These days, in-game advertising is the rule, not the exception. According to an Omdia survey, gaming companies around the world raked in over 42 billion dollars in 2019, solely from in-game ads. Free-to-play giants like Genshin Impact and Call of Duty Mobile are largely supported by a combination of ads and high-value in-app purchases.
This isn’t a mobile or even a free-to-play phenomenon. EA caught flak last year for displaying the equivalent of pre-roll ads in UFC 4, a full-priced console game. But when did this all start?
When did game developers realize that their medium offered opportunities to monetize through ads? What did the first in-game advertisements look like? In this piece, we’ll take a step back and briefly explore the history of in-game advertisements.
Adventureland: the first ever in-game advertisement
Back in the 1970s, many video games didn’t even have visual graphics, let alone space for a full screen ad. But this didn’t deter Scott Adams, developer of Adventureland, from placing a brief ad in the game for his next title.
The Pirate Adventure advertisement isn’t exactly what comes to mind when you think of in-game ads. There were no graphics since Adventureland was a text-based game. And the ad wasn’t for an unrelated product or service: Adams wasn’t trying to get you to buy a pair of Yeezys, he was trying to generate awareness for his next project.
The 1980s: the golden age of advergames
A few years after Adventureland, the video game landscape underwent rapid transformation. Through the 1980s, arcade cabinets and home consoles like the NES and Sega Master System saw a surge in popularity. Product placement was commonplace in other forms like TV and cinema at the time. Movies like Back to the Future prominently featured brands like Nike and Pepsi. And so, marketing executives saw video games as fertile new ground for product placement.
The first recorded advergame is “Tapper,” from 1983, a game about serving Budweiser beer to bar patrons. Tapper arcade cabinets were often installed in bars. The game’s graphics featured a prominent Budweiser logo, highlighting exactly which beer brand was promoting the game.
Image: Doron Grunski
Tapper didn’t make inroads into regular arcades in its original form — the Budweiser advertising was construed as promoting alcohol to young people. Instead, a rethemed version named Root Beer Tapper, devoid of beer references, made its way to younger audiences, though no longer in advergame form.
Following the Great Video Game crash in 1983, there was a lull in advergames — and video games in general. However, by the late 80s brands once again started to leverage videogames as a product placement media.
The Ford Simulator, the Pepsi Challenge, and Domino’s Avoid The Noid were just a few among a growing number of games where product placement either featured in terms of logos, or as an essential part of the gameplay experience.
The 1990s: new consoles and technical advances
The 90s saw exponential growth in the complexity of video games as developers moved from side-scrollers to full polygonal 3D graphics. Consoles like the Playstation and Nintendo 64, designed around 3D gameplay experiences, along with more capable PCs, opened up new advergaming opportunities.
Remarkably, many of the best 1990s advergames didn’t, well, suck. Titles like Chex Quest, a cereal-themed total conversion for Doom were …….