Eric Johnson

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Zynga Ad Team: Keep an Eye on Unskippable In-Game Ads

photoThey used to be uniformly crude and unappealing, but the ads found within free-to-play video games are (slowly but surely) maturing. At GDC today, Zynga’s ad platform director, Joshua Burgin, said the next step in their evolution may include more unskippable videos.

Burgin was joined at the conference by Zynga’s head of ad sales marketing, Jeff Colen, who provided an overview of how in-game ads have changed since 2008, when the young Zynga largely focused on “offerwalls” (e.g., before we take you to the game, why not sign up for this service?). Today, he said, the gaming audience is broad, and video is key.

“In those spreadsheets that media planners at [advertising] agencies have, all of them have a video bucket,” Colen said.

Burgin took the mic to talk about how to implement ads, noting that customers are now accustomed to ads as a trade-off for playing a game for free. “Although they might complain — and that’s fine — they rarely leave.” Provided, that is, that game developers honor the unwritten “player contract” that governs when it’s okay for advertising to intrude upon the game experience.

Toward the end of the talk, Burgin suggested that unskippable video ads have a lot of untapped potential, and that if a game is good, players are more tolerant of them than one might expect.

On mobile devices, he said, developers have been more cautious because players either have to watch through the ad or quit the game. However, he said having a character that players have already “met” introduce video ads makes the transition easier — not unlike how some old TV shows used to have their stars hand off control of the screen to “our sponsors.”

Burgin also noted that ads served through mobile push notifications are worthy of experimentation, but that “you have to be really careful about burnout” since annoying notifications may lead to players turning them off entirely. And he urged caution on games that “cross-promote” other games, unless the developers (like, say, Zynga) already have a stable of interlinked games to point to.

“As a small publisher, it might be a necessary evil,” Burgin said. “If you’re telling people to go to another game, there’s a chance they might not come back.”

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