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‘Brands follow where people are’: An oral history of the evolution of in-game advertising

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‘Brands follow where people are’: An oral history of the evolution of in-game advertising

Brands and marketers are finally starting to realize the power of in-game advertising. 

As the gaming community has expanded in size, so too has the potential for brands to reach gamers directly via their entertainment medium of choice. In accordance with this influx of brand interest, in-game advertising companies have proliferated. Today’s in-game ad firms are building fungible, programmatic in-game ads and immersive experiences that sometimes improve players’ in-game experiences — and sometimes not so much.

In spite of this growth, the industry is still rife with common misconceptions about the relationship between gamers and brands. Going into 2022, stakeholders in the in-game advertising industry are looking to raise awareness about the reach and effectiveness of their services and help non-endemic brands ingrain themselves further into the gaming space. The in-game advertising market is projected to grow by nearly $11 billion over the next three years, according to Technavio’s In-Game Advertising Market by Platform and Geography report. Here’s the story of how the modern in-game advertising industry took shape — and how some industry observers predict the space could evolve in the future.

01

The early days

In-game advertising has been around for almost as long as the game industry itself. The original in-game ads were hard-coded directly into games, and were usually the result of developers or their hired agents directly wooing skeptical brands to place their products into the game.

Samuel Huber, CEO, Admix, an in-game advertising infrastructure company that serves publishers and advertisers: For a podcast a year ago, we tracked down pioneers in in-game advertising, and I think the oldest I found was in the mid-80s — someone trying to inject brands into a Nintendo game. There was a Pepsi campaign in 1999, I think, where you could collect cans instead of coins. It was just trying to integrate the brands in a native way. So, brands have always tried to reach that audience, but it was very much like, “oh, let’s do a campaign on this game, or a campaign there.’ It was very manual; the game developers had to actively implement all of this stuff, literally designing the cans of Pepsi and putting them in the game. It was more creative work than advertising in any scalable model.

James Draper, CEO, Bidstack, an in-game ad provider that connects developers and brands: The first in-game advertising was back in the ’80s. I think the game Zool was the first one where a product, Chupa Chups, was up there in the background of a platform-based game. This guy was almost like a broker — he would go out to advertising agency groups to try and broker deals, then go to game producers one by one and try to bring brands into the storyline.

Natalia Vasilyeva, vp of marketing, Anzu, an in-game ad firm that recently partnered with Roblox creators to bring ads into the platform: The beginning of it dates back to the ’80s, when we had the first hard-coded ads in games — Chupa Chups was advertising in games. We saw hard-coded ads and case-by-case activations; obviously, there was no programmatic. 

02

Middle ground

In-game advertising is a booming business going into 2022; over the next 12 months, 81% of media buyers plan to scale up in-game spending, according to an Admix report. But things haven’t always been this way. Between the early days of the industry and the modern renaissance, several companies tried to build in-game advertising into a sustainable business, attaining varying levels of success and technological innovation.

Vasilyeva: There were some predecessors, and there were some companies that were successful in the early 2000s. One of them was even acquired by Microsoft. So Microsoft took it seriously and tried to leverage the technology to build it. They didn’t succeed, as you can see, for a number of reasons. I would say the major block was still technology — the lack of technology, lack of scale, lack of the right mindsets. We can talk about [early in-game ad firms] Double Fusion or Massive, the one that was acquired by Microsoft. By the way, the CEO of Double Fusion is our strategic advisor — it’s worth trying to learn from mistakes. 

Draper: From 2003 to 2010, there was a bit of an arms race between three different companies, one of which was called Massive Inc. Between 2003 and 2006, the industry was pretty much themselves, which was good and bad. In terms of trying to standardize an ad format and get the advertising world to buy into it, while at the same time getting the game producers to sign up to this thing, they did a very good job. But then they sold to Microsoft for at least $10 million back in 2006. When they started with the XBox, that opened up the opportunity for Sony. So two companies, Double Fusion and IGA Worldwide, gunned after the Sony part of the marketplace. It all got a bit chaotic. The technology wasn’t ripened enough, from a programmatic standpoint; the supply side wasn’t quite there; and obviously the gaming side and its connections to the internet were just not as it is today. Both sides were a bit immature, basically, and they all died off by 2010.

Huber: There were a lot of companies along the way, like Massive, who sold to Microsoft, and then Microsoft killed it. There was another one called IGA; I think they sold as well. RapidFire — they’ve kind of been around, but not [the company hasn’t updated its social media since 2017]. So there’s been a lot of promises every five years or so, but no one’s really built it from a tech point-of-view.

03

Technological developments

As technology began to catch up with gamers’ thirst for consumption, in-game ad firms made a comeback, adapting newer and broader adtech applications such as programmatic advertising to function within game worlds.

Huber: Programmatic advertising really was born in 2010. On mobile, it really hit around 2014–2015. And before that, you didn’t really have the ability to scale campaigns, because you’d have to go straight to the publisher, and it was almost a direct relationship. There was no way to build a scalable ad distribution, there was no open real-time betting network — everything was different. Five years ago, I guess that technology kind of existed already, but gaming just wasn’t front of mind for advertisers. It was considered niche, and Fortnite and Roblox were not as big as they are now.

Vasilyeva: With the rise of digitalization, and with the rise of programmatic, everybody kind of switched to performance marketing, and we forgot about old and time-proven brand awareness. Now, it’s the first time that brand-awareness advertising is possible in digital worlds, though it’s super, super nascent. There are a lot of gaps that we’re kind of on the way to improving.

Fran Petruzzelli, CTO, Bidstack: The evolution became far more complex, bringing more programmatic standards into gaming. There’s a lot of hurdles, a lot of technological evolution. Programmatic advertising, by its very nature, is built for the internet and for mobile; it’s built for the standard formats. It’s not built for a dynamic environment which is fast-moving, or moving in any way, really. It’s very much built for a static web page. And so we’ve had to help fit the standards that you find in the game around the metrics that you see in the standard world — things like adapting technology to work with mobile phone displays and ensuring that the brands are aware of how another could be seen. 

04

Increasing brand interest

The growth of in-game advertising has led to an influx of interest from non-endemic brands that kept a wide berth from the space in the past.

Matthew Warneford, CEO, Dubit, metaversal game developer: Funnily enough, we’re actually talking to an insurance company right now. You can kind of forget this idea that we’re trying to sell the product — we’re not selling products, what we’re doing is building a connection to that brand. 

Huber: That’s the shift that happened in the brands’ minds over the past couple of years: thinking of gaming not just as a creative outlet, but as a channel where you have 2 billion people playing every day. If you’re 18 to 34, it’s like 20 to 25 percent of your time online. So that’s a big blind spot for brands to not target them. It’s more about the audience behind it and how they behave — you know, 2 billion players is 2 billion potential consumers.

Edward Castillo, managing partner, Admazing, mobile-focused in-game advertising firm: A lot of clients have asked us, from both endemic and non-endemic brands, what our participation is in this type of vertical moving forward.

05

A new type of e-commerce

With gamers becoming accustomed to owning completely virtual objects, in-game advertising is no longer a vehicle to get players to purchase physical goods. These days, virtual commerce is a burgeoning industry in its own right, with in-game ads helping drive the consumption of entirely digital items, such as the virtual garments sold on DRESSX.

Warneford: When I was young, a lot of premium brands would bring out perfumes or fragrances, and they were all reasonably affordable price points in comparison to buying Chanel clothing, or whatever it might be. One of the reasons they do this is that it’s about starting that brand affinity early on: I can’t yet afford to buy Calvin Klein clothes, but I can buy the perfume once a year, and I start to build that connection with the brand. I think there’s an element of that through the sale of virtual goods; there are some interesting psychological effects around making a commitment to something and purchasing something.

Huber: Gaming is a very rich experience, now that we’re serving ads in the spaces that we create. But we could easily sell products, and that’s something we are testing. You can imagine that, further down the line, we will have formats that are more like experiences, and the ability to sell products that could even be NFTs within the game.

06

Stepping into the metaverse

In the race to build the metaverse, leaders are emerging from the gaming space, and in-game advertising is no exception. Many of the in-game ad companies of today are looking to become the in-metaverse ad firms of tomorrow.

Petruzzelli: The reality is, the nature of what we do is that we’re actively involved in that ecosystem from day one. The way players interact, the way skins can be exchanged, and players can interact with the game environment — effectively, that is what the metaverse is. I think in-game advertising is intrinsically linked.

Warneford: The interesting thing about the metaverse is that anybody can build inside of these platforms; it’s not constrained to, ‘oh, you’ve given me a bit of ad space over here that I can put a square banner into.’ I can build what I want in Fortnite, Roblox, Rec Room, blah blah blah. Brands follow where people are, so I’m pretty sure brands will follow users into the metaverse. And so the question becomes, how much is a user in the metaverse worth to a brand?

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Check out the shopping experience at Amazon’s new retail clothing store

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Check out the shopping experience at Amazon’s new retail clothing store

Amazon does very well with its online clothing sales, but physical clothes stores still sweep up most of the business.

Keen as ever for a piece of the pie, the e-commerce giant has unveiled plans for its first-ever retail clothing store for men and women, selling garments, shoes, and accessories from well-known brands as well as emerging designers.

The 30,000-square-foot brick-and-mortar store will open at The Americana at Brand — an upmarket shopping complex in Glendale, Los Angeles — later this year.

As you can see in the video below, Amazon Style stores will only have one sample of each item on the store floor. If you want to try something on, you simply use the Amazon Shopping app to scan its QR code, select the size and color, and it’ll be sent directly to the fitting room. Inside the fitting room you’ll find a large-screen tablet that lets you call for more colors or sizes.

You can also scan to buy and collect the item almost immediately from the pickup counter. Scanning items will also prompt Amazon’s algorithms to suggest similar items that you might like to try.

“Customers enjoy doing a mix of online and in-store shopping, and that’s no different in fashion,” Simoina Vasen, the managing director of Amazon Style, told CNN. “There’s so many great brands and designers, but discovering them isn’t always easy.”

Vasen also said Amazon Style will sell “everything from the $10 basic to the designer jeans to the $400 timeless piece” in a bid to meet “every budget and every price point.”

While Amazon made its name with online shopping, in recent years the company has explored the world of physical stores with a range of openings.

It started off with bookstores in 2015 before launching the first of many cashier-free Amazon Go stores that use cameras to track your purchases so you can simply grab and go without having to line up. But it didn’t stop there. Amazon Fresh grocery stores have been popping up in states across the country, while it also launched a store called Amazon 4-star selling products that have received high ratings on its online store.

It also acquired Whole Foods in a $13 billion deal 2017, and last year was reportedly looking into the idea of opening a chain of discount stores, though the pandemic apparently prompted the company to put the idea on hold.

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How to enable TPM 2.0 on your PC

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How to enable TPM 2.0 on your PC

One of the controversial requirements to run Windows 11 is a TPM 2.0 chip. This chip, usually found on your PC’s motherboard, is a security chip that handles encryption for your fingerprint, other biometric data, and even things like Windows BitLocker. It’s usually turned on by default on most PCs, and found in most modern systems purchased in the last few years.

Yet if you’re not sure if TPM 2.0 is turned on (usually the Windows 11 updater will check for you), you can check for it manually and then enable it in a few steps. Here’s how.

Windows 10's Security Menu.


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Check for TPM using the Windows Security App

Before diving into our guide, you might want to check for a TPM 2.0 chip on your PC. You can do this manually through the Windows 10 settings. This will let you know if you can continue with the Windows 11 install process.

Step 1: Open Windows 10 settings with Windows Key and I on your keyboard. Then go to Update and Security.

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Step 2: From Update and Security click Windows Security followed by Device Security and Security Processor Details. If you don’t see a Security Processor section on this screen, your TPM 2.0 chip might be disabled or unavailable. If you see a spec that’s lower than 2.0, then your device can’t run Windows 11.

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Windows 10's Security Options.


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Get to BIOS to enable TPM

Once you verify or confirm that you have a TPM 2.0 chip on your system, then you’ll need to get into your PC’s BIOS to enable it. You can do this directly through Windows without the need for a keyboard combination on boot. Here’s how.

Step 1: Go into Windows 10 Settings. Head to Update and Security, followed by Recovery and then Restart Now. Your system will restart.

Windows 10's Advanced Security Options Menu.


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Step 2: On the next screen, you’ll want to choose Troubleshoot, followed by Advanced Options and then UEFI Firmware Settings. Click on the Restart button, and this will boot your PC into the system BIOS to check on TPM 2.0.

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Dell's BIOS settings.


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Enable TPM 2.0 in the BIOS

Now that you’re in the System BIOS, you’ll want to look for a specific submenu. On most systems, the TPM settings can be found under settings labeled Advanced Security, Security, or Trusted Computing. Navigate to these menus using either the keyboard combinations listed on the screen or the mouse if your BIOS supports it.

If you’re unsure about which menu to get into, you can visit the links below. Each link will take you to a PC manufacturer’s page with guidance on how to enable TPM 2.0.

Step 1: Once you’re in the respective menu in the BIOS, you can check the box or flip the switch for one of the following options. Sometimes TPM 2.0 can be labeled differently as one of these options: Security Device, Security Device Support, TPM State, AMD fTPM switch, AMD PSP fTPM, Intel PTT, or Intel Platform Trust Technology.

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Step 2: If you’re not sure if you’re checking the right box for TPM 2.0 settings, then you might want to check with the support documents for the company that made your PC. We linked to some of those above.

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Step 3: Once you enable TPM 2.0, you can exit the BIOS using the commands listed at the bottom of the screen. Usually, the Esc key will do the trick, and you’ll be prompted to Save and Exit. Your system will then restart and boot you back into Windows.

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Now that you confirmed that your PC has a TPM 2.0 chip, you can proceed with the Windows 11 installation process. We have a guide on how you can do that, and another piece that explains the differences between Windows 10 and Windows 11.

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Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 4: What we want from the new foldable

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Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 4: What we want from the new foldable

The Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 has been my daily driver for a while now –and I love it. Unfolding it to get a bigger display still feels futuristic every time I do it. The cameras get the work done, and it is an amazing mobile device for productivity. But despite being the best of its kind, all things can use some improvement, and that’s the case for the Galaxy Z Fold 3 as well.

Here’s what I hope Samsung improves on with the Galaxy Z Fold 4.

A wider cover display … with a caveat

From left, the Galaxy Z Fold 3 and Oppo Find N open from the back.
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Front displays on foldables are meant to get things done quickly, without having to go to the next step of unfolding the phone. For instance, replying to that message on WhatsApp, checking the time, swiping through notifications, and anything that requires little effort. The Galaxy Z Fold 3 flies through quick tasks on the slim 6.2-inch display — unless I have to quickly type something on it.

Typing on the cover display of the Galaxy Z Fold 3 is a troublesome task. Due to the slimness of the screen, you don’t get the usable width on the keyboard, which results in a lot of typos that end up frustrating me. Making the cover display wider solves the problem of typos, but also leads to a wider foldable display.

Based on my experience with the Oppo Find N, it might not be a good idea despite the usability improvement. The web is built to operate vertically. You scroll down on stuff, be it your Twitter feed, TikTok, Instagram Reels, reading on a browser, or anything else. Personally, I’ve yet to come across an app or a webpage where I prefer a wider aspect ratio to a taller one. I like the taller aspect ratio of the Fold 3 rather than the wider aspect ratio on the Find N.

If Samsung could shrink the size of the left bezel on the cover display and increase its width, while keeping the dimensions the same as the Galaxy Z Fold 3, I’ll be glad. If not, I’ll just unfold the display to type quick replies as I have been doing.

Longer-lasting battery and faster charging

Typing on the closed Galaxy Z Fold 3.
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

The Fold 3 battery life is above average, but not the best. If you push it to the limits or have a busy day without access to Wi-Fi, it’ll drain the battery before you get to bed. And unfortunately, the fast-charging support is limited to 25 watts.

With Chinese smartphone manufacturers raising the bar on fast charging to a mind-boggling 120W, I hope to see the Galaxy Z Fold 4 offer up to 45W fast charging at least. I’m fine with a 4,400mAh battery if I get support for fast charging that can get my phone from 10% to 60% within 35 minutes or so. Samsung has done it before with the Galaxy S20 Ultra, so there’s no reason it can’t bring 45W fast-charging support to the Galaxy Z Fold 4.

An upgrade to 11W fast wireless charging would also be much appreciated.

Make it lighter

Galaxy Z Fold 3 outer display showing ParkyPrakhar Twitter.

The first thing you realize when you start using the Galaxy Z Fold 3 is its weight. Depending on how you hold the phone, your pinkie finger could feel strain when using it folded for longer durations. That shouldn’t be the case with any foldable. It unfolds! Use it that way.

A reduction in the current 271-gram would be a welcome change and provide some relief to people’s pinkie fingers. I have had no major issues with the weight on my current Fold 3, but a lighter model would just feel better in the hands.

Better app optimization

An open Galaxy Z Fold 3 with apps on the screen.
An open Galaxy Z Fold 3 with apps on the screen. Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

This one has much more to do with Android app developers than Samsung, but apps could definitely use some optimization. And by app optimization, I don’t mean a full-screen Instagram (although, you can do that in the Samsung Lab in Settings).

Apps like WhatsApp, which is used by billions of people, need to step things up. On the Galaxy Z Fold 3, if I’m clicking a photo from the app, it magnifies everything. The viewfinder doesn’t give you an accurate estimate of what your photo is going to look like. Everything is blown up and magnified – even on video calls! If the user at the other end is holding the smartphone at the usual distance, you’ll see a cropped version on the folding display.

I hope WhatsApp can push out an update that fixes things, especially when its sister app — Instagram — has it all figured out in the Stories section. Instagram Stories don’t crop or magnify your image in the viewfinder.

There’s a decent chance the situation will start to improve with Android 12L, but a lot still rides on app developers implementing these changes.

Creaseless folding display

A Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 device with the display turned off lying on some leaves.

The crease on the Fold 3 folding display is much like the notch on Apple devices – you stop noticing it after a while. However, it is still noticeable when there’s a dark background, especially when reading something on the Kindle app, which is a common use case for me. Despite the crease bothering me sometimes, I love reading on the Fold 3.

On the other hand, the Oppo Find N‘s foldable display doesn’t have a deep crease like the Fold, though that might change after long-term use. But out of the box, the Find N has a much more seamless foldable display that looks and feels more pleasant to use. I just wish Samsung could figure out a way to minimize the crease to make my reading experience more pleasant.

Better UDC selfie shooter on the inside

Galaxy Z Fold 3 on a pavement.

When Samsung debuted the 4MP under-display camera (UDC) on the Fold 3, it was making a huge bet by adding an innovative new feature while also sacrificing usability. It’s beautiful to have a 7.6-inch display without any cutout bothering you and makes full-screen content appear more thrilling.

However, the quality of the selfies taken from the UDC isn’t great, as we noted in our review. Fortunately, Samsung is likely already working on a next-gen UDC with better image quality output, and I hope it debuts on the Galaxy Z Fold 4.

Built-in dock for S-Pen

Samsung introduced the capability of S-Pen support from its Note lineup to the Galaxy S21 Ultra and the Galaxy Z Fold 3. However, both of them missed out on a huge functional design feature that the Note had – a place to keep the S-Pen. If the Galaxy S22 Ultra renders are anything to go by, Samsung is already working on a place you can slot the S Pen without needing to shell out for a special case. That’ll make the S22 Ultra feel much more like the presumably defunct Note series, while the Z Fold 4 could get this slot, too, and serve as a more effective note-taking slate.

When will Galaxy Z Fold 4 launch?

The Galaxy Z Fold 4 has largely replaced the Galaxy Note lineup, which used to serve as the second flagship series lineup for Samsung. Now, the Galaxy Z Fold 4 is expected to launch alongside the Galaxy Z Flip 4 toward the end of 2022.

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