The biggest dogs don't always bark the loudest.
As Darren Herman, chief commercial officer for IGA Partners North America, told me, he was sitting at his college graduation with a laptop waiting for his name to be called when he pressed the button that launched their first campaign in Counter-Strike.
"I was sitting there in my gown...and then I put Spike TV live."
That was in May of 2004, yet IGA is a name that isn't immediately recognizable to many gamers.
"We like flying under the radar," Mr. Herman said. "We never want to bark," added IGA CEO Andrew Sispoidis.
That method of thinking seems to be working out well for IGA. They are in a position where advertisers come to them. Probably because, according to Darren and Andrew, they've figured out a way to keep marketers, developers, publishers and gamers happy.
IGA works with developers as the video games are being made. Instead of tacking ads on after the fact, the ads become a part of the game. That minor difference in the creative process shows in the product.
The advertisements are not limited to billboards or posters. Instead, they can be integrated into the game as objects themselves. That was the case with Hive Partners' work on getting Red Bull into Judge Dredd: Dredd vs Death and Worms 3D. Red Bull was a counter-culture sign and power-up respectively. Hive, as it happens, was recently acquired by IGA. The key point of this approach is that the advertisement gets anchored within the gameplay.
But, as Andrew said, "truth is, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't."
In-game advertising is still, after all, a very new field for all participants. No one has mastered it yet, though most companies seem to be thinking along the lines of digital Conquistadors. IGA, however, was quick to distance itself from Massive and IGN.
They do things differently, they told me. IGA tries to fit into the industry while Massive and IGN try to define it.
But they're certainly not trying to draw their rivals' ire. "We are all going to end up on top of the mountain," Darren said, "there are just 50 million different ways to do it."
And just how are these companies doing it?
IGN, whose system is non-operational at the moment, is pushing their ability to deliver dynamic content and ads.
Massive Inc. has campaigns running in Anarchy Online and Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory. The publishers of both games tell me, on the record, though I've heard otherwise off the record, that they're very happy with what Massive has done with static ad placement. Gamers themselves have said that the ads do not detract from the experience.
IGA has been doing those things for some time. They've run static ad campaigns, real-time advertising and dynamic in-game advertisements. They're proud of it.
After I made my way to their offices in Manhattan, they let me watch how their software works. They even launched a fake ad campaign so I could see the process. The whole system is quick, streamlined. It only takes a few minutes to get a campaign started. From there, advertisers can target exactly who they want. They can market according to specific demographics, by ESRB rating. Like television, video games have primetime spots.
One thing that impressed me, as the proud owner of something called a "Conscience," is that they're the only company that has made it a point to say that they have a very specific code of ethics. No other company showed me that their system does not, for example, allow for alcohol or cigarettes or other Adult products to be displayed in anything below Mature-rated games. There is a blocking system set up in their core software.
"This is how we prevent Budweiser from advertising in a kids' game," said Darren.
Darren and Andrew also said that they would like to work to see that developers get more of a cut from the profits made through this kind of advertising. As it stands, the money from in-game advertising goes to the publishers.
"Not that we're Robin Hood," Andrew smirked. "We would just like to see the devs get something out of this."
IGA said they're reaching out to their competitors, companies like Massive and IGN. They're open to collaboration.
"Isn't this a bit naive?" I asked. Business is a cutthroat arena. Mom and pop coffee shops get pushed away by the Starbucks infection. The bottom line is money.
"There's room," Andrew said. "There is a spectrum of companies. It's not that I think it's naive, but it's different."
There are no regulations and no standards for in-game advertising. IGA wants to change that. They want to lay the groundwork for how in-game advertising operates. They said they want to work with their competitors to do it; an in-game ad UN maybe.
What impact does this have on video games and the future of gaming?
It can go either way, of course. Perhaps it will give game makers more monetary freedom. Publishers might take more risks if they know they can still profit by selling a little digital space.
Then again, it could all go downhill if the wrong people are making the decisions.
In-game advertising is here to stay and it's only getting bigger. If advertisers cross the line, and gamers care, we can always make sure they know it where it hurts the most: in their bank accounts.
But, if Andrew and Darren hold true to what they said, maybe we won't have to.
By William Vitka