Why big isn't always best; how brands can tap into small gaming communities
Jacob Hellstrom and Amy Fasey, Senior Creatives at The Or London, and both keen gamers, believe that advertising is not making the most of the world's most popular form of entertainment. While aiming for integration in the big-hitting games can result in high scores, brands can level up faster if they sometimes think small.
Have you heard of this thing called gaming? And did you know there are millions - no, billions - who play games? And that they spend, like, loads of money on it?
Ever since acknowledging that gaming exists, it’s been one of the hot topics in the industry. But the industry’s collective rush to do something in the gaming space has led to some pretty unimaginative work heading out into the world.
It’s currently all ‘put my crisps in a game’ instead of asking ‘why should I put my crisps in a game?’.
It’s currently all ‘put my [insert product here] in a game’ instead of asking ‘why should I put my [insert product here] in a game?’. For agencies and brands, we have to treat gaming a bit differently than we have done so far. One of the fundamental problems is that ‘gaming’ is as vague a definition as ‘sports’ or ‘movies’. We need to view the world of gaming with more nuance as, realistically, it has as many niches as life itself.
Above: The world of gaming is, in fact, more like a universe.
But, really, the ‘world' of gaming is a completely misleading term. So, let’s imagine gaming as a universe instead. Each individual game and franchise is its own world, kind of like a cult TV-series. Each world has its own cultural codes, creators and influencers, and even its own language. Gamers are rightfully protective of their worlds, like anyone would be of a community they care deeply about. You have to know and respect the codes of the world you’re going into or else you’ll be ripped to shreds.
As an industry, we have to try a little harder to create work that is appropriately adding to culture.
Brands should ask themselves if they truly belong there. We’re not writing this to say that all brands are out of touch. We love building brands (we’d be pretty screwed up working in advertising if we didn’t) and we love gaming (Jacob has a 2.2KD ratio in Call of Duty and I spend far too long on Gang Beasts). We think there is a place for brands within that universe but, as an industry, we have to try a little harder to create work that is appropriately adding to culture; just like the best advertising work does for any other category.
The constraints and culture of each game are what offer those creative opportunities, especially for brands that don’t have the mega budgets to add a new team into FIFA [now EA FC] or sponsor Call of Duty, like Amazon’s The Boys recently did. Wherever you find your community for your brand, just make sure you know and respect the world you’re considering inserting your brand into.
Above: Amazon series The Boys recently partnered with Call of Duty.
Thankfully, there are a wealth of amazing games and communities out there, and there’ll be one for your brand too. And some of the most interesting opportunities are waiting in the smaller games, which themselves have niche gaming universes too.
So, let’s have a look at some of these niche players.
Take medieval game, Mordhau; it’s a fighting game, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be brought into the real world. What if a brand or museum like the Wallace Collection allowed gamers to physically experience the equipment they use in the game? Or if Wetherspoons could replicate a tavern meal from Baldur's Gate III? (Surely a dragon sausage would go down a treat).
It is light touch advertising that adds layers to the game, rather than bombarding a player with unnatural promotion.
Games that emulate real life also remain popular. Truck Driving Simulator is a great example of niche worlds taking off. Those playing the game drive at a real-time speed across a county, making deliveries, and they love it. This is the perfect opportunity for a major supermarket brand like Sainsbury’s to slot in. You could be trucking Argos mini trampolines in real time! Or it could be a recruitment tool for actual drivers. Regardless, these are all organic ways that a brand can connect with this community in an unobtrusive way. It is light touch advertising that adds layers to the game, rather than bombarding a player with unnatural promotion.
Above: A game like Truck Driving Simulator could be used by brands needing drivers as a recruitment tool.
The same strategy can be applied to House Flipper, a game in which players do up and sell houses. The obvious choice for this? B&Q. Or what about a paint brand, offering colour shades that you only get in game? It’s worth thinking about how your brand is contributing to the game. Is your logo just plastered everywhere, or are you actually helping elevate the player experience?
It’s worth thinking about how your brand is contributing to the game. Is your logo just plastered everywhere, or are you actually helping elevate the player experience?
One of our other favourite games is Squirrel With a Gun (does exactly what it says on the tin). The Woodland Trust could do a partnership to help save the red squirrel, which is becoming extinct. It could tell the story of grey squirrel gangs (an IRL scenario, Google it) killing red squirrels. Playing it could raise funds to preserve them. Ok, maybe we’re going too far, but you see what we mean. Realistically, the gaming universe is as wide and as deep as the ocean. It’s not all dungeons and dragons and armies and guns.
Now that we know the possibilities are endless, it seems a shame that most agencies have just come around to the idea of Fortnite (which I have on good authority from my 15-year-old brother is dead, by the way). And yes, we ourselves are guilty of doing an activation in COD, and we’re not saying don’t ever touch the big names with a barge pole (EPIC we love you), but we are saying that if we begin to look past the big titles, think how much better the work could be.
- Agency The Or/London
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Above: Hellstrom and Fasey used gaming in their Christmas campaign for Taco Bell.
One blockade we can see to this whole gaming thing is this scary element called the ‘unknown’. Putting your trust in an audience you may not know deeply, and a game you’ve never played before could seem like it wouldn’t take off. We get it. We probably sound crazy. But big things have small beginnings - like all the clichéd sayings that live on plaques in dive bars go. We recently begged a client of ours to trust us on the gaming front and it resulted in Taco Bell Christmas [above]. Safe to say it went well - with four times more views than their McCompetitor’s Christmas ad on day one.
Risks in gaming can pay off. Small communities can start big fires.
So, listen. Risks in gaming can pay off. Small communities can start big fires. And small titles can get you and the brand the virality you’ve been searching for. Especially when you play the game right.