming

This isn’t their number one priority, however, 63% say the cost of a game is an important factor, meaning those playing mobile games are willing to accept ads as a trade-off for the free experience.

We see a considerable difference across different generations. Just 38% of baby boomers in this audience say mobile games should have as few ads as possible, but they’re also the most cost-oriented (75% say the game should be free to download). 

While older audiences generally make for less likely gamers – 65% of all baby boomers play games compared to 87% of internet users – 1 in 5 played more games during lockdown, meaning they’re a growing gaming demographic that shouldn’t be ignored.

Ads are a greater concern for Gen Z and millennial mobile gamers (41% say this), yet they’re less likely than average to say games should be free to download (58%).

92% of all Gen Z and millennials play games, which makes it vital for brands to prioritize their gaming needs to secure the best return.

When segmented by gaming motivation, however, priorities change, and this is best observed among our casual and habitual gaming audiences – those who play to pass the time or out of habit respectively.

Both of these audiences prioritize cost over the ad experience in their mobile games. This price-centric mindset is most apparent among casual gamers, of whom 71% say the game being free to download is most important.

While this falls to 63% among habitual gamers, this is a more committed audience who are generally less fazed by the prospect of paying for a game.

A key opportunity for brands here is the greater susceptibility from this audience to be swayed by in-game mobile purchases (47% say this).

Among in-game purchases, almost half say they make purchases that unlock custom skins for their character – a practice that’s providing exposure for brands such as Virgin Media, who offer their consumers exclusive content in Marvel’s Avengers.

Brands keen to add to the in-game experience have taken on other forms too, mainly in branded content and events, giving players fun experiences and building brands’ follower counts on gaming sites like Twitch.

But with ads or promotions available at the developer’s discretion, however, brands should take note of other means of tapping into the IGA opportunity.

In branded games, ads are less of an intrusion.

Gaming is a highly tribal activity. Brands need to show gamers they reciprocate their attitudes and lifestyles – but finding them amid a sea of franchises, genres and devices can prove a challenge.

Take Clash of Clans as an example, a game which attracts an average of over 750,000 players at any given time and 14% of users gaming on any device in the last month.

Cosmetic brands’ advertising here have considerable reach – 18% of all gamers who purchased a cosmetic product in the last month play this title – but investment in Estée Lauder’s game means these same brands are targeting gamers with more precision.

Motivations for playing branded video games

A key advantage of branded games is they don’t deter unfamiliar audiences. Just 13% of UK and U.S. mobile-gamers who say having already purchased something from a brand would motivate them to play a game that was produced by that same brand.  

Because players expect ads here, ad-presence is significantly less of a concern – 38% of users say they would play a branded game if there weren’t too many ads. 

This falls far behind the requirement of them being fun (51%) or free (66%) and four percentage points behind their preference for having less ads in a standard mobile game.

But just because ads are a lesser concern in branded games, fun shouldn’t take a back seat – a lesson best learned from Amazon’s Crucible franchise. 

This is also important to habitual and casual audiences. Less than half say they would play a branded game if there weren’t too many ads, while cost and fun rank higher as their main priorities.

The major difference between the two is that casual audiences prioritize cost (with 74% saying the game should be free), while habitual gamers still prefer a variety of other features – most of them socially-oriented.

Seeing as casual gamers are less concerned about the game being fun (57%), brands should prioritize fun and additional experiences to committed audiences instead of those looking for a quick gaming fix.

In-game advertising is an art.

The key takeaway here is balance. Because audiences are willing to accept the symbiotic relationship between ads and gaming, one can’t – and shouldn’t – take priority over the other.

To succeed with in-game ads, brands need to remember the following:

  • Committed gamers are always more willing to respond to ads than avoid them.
  • Players are most likely to block ads that obstruct gameplay, so in-game ads should be respectful of hampering the experience.
  • Ads are less of a concern in games that offer plenty of features – particularly ones that are fun or free-to-play.
  • Gamers on branded games are more tight-knit and generally more accepting of ads.

There’s a long-term opportunity here to reach an audience that’s bigger than ever. For ambitious brands who navigate this space wisely, they can expect more than just a brief power-up, earning themselves an extra-life if they capture gamers’ attention over a sustained period. 

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