When Balenciaga launched its latest online game for the reveal of the 21 Collection, something felt different. It’s definitely not the first time a brand creates a game as part of its campaign. But this game, it felt real. The visual quality is unprecedented for a branded experience, thanks to the lifelike renderings of Unreal Engine. Human figures are created with high-detail volumetric captures. The interaction might not be the most exciting you could wish for, but boy – look at the environments. The shadows. The reflections. This is a game you could have on your next-gen console or PC.
Finally, the game loads almost instantly in any browser, on any device.
This is not black magic, and your computer has not been upgraded overnight. Brands have just met cloud gaming and this is going to change marketing investments big time.
First of all: what is cloud gaming?
Cloud gaming is a remarkable feat of technology, but it’s quite easy to explain: the game runs on a powerful remote server – not your computer. Using the controls, you send inputs to the server (jump, dodge, run, shoot, whatever), the server performs the action and streams the image back to you. From your point of view (and your computer’s or smartphone’s) the video is no different from any other streamed video. But you can control it.
As long as you have a good connection, you can enjoy the best possible graphic quality, no matter your specs.
Some of you might remember Gaikai, one of the first cloud gaming platforms, launched in 2012. Since then, more players have entered the arena, including some big guys: Google Stadia, Amazon Luna, Facebook Gaming, GEForce Now.
This is good news for cloud gaming, because – as you can imagine – it can only work with the proper resources and infrastructures.
Cloud gaming is also the reason the Balenciaga game felt so novel.
The problem with branded games
Online games have been tempting marketers for a long time.
Fashion, in particular, has fallen in love with games: the industry understands that interaction and immersion can create a deeper bond with the brand.
In technical terms, though, little progress has been made.
Look at any branded game today and you will find a lot of mini-games, that can be played in the browser. Some brands just opted for mobile games altogether, because it allows you to better estimate the tech specs of the player.
You will stumble into the occasional memory-heavy browser game that will have you stuck for five minutes in front of a loading screen. That’s increasingly uncommon: while these are often amazing websites, they can’t compare with any commercial game, so they fall in the middle.
So, why don’t brands produce better games?
The problem, of course, lies in distribution, not in production. It’s not like brands don’t have the money to produce a decent game that actual gamers will want to play. But brands know that if they produced a high-end game, almost nobody could play it. First of all, few people will want to download a heavy file just to interact with a brand (especially if they are just scrolling their feed).
Furthermore, device compatibility would be a nightmare: are you playing on a PC or a Mac? On desktop or mobile? What are the minimum specs? Do you need to – God forbid it – tweak the game quality?
It makes sense for brands to stick to simple. Some are looking for creative workarounds, like 8-bit games that makes lo-tech look cool, like Louis Vuitton’s Endless Runner, created with Virgil Abloh.
But branded games are still far from being the center piece of any campaign.
Branded games vs branded movies
The lag (sorry for the pun) in branded games is quite striking if we look at another form of branded entertainment: movies. Brands have long been hiring top talent (directors, actors) in order to create spectacular pieces of content that people actually watch and share.
Castello Cavalcanti (above) by Wes Anderson for Prada, is just one example. Think of “The Secret Life of Flowers”, the work of Baz Luhrmann for H&M. The list could go on: branded short movies have been all the rage in the last years, with directors like Jodorowsky or Spike Jonze, and so many actors. You might find this unsurprising, as advertising has always been flirting with cinema, and commercial directors (like Jonze himself) have often progressed to film.
What is surprising, though, is that gaming is actually becoming the dominant force in entertainment, with top games grossing more than Hollywood movies. Games have gone mainstream and they are growing fast, overtaking cinema.
If brands are looking for attention and engagement, gaming is where it’s at. At best, though, they can hope to be guests with product placement or other
Could cloud gaming finally open the doors of game production to brands?
What cloud gaming means for branded games
Here comes cloud gaming to the rescue.
As I described before, cloud gaming breaks down the wall of distribution.
Now, a game can be streamed just like a video. Thus, producing a game or a short movie are equivalent choices, because they can easily reach the same large audience.
If a game can be played by millions of users, it makes sense to make it very good (that’s how we think about videos). And we collectively know what a good game is. Not your average browser experience, but something that you would buy – if it was for sale (just like you would pay to watch a branded movie if it was a full-feature film).
The difference, though, is that a game might keep you hooked for longer, and even get you to return (which is highly unlikely for a video). The interaction is deeper and the narrative can be more customised. It‘s a brand’s dream.
In terms of investment, a short game might be comparable to a short movie. The Balenciaga game apparently took 6 months to develop:
In other terms, your next commercial might be a game.
Not a complementary asset, but maybe the main campaign asset (just like Balenciaga is doing).
This is huge news for the marketing world, whose narratives might finally make the jump from videos (passive) to games (interactive).
But it’s not just marketing who should be excited about this. Many more players (oh no, another pun) might join in.
Branded games: the future players
If brands are really going to pour millions into production-heavy games, who is going to create them? After all, producing a web game is one thing – even an agency might do it – but this kind of game is going to require some serious skills.
The first suspect is – of course – game studios. Bethesda, Blizzard, Rockstar, Epic might tap into this new stream of business by setting up commercial units that design and develop short games for brands. After all, they have all the necessary resources for that. They are the new Hollywood studios, after all.
If production from scratch turns out to be too costly, these studios might consider to produce a branded chapter of an existing game and open it up for everyone to play. Imagine a stand-alone Assassin’s Creed adventure, set in London and designed just for Burberry. You just visit the campaign site and you play. Imagine the numbers this could make.
When a brand shoots a short movie, the director is usually what makes the news. Game designers might not be that famous, but there are exceptions.
Imagine a Hideo Kojima X Volvo game, developed by some less famous game studio. Kojima’s is the mind behind the Metal Gear Solid saga and, more recently, Death Stranding. His name alone could draw millions of players worldwide.
Reversely, designing brand games might become a breeding ground for future game designers.
If the branded game business grows strong enough, dedicated studios might pop up. There are already studios who sell branded games, but it’s not the kind of games we are talking about. These require scale, skills, money. New players.
No, I don’t think agencies will develop games. They will always be better off outsourcing them, as they do with video production. For agencies, the rise of branded games is actually a danger more than an opportunity: if brands turn to game studios and substitute games to commercials, agencies might see a big revenue stream cut off overnight.
What agencies are positioned to do is be the link between the brand and the game designers. In order to do this, they must acquire some fundamental skills. Speaking the language of games will become a vital competence for every agency, just like it has become for videos.
Finally, how are you going to distribute your game? Cloud gaming makes it easy, but you necessarily must visit the game website. If branded games become a major marketing asset, though, advertising platforms like Facebook might jump in and make the games instantly playable in-feed.
Imagine you are scrolling your Facebook feed and the ad for a Kojima X Volvo game appears. You click on the ad and within 15 seconds the game loads inside Facebook. You start playing for 20 minutes.
This is every marketer’s dream.
Too good to be true?
All this is possible, but not inevitable. The cloud gaming experience must prove pleasant and consistent even for large numbers of concurring players. Brand must be brave enough to put big money into something new and scary. And the early branded games must be good, or players will be disappointed. Balenciaga’s game looks good – and it’s conceptually exciting – but it’s not entertaining.
The tools are there, the skills too. Let’s go and make something memorable.