The celebrities have descended upon mobile games. Supermodel Kate Upton starred in a TV ad campaign for Machine Zone’s Game of War: Fire Age. That ad has helped Game of War move from the No. 3 top-grossing game to No. 2, passing up Candy Crush Saga and below only Supercell’s Clash of Clans. Apple has also tapped Justin Timberlake and Jimmy Fallon to advertise its iPhone 6 and the Vainglory action game.
Was it worth it? I don’t have any inside knowledge of how much the ad campaign cost, but it was surely in the millions. That’s crazy, isn’t it? A sure sign that we’ve hit the peak?
And since Game of War has been in the top five games for more than a year, it has to be generating hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. Think Gaming estimates that Game of War makes about $1.05 million a day from in-app purchases alone. That doesn’t include ad revenues. So Machine Zone might be making $400 million in revenue from one game this year. Such an amount would have been unheard of for a mobile game just a short while ago.
It means that the company can outspend everyone else — except Supercell — when it comes to buying ads to acquire mobile gamers. Advertising is important for a mobile game, because the number of players in a free-to-play title is dynamic. New players come in. Old players churn out, or quit. The trick is to make sure enough players are coming in. In the early part of a game’s life cycle, it’s not that hard to find those players. Machine Zone, like everyone else, has been running targeted mobile ads to get the right players into its game.
But at some point, there aren’t enough people on the planet. King’s Candy Crush Saga may run into that problem at some point. That is why King advertises everywhere, including on TV. The fact that the top revenue makers are advertising on TV means something very different. They’re no longer targeting their ads. They’re doing a broad sweep in the hopes of finding new people who haven’t heard of their games. Those people are less likely to just jump into a game. So TV ads aren’t that efficient at getting more users. They are effective at establishing brands, and getting people to recognize a game. In the long run, that’s important. That’s why Monopoly beats unknown board games. And its why Kim Kardashian: Hollywood is beating out other fashion games.
So it’s probably smart for Machine Zone to do some TV advertising, establish its own brand, and put its rivals on the defensive while it can. If the number of players starts to decline and the revenues fall, then that will be the time to throttle back on the ad spending. All that is smart.
But I don’t like the fact that the company doesn’t show the game at all in its main TV ad. It’s kind of a bait and switch. The game is a fantasy strategy title that resembles Civilization. You build cities and fight wars. You don’t see any live-action cinematics. You see a newly added faux Kate Upton, in the form of an animated figure. And there isn’t really any real action in the game. So the people coming in from the TV ad are bound to be disappointed.
This is the tried and true, but deceptive, way to get players. When they show up, they’ll be disappointed. That isn’t a great formula for getting them to like the game and stick around. They may try it, but it’s not the most admirable way to get players. It’s like the old covers of comic books, which depict a glorious and colorful scene that never actually appears inside. The cover is just meant to suck you in.
By contrast, Apple’s celebrity television ad for the iPhone 6 features Super Evil Megacorp’s Vainglory. Vainglory is a beautiful game (as noted in my review) with lots of furious 3D action. It is a multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) game that runs on tablets, rather than PCs. In contrast to the Kate Upton ad, Apple’s ad shows the actual gameplay on the screen in the form of two players with iPhones. You hear the funny voice overs from celebrities Justin Timberlake and Jimmy Fallon. They never appear on camera, except via their hands. The camera always focuses on the gameplay.
There’s nothing sexy about this ad, and it isn’t nearly as eye-catching as Kate Upton or the big battle scene in the Game of War ad. But I love it. It is truth in advertising. Super Evil Megacorp is lucky that Apple chose its game to highlight the capabilities of the iPhone 6. On its own, as a startup, Super Evil Megacorp couldn’t have afforded TV advertising at this stage in its existence. I suspect that the players who are drawn to play Vainglory because of the TV ad will enjoy the experience of playing the game. It is exactly what they were promised on TV. That’s the way to use celebrities, in my opinion. Vainglory isn’t showing up in the top-grossing games just yet. But I hope it gets there.
There are other mobile gaming ads, such as mNectar’s “playable ads,” that let you play a short game demo of an actual game on your mobile phone. Those ads deliver the exact experience you would get if you downloaded the game. They deliver a truthful, accurate experience. Anyone who has a good game should go down this road. They can deliver on the experience that they promise in the ads.
So there you have it. One ad is sexy and deceptive. The other is truthful and informative. I hope the latter wins in the market, and I believe that it will in the long term. But I fear that sexy and deceptive will win in the short term.