A Designer’s Guide To Using Video Ads

Oscar Clark   •  April 15, 2015

Opting For Video Ads:

Making a great game is just the start as they say.  Understanding the best way for your game to make revenue is vital if you want to be able to make games professionally. In this post we will look at how you can use advertising in your game to generate advertising revenue without annoying players.  In fact we aim to show that by treating advertisements as part of the overall player experience design, users may even come to love ads.

What Not To Do:

It’s very easy for ads to get in the way of the player. Banners, for example, take up space on the screen, sometimes obscuring vital information or being placed in a way where they can be triggered accidentally. What’s worse is that the players quickly learn to ignore those areas of the display. The only way banners get noticed once that has happened is when they become visually distracting – something that typically breaks the user experience.

Interstitial ads are much more effective at grabbing players’ attention, but we have to be careful with their frequency and position.  If we show them too often, we risk irritating players and that makes them much more likely to churn. We don’t want that!

Now I’m not suggesting that Interstitials have no place in the mix. We do, however, need to understand their limitations and where in the flow of the player experience that it would be least damaging. Better yet, where in the game’s design it might actually be beneficial for players to have a break. In games which have a series of intense periods of play, users can’t indefinitely sustain the demanded high level of concentration or energy needed, especially on a mobile or tablet device. Players will eventually just give up, and worse, if there is no opportunity for a break they will may associate the game with that fatigue and may choose a less intensive game next time.  Over the long term players need a natural down time.  In design terms we need to think of this like a pendulum with players’ engagement gaining intensity on the downswing, leading to increasing fatigue as they reach the top of the tick, and then relaxing followed by a building desire to act which is at its peak as the pendulum returns with the tock.  A great example of this is a game like Dumb Ways To Die 2.

Video Interstitial:

In Dumb Ways To Die 2 we have an intense and escalating game play with players being asked to comprehend a short form mechanic – perform it successfully and then do the next, only faster each time.  Once you die you can easily replay, but when you return to the map (a menu for collections of mini-games) the game shows you an interstitial. This is the point of least resistance where players have already decided on a change of pace.

It’s essential that mandatory video advertisements such as interstitials can be skipped and that the players can see how much time is remaining so that we don’t build up resentment.  These kind of ads usually don’t have any rewards associated with them, unlike most of the other uses we will discuss here. But, this also means that they can be useful for games which don’t have a natural currency or suitable In App Purchases.  However, there are consequences. This approach inherently requires us to intercept the player experience and not only limits the frequency we can show such ads it also affects the nature of their engagement with them. Our motivation for watching an ad is dramatically changed when we opt to do so.

Choosing To Watch an Ad:

There are a couple of factors which affect players’ willingness to actively choose ads. The ad content itself must be relevant, i.e. showing a game player an ad for another game, and they should also be short – somewhere between 15-30 seconds. However, there usually has to be something in it for the player. That might be a number of things from coins or resources in the game, to extra lives. Yet these rewards also have to be relevant to the player and repeatable – there must always be a reason for the player to watch another ad. If I unlock a major item or a new level by watching one video, that’s a great value but unlikely to create the scale of views needed to drive enough revenue to make that worthwhile. Equally, if watching videos unlocks enough power-ups to imbalance the game then you have broken the reason to play.

Angry Birds Go uses video ads to allow players to obtain a free boost, but only at the start of the race.  This doesn’t overpower the experience but it does require a player to switch their attention from the game strategy to the video playback.  The motivation is clear: If I want a boost in my next race then I will get it by exchanging my time watching this advertisement.

Other games choose to do this at the end of the game. For example in Sonic Dash, players have a chance to continue their existing run after ‘dying’ by either using a ‘Revive’ token or by watching a video ad.  The ad allows the player to break from the intensity for a brief moment before restarting play, which can help their performance (at least it does for me).

What’s important is that the payoff for watching the video is intrinsically part of the game itself.  There is no separate incentive to download the advertised game, but if they choose to then it’s because they liked the look of the game. That’s what at the end of the day provides the revenue and at the same time reinforces their engagement with your game.

Added Incentives:

This leads us to another realization – that we have to make the rewards for watching video compelling and something which players want. In Angry Birds Transformers, after a successful run they have a section where you are showed your score and offered the chance to double your score if you watch a video at that time. For this kind of ongoing action game it’s the perfect way to reward players for their engagement not only in the gameplay but also in the ads themselves.

Meaningful Benefit:

Sometimes the reward can be tied to a significant action within the game. In the case of wickedly replayable Retry, the player can choose to unlock the next save point with either a coin or by watching a video replay. This reward has a meaningful benefit for players.  It comes at a point of success and frustration and can help you to avoid the pain of having to repeat your multiple attempts to gain that landing point in the first place.  They key to this technique is to understand what players value and to help them obtain that value in a way which they will happily repeat such as unlocking a new save point or perhaps replenishing your fuel for a racing game. Watching the video in the Retry example gives the player what they seek directly; but it’s not suitable for all games and can often be hard to scale.  Instead other games seek to use video replays to speed up the acquisition of some form of currency or resource which are usually a more indirect means of obtaining that item of value.

Earning Free Coins:

Games like Hill Climb Racing show that there is genuine value to the player in terms of In-Game Currency. It helps acquire new vehicles, fuel, terrain, and other bonuses. It’s something which is naturally ephemeral and disposable which makes it a perfect option for monetization. But this is not always the case.  For some games, the currency works as a proxy for the players’ progress in the game. This makes using it as a reward for video problematic. In the case of Hill Climb Racing they chose to put an emphasis on the purchase of coins over the ‘Free Coins’ gained which means that they put it at the end of a long list of purchase options. This can be a problem for some games and instead it’s often better to be more upfront about communicating the option of watching video to gain those coins or resources.

As a designer remember we need to be offering something that players value, which means we have to be aware of the inflationary impact on our game’s economy if players can obtain new resources. There is a great deal of balancing necessary to support incentivized ads like this; just as when we add a new resource generator in the gameplay.

Obvious Delight:

Looking at Hipster Whale’s excellent Crossy Road shows us that we don’t have to compromise the playing experience when using ads.  We can tell players up front what they will get if they choose to watch ads in a way which isn’t embarrassed and which clearly benefits the player. The offer is presented at the end of your run alongside your score and the ability to play again. It’s also not always available which means that we don’t learn to ignore it. We are also given an incentive to act now as we have “only 56 G to go” before we can have another go to gain a random character. Oh! And watching a video will earn us 20 G straight away.  Players don’t feel cheated by this approach, they feel empowered. Watching ads in Crossy Road becomes entertainment and a way for me to discover new content and I get to win another character with a pull of a lever. I just unlocked the Celebrity. Wow that’s funny… she drops money when she is hit by a car… let’s watch another video and get some more coins. That’s obvious delight.

In Short:

Making the most of video ads in your game is a design process like any other player facing feature. We have to consider:

  • What’s in it for the Player?
  • How Does This Impact The Player Flow?
  • Is The Incentive Scaleable?
  • How Do We Make Sure This Doesn’t Break The Game?

Oscar Clark   •  April 15, 2015