Avoid these 50 mistakes when you make an advergame

Herman Tulleken

Written by Herman Tulleken

 On 8/26/19 8:03 PM

Pink and yellow ice cream cone in the sandI worked on my first advergame more than 14 years ago (it was Mini #37, a racing game built for Mini South Africa). Since then I have worked on dozens of other marketing games. Not all of these have been successful. And as Plinq, we have had dozens of discussions with clients whose first instincts would lead them to make mistakes that could make their advergames less effective. With the help of colleagues Jonathan Bailey and Ben Hardy, I compiled this list of 50 mistakes to avoid when you commission an advergame for your company.

For (almost) each tip I also give three relevant links that provide more detail or context.

(This post is part of our 100 Days of Games for Growth project. This post implements tip #14, The Promotion-Driven Godzilla Blog Post.)

Business Goals

1. Mistake: Thinking short-term

Games are more complex and expensive than other media. Therefore, using games for short-term goals is a waste of money. Games can perform over longer periods, and successful titles can be expanded with more content.

  • Think about replayability in the design.
  • Think about content expansion in the design.
  • Think of porting to more platforms.
  • Think of long-term data collection and mining, periodic content that can tie in with other promotions

The better you plan for a long life for your advergame, the longer it can live.

2. Mistake: Going for conflicting business goals

Every advergame has at least one business goal, such as to raise brand awareness, increase foot traffic, or collect customer information. It is possible to have more than one business goal,  but if goals work against each other, the game will be less effective in accomplishing any of them.

For example: If you want to raise brand awareness, you want as many players as possible. If you want to collect information, some consumers will not engage; these goals are in conflict and should not be the purpose of the same game. A good rule of thumb: focus on a single goal.

3. Mistake: Using an advergame when you do not have sufficient channels to reach the required audience

If you upload your game to the App Store or Google Play Store and expect thousands of people to play it, you’re setting your project up for failure. Entertainment games have massive marketing budgets to get their game in front of players. If you do not have a huge budget, you need sufficient reach through your marketing channels to get traction from your target audience.

Channels that you own won’t face competition from other games, and this is your advantage over entertainment games. Suitable channels to use include: 

  • Social media
  • Email lists
  • Push notifications in your app
  • Flyers, posters and TV screens placed in the retail space
  • Packaging

Make sure you have enough channels before spending on an advergame.

Game Design

4. Mistake: Ignoring the fun

Use your game to delight your customers; not just to promote your products and brand. By making the game fun (and providing real value to players), you can create a positive association with your brand. If the game is not fun, your game will look like a sleazy marketing ploy, and no-one will play it.

5. Mistake: Using your own game ideas

It is unlikely that your idea is original, supports the business goals and brand values, and works as a cohesive entertainment product. Get the experts in. (Yes, that is us!)

6. Mistake: Using a plain media company to build the game

Although games share some aspects with other media such as video, traditional media houses are not good at making games. There are several reasons:

  • They lack an understanding of the gaming landscape, and where the games they built fit into that. That makes the way they market the game tone-deaf and alienate players.
  • They lack an understanding of game design, mechanics, and interactive narrative, resulting in games that are not as fun as they should be.
  • They lack the design tools necessary to hone in on a well-crafted game. Instead, their creations are Frankensteinian monsters that include every idea the team could come up with.
  • They have a distorted view of what aspects are important. Therefore a lot of money will be spent on things that players don’t really find important, while core parts of the game will be underdeveloped.
  • They lack experience in supporting a living game. They will not have the technical expertise to deal with scale, attacks, or fraud.
  • They lack the experience to manage a community that surrounds the game, which may result in a community that hurts your brand.

In short, they are prone to many of the mistakes on this list. Don’t do it.

7. Mistake: Not using your customer insight to inform game design

When designing a game for your audience, your most important contribution is your knowledge about them. Prepare as much of this knowledge as possible for the game design team.

Who are they? What do they do? What do they like? Where are they? What are their interests? What do they care about?What compels them to action?

The same background that goes into your other marketing activities must also shape the game; otherwise, it will miss the mark.

8. Mistake: Not prototyping

The most sure-fire way to arrive at a fun game is to follow an iterative process and test the game regularly with actual players. Form a beta group, and get them to test the game before you release it to the general public.

9. Mistake: Blindly cloning popular titles

Cloning existing popular titles has some advantages:

  • The mechanics are tested in the market.
  • Players will more easily understand how the game works.
  • It is easier to sell the project internally inside an organization.

However, there is a downside:

  • Popular titles often have production budgets and timelines that exceed those of the typical advergame, and therefore the advergame will often compare poorly with the original.
  • The game may be ill-suited to your brand or business goals, and so will work against those.
  • Popular games get cloned al lot, and your game will be perceived as a “me too” product.
  • Sophisticated gamers may frown on your attempts to capitalize on the success of others’ creativity.

Carefully consider whether the easy solution is the right way to go. 

10. Mistake: Not using KPIs to measure the success of the campaign 

In addition to business KPIs, you need to look at game KPIs to monitor the health of the game. You won't achieve your business goals if your game does not perform well as a game. Monitoring these will help you adapt and improve, which will ultimately also affect your business KPIs.

11. Mistake: Charging for content

Businesses sometimes try to offset the cost of developing an advergame by charging for it or additional content. Monetizing games is a business different from yours; trying to do this while trying to promote your main business reduces the chances of your advergame being effective. (There are cases where companies do this, and historic cases where it worked. However, this is a needless risk.)

12. Mistake: Trying to monetize your advergame through advertising

This is like making a TV ad and charging other companies to have their billboard displayed in the ad. It does not make sense to embed one ad in another unless the outer ad is so good that it can function as an entertainment product instead of an ad.

Besides that, the secondary ads will annoy players and reduce the average session length and retention of your game.

13. Mistake: Making players sign up before letting them play

In one project we did, half the players that entered the game exited the game instead of moving through the signup form. You risk losing a lot of players by making them sign up first (and often those that do sign up provide false data).

14. Mistake: Asking for more information than you absolutely need

Sometimes, the sole purpose of a game is to gather data. In that case, you accept the fact that not everyone will participate and give you their data.

But if this is not your purpose, ask the minimum information you need to give the player the best experience.

The less data you ask, the less friction there is for users to play the game, and do other things you want them to do. And the less data you have, the less attractive your game is for hackers, and the fewer hoops you have to jump through for GDPR.

15. Mistake: Trying to get players to share things that don’t make them look cool / smart / funny / rich

If you want players to share game content, make sure it is the coolest/smartest/funniest/most-expensive-looking thing in their feed:

  • Keep branding it light and relevant.
  • The more unique, the better.
  • Make the content, stunning, funny or cute.
  • Use content that allows the player to brag.
  • Make sure the content has a high production quality.
  • Incorporate some user-generated element into the content. For example, if players can modify their character’s wardrobe, they will be more likely to share a screenshot with the character in it.

Do not be one of those companies that make their customers post sad pictures on social media for a quick reward.

16. Mistake: Not using virtual rewards

Physical rewards are great to help you get ahead in line with all the other things that interest people. But you are missing out on an opportunity if some of the rewards are not virtual. Virtual content that people value include:

  • Character customization (clothes, accessories, hairstyles)
  • Environment decoration (wallpaper, ornaments)
  • Extra content (levels, playable characters, scenarios, locations)
  • Extra game choices (more player actions, unlocking certain doors in a house)

Of course, virtual rewards only work if your game is good enough.

17. Mistake: Not making it possible to mute sound and music

There are three reasons why players may want to mute sound or music:

  • It drives them crazy.
  • They are playing in an environment where they cannot play sound (such as work) and they don’t want to switch off all their other device sounds.
  • They want to listen to other music on the device they are playing on.

If they cannot switch off the sound or music, they are more likely to stop playing altogether.

18. Mistake: Choosing a game genre, a theme or mechanics that conflicts with your brand values.

If you want a non-violent game, do not make a first-person shooter. If you don’t want your products sliced up, do not make a Fruit Ninja clone. Brands are especially prone to fall into this trap when they decide to clone an existing popular title without considering the implications.

The first mistake leads to the second: removing the most important mechanic from a game to correct the incongruity. Fruit Ninja without slicing things up is not fun.

(Oreo's Fruit Ninja clone, Twist, Lick, Dunk is a beautiful counterexample. The mechanics is in perfect harmony with how they want people to eat their cookies.)

19. Mistake: Choosing a game genre, a theme or mechanics that conflicts with your business goal

Example: If your business goal is to attract more customers to your store, choose a game genre and mechanics that support that. One mechanism of attracting players is to use physical rewards, which are redeemed at the store. A simple slots game can work well for this: the game mechanics are straightforward and the purpose is clear.

However, if your business goal is to communicate your brand’s values or your company processes, a slots game will not be effective. A simulation game will be more suitable. If you make pizza’s and your brand promise is speed, a simulation game where the player runs a pizza restaurant and gets points for making pizzas quickly will powerfully communicate that.

20. Mistake: Using text inside the game to educate customers

People do not read inside games (or other apps). Games are for playing, not reading. Show what you want to tell players through game design and mechanics. Yes, you will need experts for that, the same way you hire a graphic designer to design your corporate identity and not try to do it yourself. You may find it hard to imagine explaining messages with game mechanics; an experienced game design team will not.

21. Mistake: Relying on physical rewards too much

If you want to use rewards with the game, understand the role they play. The game should be fun enough to play without needing to bribe players to do it. Rewards cannot make up for bad game design. Rewards can, however, give players a little boost to try the game out. It can also increase the stakes of playing, which makes the game more meaningful. But don’t use it as a crutch to support a poorly designed product.

22. Mistake: Making the wrong game for your target audience

Games that are appealing to teenagers will not necessarily be enjoyed by older players. Choose a game type that is popular with your target demographic. If you don’t and your game is successful, it will be played by the wrong people and you won’t achieve your business goals. An alternative strategy is to pick a game genre that has a broad appeal and market it to your target audience.

Beyond demographics, appeal to the interests of your target audience. Sports games are a good fit for sportswear; racing games for cars; and so on.

That said, do not be blinded by the obvious. For example, a narrative game based on the behind-the-scenes of football may be attractive to football fans that don’t necessarily want to play it or a game of it. This allows you to reach an audience beyond the core, which can be useful when the business goal is to expand the audience of the brand.

23. Mistake: Not understanding the pros and cons of embedded versus standalone games

A games embedded in your app is a great way to increase app retention, engagement, and positive reviews in the App Store or Play Store.

But embedded games have many limitations, and for some business goals, standalone games may make more sense. Sometimes, the solution for an app with bad retention is to drop the app; a branded game can perform many functions traditionally performed by other types of apps.

24. Mistake: Not adding variety over time

I said before that games are long term marketing tools. But people do get bored with anything eventually, and mixing up content and rewards is an easy way to extend the lifetime of a game and build a loyal fanbase.

25. Mistake: Making peripheral features too important

On a fixed budget, where you spend it is vital to success. An in-game chat feature may be important for MMO-like games, but for most games, they eat at the budget that should go to the core gameplay. Be stingy when it comes to peripheral features: sharing, recording, leaderboards, achievements. I am not saying you should neglect them, but they should support the game, not overshadow it in their complexity and production value.

(The links below refer to non-game apps. The peripheral features of games and other apps are often similar.)

26. Mistake: Misunderstanding the platform tradeoff

On the one hand, you want your game to be as widely available as possible (typically, it must run in a browser). On the other hand, you want your game to be as technologically savvy as possible (typically, it must use the latest gaming hardware).

Either end or somewhere in the middle can work. Here are examples of successful advergames on different platforms:

The problem is when you try to make a console-level title in the browser or try to use a Flash game budget to make a AAA title. The result will typically be poor, and you will waste a lot of money. When you decide to contract a game, familiarise yourself with some typical budgets and timelines for titles on different platforms to help you keep things in perspective.

27. Mistake: Not implementing a leaderboard

A leaderboard is a relatively simple feature to implement and provide a lot of value to players. You should include different leaderboards measuring different things.

28. Mistake: Not communicating game rules clearly

If players misunderstand how the game works, they will think the game is buggy (or worse, that you are trying to trick them). For example, in an earlier version of Circle K’s Spin & Win, we awarded 50 credits to everyone daily at midnight UTC. Players, however, assumed that we awarded them daily in their calendar day. Several people called to find out why their credits have not been awarded.

By communicating clearly how your game works, you can avoid these misconceptions.

29. Mistake: Not playing the game

You are probably not the target audience for the game. However, you cannot really understand how it works from looking at how other people play. If you don’t play the game, you will focus on things you can see or hear, instead of the feelings and thoughts you have as you navigate the game world.

That said, be careful when judging how difficult the game is to understand and play, and how interesting and fun it is.

30. Mistake: Making a game too complex for the technology or your budget

Fun is not proportional to complexity. Keep it simple, and spend to budget to make sure the game design is slick, the art pretty and the music catchy. Technically advanced advergames have their place, but they only have a chance to succeed if you spend enough money.

31. Mistake: Making a mini-game inside a game

It is a common misconception that this will make a game more fun. It won’t; it will increase the cost and annoy the player.

32. Mistake: Evaluating the fun of a game in production based on your judgment of the features

The correct way to judge whether a feature is fun or not is to watch the faces of players from your target audience. If they are delighted, the feature is good; if they are bored or confused, it is not.

(At least, this is true until you have enough players so that analytics kick in and you can make further decisions based on data.)

Execution

33. Mistake: Not stylizing your brand elements to fit the game

If your game is a stylized 2D drawing style, then your logos and products need to be stylized 2D drawings. If this goes completely against your brand rules, it is better to stick to an art style that does not require stylizing the logo or products.

But...if Coca-cola can do it, so can you.


34. Mistake: Not making sure the game works well technically

Technology is branding. If your game is glitchy, it affects your brand negatively. That also goes for any technology that surrounds the game, such as a web site or app used for redeeming rewards.

35. Mistake: Not spending enough on art

The game extends your branding; if it looks tacky, so will your brand.

Besides this, players are more likely to share screenshots when the art looks great. (Unless it is to show others how bad the art is. Sometimes this can work, but it should be by design, not by accident.)

36. Mistake: Not spending enough on music and sound

Because music inside a game plays on a loop, it is one of the things that most easily irritate players. Sound effects can be even more grating. 

37. Mistake: Don’t overuse your logo

Aim for building worlds that radiate your brand without your logo needed everywhere. Logos are not brands ⁠— don't lose track of that principle in the art of the game. Use other design elements (colors, fonts, shapes) from your corporate identity, and use your logo sparingly. This will help keep the player immersed in the brand universe.

Marketing

38. Mistake: Not marketing the game sufficiently.

If the game is decent, you may easily make it your most popular content, so it is worth giving it center-stage in your marketing efforts. 

  • Make it the hero image on your home page.
  • Announce the game with a short video-clip showing gameplay on social media.
  • Contact streamers and see if they will show-case your game (for this to work, you may need to splurge a bit, or have a really good game).
  • If you have non-digital channels, use them. Putting material in your stores is great (since there is no competition from other games).

In your marketing, do not focus on the brand. Focus on the game.

39. Mistake: Overhyping the game

You should understand your game's place in the bigger games universe. You may not be familiar with many games, but your audience will be well-versed in game-media. They know a good game from a bad game, and they know your game is (probably) not the best of the genre. You will look like a fool if you pretend otherwise.

(Don't worry though: your game needs not to be the best game to do well. A game that is fun, tied in with your brand in thoughtful ways, can outperform entertainment games when promoted well.)

40. Mistake: Choosing a poor name

Like all names, the name of your advergame should be:

  • Reasonably unique
  • Easy to pronounce
  • Easy to spell
  • Memorable
  • Evoke the game mechanics or theme
  • Evoke the brand
  • Searchable (for example, not include non-alphabetic characters)

A good way to test game names is to buy some Facebook ads using different names and seeing which title performs best.

Examples of advergame names from the past we like include Chex Quest, DQ Tycoon, and Avoid the Noid.

Operations

41. Mistake: Not having a mechanism in place to award players with credits manually

Things go wrong, and when they do, you want to be in a position to fix them. If a player loses credits (perhaps by a bug), restoring the lost credits is a simple way to keep them playing and prevent a nasty review.

42. Mistake: Not using your game as an additional marketing channel

Once a player is engaging with your game, you can use it to communicate with the player and the game can be a great vehicle to deliver news and promotions. Push notifications, an in-game dialog, or newsfeed, are the typical strategies. But be careful — make sure it is relevant and with permission. If you abuse it the player will simply uninstall the game.

43. Mistake: Not doing A/B testing to optimize the game once it is live

Provided that you have enough players, you can improve the performance of the game by doing tests once the game is live. You should also A/B test changes to the game during the campaign, to ensure that you do not harm the game's performance or introduce bugs that affect conversion.

44. Mistake: Not putting a system for a community in place

If your game works, people will want to talk about it. If you make it easy, a community will form around the game. Games that are supported by strong communities live longer; they attract more players since existing community members will be advocates for the game. They may foster competition — this increases the stakes and makes playing more meaningful. They will discover (and share) new ways of playing, which will extend the life and scope of the game. They may make more content to share (videos and screenshots).

But when you do have a community, you need to manage it. If you don’t, the community may become toxic and hurt your brand. Or players may generate content that is inconsistent with your brand values. If you don't have a community management team in place, the community may do more harm than good.

45. Mistake: Not providing a feedback mechanism

You will measure the success of your campaign with whatever relevant KPIs you identified. However, KPIs show only a partial picture. Asking for raw feedback from within the game gives you an opportunity to learn much more. It will give you

  • insight into what customers feel about the campaign,
  • ideas for changes, and
  • a means to identify problems that are not reflected in the data.

We implemented a once-off feedback dialog in Circle K’s Spin & Win and got a 15% response rate (much higher than the response rate in the app stores).

46. Mistake: Not planning for supporting the game

Things can go wrong. When it does, you should have a team ready to jump in and fix things as soon as possible.

You also need to respond to customer questions or implement changes based on their behavior.

47. Mistake: Not thinking of cheating

Some players will cheat. (There are various ways to do this; using a bot to play is one example.)

When players cheat, they spoil the fun for other players. It reduces the stakes and renders leaderboards and achievements meaningless.

You need a way to

  • detect the most obvious forms of cheating,
  • respond to cheating, and
  • respond to perceived cheating.

Also, be careful that you or your employees are not being perceived as cheating. In Circle K’s Spin & Win, we used Circle K Player to accumulate all the points earned by unregistered users. This player quickly rose to the top of the leaderboard. Unfortunately, players understood this to be a Circle K employee, and thought it was unfair that an employee takes up a spot on the leaderboard, and raised complaints about it.

48. Mistake: Not thinking of fraud

This is cheating with the purpose of getting physical rewards. In addition to all the problems with cheating stated above, this actually affects your bottom line and the effectiveness of the game campaign.

The actions you take need to be considered carefully. It is not always easy or even possible to prove conclusively that a user is committing fraud, and often anomalies are caused by bugs. It is usually enough to let a user know in private that their behavior is raising flags; this will scare the casual fraudster and they will stop, or give you more information if the cause is indeed a bug. If it does not, you will need to remove the player from the game.

Having said all of that, keep things in perspective. If a player gets away with a sneaky drink, it is better than a PR disaster where you have to defend your actions and publicly go against another customer. 

49. Mistake: Not considering the downsides of user-generated content

User-generated content is a wonderful tool; it can engage players in a way that your own content cannot, and expand the amount of consumable content way beyond what your budget would allow if you had to make it yourself.

But where there is user-generated content, there is content that may not sit well with your brand. Where people can type, someone will put a dirty word; where they can build something, someone will build something vulgar.

When you plan, think about where the line lies between acceptable and unacceptable content, and how you will detect and deal with unwanted content. Also, realize that something unexpected may happen.

50. Mistake: Not implementing suitable analytics and feedback mechanisms

Analytics point out trouble spots in the conversion funnel. Why are people not signing up for the newsletter inside the game? Are they not reaching that page? Or do they quit the level before they finish it? The information will also be useful for the game design team to adjust the game and improve player engagement and retention.

Also, don’t miss an opportunity to ask players for open-ended feedback. When we did this for Circle K’s Spin & Win, some of the feedback stunned us, and completely changed the way we viewed the game and thought of its future.

51. Mistake: Not communicating game changes clearly

Players love new content, but they despise existing features changing (especially when there are real-life rewards involved). Therefore, changes to the rules of the game should be avoided.

However, when you can't, you need to make what is happening obvious to players, or you will face negative backlash.

  • Prepare players for the change over relevant communication channels, including with a message inside the game.
  • Once the change occurred, give an explanation over relevant channels, including inside game. If you remove a button, add a “What happened to the X button” link inside the game right where the button was.
  • Make important back-end changes visible. For example, if you need to stop physical rewards after a few months without stopping the game, make the game art reflect a major change. Consider changing menu backgrounds, or even the game name “Cool Brand Super Challenge Light”. Making changes like this very visible makes it easier to understand, and easier to communicate.

Players may still complain, but much less than if you do it invisibly.

52. Mistake: Not planning for retiring and preserving the game

Games are harder to preserve than other media, and as a result, many advergames made even a few years ago are not playable today. By thinking about the fate of your game when the campaign ends, you can prevent this fate from befalling your game. 

Conclusion

Advergames, when made and used right, can have spectacular results. Avoid the mistakes listed here to give yourself the best chance of success.

Did we miss any? Please let me know in the comments.

Learn about Advergames!