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Do You Want Fries With That?

Gutter Guest
Posted August 23, 2007

A brief history of advergamesLast year when I heard that Burger King was
planning to release a series of video games for the Xbox 360, I
thought the game industry was headed for a new low. To me, this went
way beyond the shameless hordes of promotional tie-ins to popular
movies and TV shows, and seemed more inappropriate than the
solicitation of virtual product placement within a video game. Here
was a giant fast food chain attempting to sell full-fledged console
games to the general public that were literally nothing more than
interactive advertisements. Who did they think they were kidding?

I
certainly didn’t expect what happened next.


The three games (Sneak
King
, Pocketbike Racer, and Big Bumpin’), developed
by Blitz Games, went on to amass double platinum sales and helped
give The King a $38 million boost to his quarterly earnings. I don’t
know what their development costs were like, but I think it’s safe to
say the BK games were a big success. And before I could criticize
anyone for supporting such a despicable cause, I actually plunked
down $3.99 of my own to see what all the fuss was all about. I guess
you could call it morbid curiosity, but I prefer the more socially
acceptable excuse that I was only doing it for the achievement
points. But you know what? I have to admit that the game was actually
a lot of fun in its own right, amusing in an ironic sense, but also
genuinely addictive. That’s when I realized that Burger King was
sitting on a real whopper here.

The truth is, “advergames”
are not really a new concept. In recent years, plenty of companies
have gotten hip to the idea of using Flash games on their websites
with the hopes of hooking in visitors and convincing them to pass the
URL along to their friends. Even before that, back in the 80’s,
marketing gurus were already experimenting with this daring method of
reaching out to the kids. As we await the next wave of pixel-shaded
promotions, I thought it might be fun to look back at some of the
previous entries in this emerging commercially-savvy genre of
game.

Pepsi Invaders (Atari 2600, 1979)
According to
the legend, a game called Pepsi Invaders may indeed be the
very first advergame ever created. It was a hack of Space
Invaders
, developed by Atari at the request of Coca-Cola, in
which most of the aliens were actually shaped like the letters
P-E-P-S-I. After clearing a stage the message “Coke Wins”
would flash on the screen. The game was never intended for commercial
release (probably a good thing, since the game was named after
Coca-Cola’s competitors) and only 125 copies were produced to be
given to Coca-Cola’s employees in Atlanta, Georgia. In 2005, a copy
of Pepsi Invaders sold on E-bay for $1,825.

Kool Aid Man
(Atari 2600 / Intellivision, 1983)
Oh yeah! Throughout the
‘80s we were treated to a series of TV commercials featuring a
giant talking pitcher of liquid refreshment who smashed through walls
at crucial moments to relieve people’s thirst. As a kid, I don’t
remember thinking such things were at all out of the ordinary. In
1983, two different Kool Aid-themed games were created for both the
Atari 2600 and the Intellivision. The Atari game featured the Kool
Aid Man himself doing battle with “the Thirsties”, who use
straws to try and drink all your Kool Aid. I vaguely remember this
game being available only by collecting a ridiculous number of
Kool-Aid points. I collected them for years and never even came
close.
 
Chase the Chuckwagon (Atari 2600, 1983)
Would
you believe me if I told you that a dog food company had also created
an Atari game as a marketing tie-in? Common logic would dictate that
most players of Atari games are not the people who buy dog food for
the family pet, but that didn’t stop Ralston-Purina from releasing
Chase the Chuck Wagon as a special promotional campaign for
Purina Dog Chow. Guide Chuckie through a maze towards the chuck
wagon, but make sure the dogcatcher doesn’t lay a hand on him! If
you’re successful, his reward is a bowl of Dog Chow, and a nice
helping of bonus points. Not surprisingly, this title has gone on to
become one of the more rare Atari games out there, a true collector’s
find.

A brief history of advergamesYo! Noid (NES, 1990)
For as long as I can
remember, Domino’s Pizza has always been one of the most popular
pizza franchises around, and throughout the ‘80s they were
virtually everywhere thanks in part to their highly successful
claymation ads featuring The Noid. The Noid was a troublemaker
dressed in a red outfit with long ears who tried to ruin people’s
pizzas. I suppose it was inevitable that the Noid would get his own
video game, and in 1990 Capcom released Yo! Noid for the NES.
This game put you in control of the Noid himself, on a mission to
defeat his evil clone, armed with a yo-yo and his patented “Pizza
Crusher” pogo-stick. It was a little known fact that the game
was actually just a translated version of a pre-existing Capcom game
that was released in Japan called Kamen no Ninja Hanamaru
(Masked Ninja Hanamaru). Most of the gameplay remained unchanged from
the original (which explains the existence of magic scrolls as
power-ups), although the level ending card game duels became
pizza-eating contests instead. Yo! Noid was also preceded by a PC
game called Avoid The Noid in 1989.

M.C. Kids (NES,
1992)

A lot of people no doubt remember this McDonald’s-themed
game, which was released for the Nintendo Entertainment System in
1992. Somehow McDick’s convinced legions of kids to get their parents
to pay full price for this cartridge, which was in many ways just a
Super Mario Bros clone featuring a racially-mixed pair of kids named
Mick and Mack instead of Mario and Luigi (It’s pronounced “Em-Cee
Kids”, not McKids because they’re supposed to be, like, rappers
or something). The main objective was to help Ronald McDonald get his
magical bag back from the Hamburglar, but McDonald’s made the
stipulation that there should be no actual food in the game, lest it
be perceived as a blatant advertisement (imagine that!). Apparently
McDonald’s weren’t too happy with the final product and ended up
abandoning their planned Happy Meal promotional campaign. In some
ways it’s too bad, because the game had some decent level designs and
has since become a bit of a cult classic. M.C. Kids was also
released as McDonaldland for the Game Boy in Europe, and was
followed by an inferior Sega Genesis/Mega Drive sequel called Mick
& Mack: Global Gladiators
, which had strong environmentalist
undertones.

Chester Cheetah: Too Cool to Fool / Wild, Wild
Quest (SNES and Sega Genesis, 1992 / 1993)
Throughout the late
‘80s and early ‘90s, the main spokesperson for Cheetos was a
slick animated feline wearing sunglasses named Chester Cheetah. He
eventually found his way into a couple of video games on the SNES and
Sega Genesis around this time as well, although the Frito-Lay people
certainly did not have the same qualms as McDonald’s about putting
the actual food product front and center. Chester is on a quest to
recover parts of his stolen motorcycle, eating Cheetos along the way,
while he also occasionally dabbles with power-ups like an electric
guitar (which induces a temporary frenzy of invincible headbanging).
In case you haven’t noticed, the game has a definite overload of
cool, which explains why Chester Cheetah is Too Cool to Fool.
Both this and its sequel, Wild, Wild Quest, were developed by
Japan’s Kaneko Co, Ltd., and as a result the dialogue was rife with
amusing Engrish phrases.

Cool Spot (SNES and Sega Genesis,
1993)
7up also had a cool mascot as well: a red circle with
sunglasses who starred in his own game called Cool Spot. It
was a platform game that was praised at the time for having
impressive graphics and smooth animation; the gameplay involved
shooting soda bubbles and jumping around to collect other “cool
spots”. They also made a Sega Mega Drive video game based on the
short-lived Fido Dido character (I hear he’s making a
comeback).

Chex Quest (PC, 1996)
In 1996,
Ralston-Purina returned with a PC game that has managed to amass
perhaps biggest following of any advergame to date. Chex Quest
was a 3D first-person shooter based on the Doom engine that was
packed in specially marked boxes of Chex cereal. As the Chex Warrior,
you must defend the planet Bazoik from invading Flemoids — gross,
green booger-like creatures that are consuming all of the nutritious
food from the IFC (Intergalactic Federation of Cereals). This game
spawned an official internet-only sequel, and various unofficial
fan-made spin-offs. As strange as it sounds, there is still a large
community trying to expand on this game and preserve it for future
generations.

Taco Bell: Tasty Temple Challenge (PC,
2000)
Here’s another shooter, this time based around the Taco
Bell brand if you can believe it (the developer was actually a
company called Brand Games). I don’t know too much about this game
except that you play as Baja Bill and battle your way through a
jungle temple using hot sauce! Taco Bell was also involved in another
recent series of advergames called Tek Kids Flash-Ops.

America’s
Army (PC, 2002)
Last but not least, America’s Army is a
military first-person shooter for the PC that was financed by the
U.S. government and originally released back in 2002 as a free
download. Sequels and add-ons have continued to be developed every
couple of years, with an Xbox version being released in 2005. In some
ways, this is the ultimate advergame as not only does it allow the
U.S. military to reach out to its target demographic, but it also
helps them to train and recruit new soldiers. If that’s not a
brilliant use of a video game as marketing, then I don’t know what
is.

Sneak King / Big
Bumpin’ / Pocketbike Racer (Xbox 360, 2006)
This brings us to
the three Burger King games that were released last year, now
generally accepted as the highest-profile advergames to date. If
anything, these games are a strong indication that video games based
on a brand can achieve both commercial and (to a certain extent)
critical success, assuming that the game itself is fun. I have come
to accept the fact that advergames are here to stay, and are now
moving from the online world to the realm of consoles. I’m okay
with that. When you think about it, they really are no different than
any other form of licensed game — it’s all a question of how
creative you get with the license. While, in theory, I would still
draw the line at paying full price for an advergame, I suppose it
would ultimately depend on how entertaining the game actually is.

At the very least,
advergames somehow feel less insidious than growing game industry
practices such as in-game advertising, for the simple fact that they
don’t hide their raison d’etre. When you’re playing Sneak King,
there can be no mistaking the fact that it’s a Burger King
promotion, plain and simple. As long as the actual gameplay engages
you, however, the blatant pandering quickly fades into the
background.

This begs the
question: is it possible for an advergame to be so engaging that the
player misses out on the message? There are many studies currently
being conducted to determine the effectiveness of advergaming, and so
far, the results seem encouraging. Not only do they improve brand
awareness, but they can also explain technical details about a
product without seeming forced. In many ways, the lack of force is
the key to the true potential of advergames. Today’s youth are
street savvy and resistant to anything they perceive as being a
direct marketing ploy. With advergames, advertisers can let the
audience come to them on their own terms, possibly even pay for it,
and then as a bonus, they do the majority of the legwork to help
spread the word too. Not too shabby!

Whether or not
gamers will eventually become disillusioned by advergames remains to
be seen, but for the moment, it’s up to the developers to ensure
that the quality measures up to other video games on the market
today. Given the commitment that a lot of companies are making to
this new opportunity, I’d say the future is bright. Just don’t
complain if, the next time you play a game, Master Chief is running
into battle wearing Reeboks while he mounts that last stand against
the Nike flood.

~~~

Sean Dwyer slipped a
junior whopper in your pocket when you weren’t looking. He is also
employed as a video game programmer, and in his spare time writes
about movies and media over at FilmJunk.com.

Comments

8 Responses to “Do You Want Fries With That?”

  1. Evil Roy Slade
    August 25th, 2007 @ 10:34 am

    Weird but true story about the Noid. he was dropped because a crazy guy with the last name of Kenneth Lamar Noid took a “Pizza Hut” hostage because he felt like the Noid commercials were directed at him. His demands was some sci-fi books, and he fell asleep after awhile. The hostages left, and he was arrested. And the Noid was ended as an advertisment icon…

  2. Mac
    August 28th, 2007 @ 12:31 pm

    two others would be captain crunch: crunching adventure and dr. pepper had a game that was a shooter with wolfenstein 3d style graphics both came out in the 90’s.

  3. Mac
    August 28th, 2007 @ 6:34 pm

    EDIT TO EARLIER POST: That other game I was thinking about wasn’t dr. pepper it was Mr. Pibb released in 98 by BrandGames. It was really fun too bad no one has a copy any more.

  4. Chris
    September 2nd, 2007 @ 7:42 pm

    Just a small bit of trivia – in the bonus stages of my Genesis/Mega Drive copy of Cool Spot your goal is to collect enough letters to spell “U-N-C-O-L-A”.
    Great article. I have the SNES/Genny games mentioned, but not some of the others.

  5. Multimedia Mike
    October 6th, 2007 @ 2:07 am

    Great timeline. A few more gems (documented on my gaming blog @ games.multimedia.cx):
    * Little Caesar’s Fractions Pizza (an educational advergame)
    * 2 GapKids games– these had a gimmick where you had to keep visiting a GapKids store to get codes to unlock more games
    * In addition to the Taco Bell advergames you mentioned, there was apparently another series of 4 “X-treme” type sports racing games.
    * Cheerios Play Time
    * I still have a few more cereal-based advergames to cover; I believe some are based on Count Chocula cereal as well as Pop-Tarts.

  6. Multimedia Mike
    October 6th, 2007 @ 2:11 am

    Oh, and I would be remiss if I did not to direct you to MobyGames’ category page for “Advertising / Product tie-ins”:
    http://www.mobygames.com/game-group/advertising-product-tie-ins

  7. James
    August 7th, 2010 @ 6:57 am

    lol it reminds me of games that come out from movies or tv shows, they are always terrible. The most recent example I can think of is prison break. IGN gave it like a 3.2.

  8. Naruto Video
    October 19th, 2010 @ 11:00 am

    Indeed, Mr. Pibb game was released in 99 by BrandGames :) It’s one of my favorite game during my childhood. Your post recalls my beautiful memory. Thanks a lot.

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