Dan Ferguson: The Escapist Interview

Office managers can thank Dan Ferguson for helping reduce their workers’ productivity. He pioneered the concept of the “advergame”: easy-to-play, casual videogames that pitch a product, service or company’s brand. Often played within a web browser and running in Flash, these innocuous looking games can suck up a lot of hours during one’s workday – and that’s how they are intentionally devised.

Ferguson began making such time-wasters when he, along with his business partner Mike Bielinski, created Elf Bowling as a promotional tool for their design company. Released in November 1999, it capitalized on the holiday season and served over 7 million downloads. Buoyed by this success, Ferguson and Bielinski sold their company and formed a new one in 2001, which would marry their ad design experience and newfound game design skills: Blockdot.

Since then, Blockdot has made over 800 games hawking its clients’ wares and names. Blockdot cranks out one to two games per week. This modest-sized company (they employ just over 50 employees at their Dallas office) could likely be considered the most prolific game developer in history.

The Escapist: Why would a company want to use an advergame to sell their product, service or message? What can an advergame do that another traditional advertising medium can’t?

Dan Ferguson: We totally believe in the power of the internet and being able to goof off during your work hours. What we’ve found is that while most people will avoid banner ads, people are very accepting of playing a game. People are willing to get involved. They’re willing to give up some of their time, even if it is branded, even if it has a marketing message, if it’s fun. So they’re paying attention. They’re getting engaged in the experience, which is really powerful compared to banner ads or a TV spot. Anywhere from 15 to 50 percent of people who engage in an advergame will click through. A banner ad is like point-something percent that people actually will click through.

The other thing is that games have an inherent value to people. A lot of times, people want to download a game that could be associated with the [client’s] brand. Getting associated with a pleasurable experience is really positive for the brand.

All the games we’ve produced have advanced tracking and reporting. We track how long people are playing, how many times they’re playing, how many times they’ve sent it to a friend, how many of their friends play the game.

TE: What are your clients looking for when they hire Blockdot to develop an advergame? Do a lot of them come to you with a game idea already in mind?

DN: It’s really broad. They’ll either come to us with an idea they want us to implement, or they’ve seen other companies do [advergames], and they want something similar. And so we pitch ideas based on what they’re wanting to do. It’s not just “Company ‘X’ wants to do a game about their product.” It could be we do something completely different that has nothing to do with their product or service, but they want to create a really engaging experience around it.

TE: From there, how does the game design process work?

DN: We educate the client of the benefits of gameplay, because sometimes they think it’s an ad within the game. They don’t understand that it doesn’t have to be about their message or their product. If they’re trying to draw traffic to a particular website through the game, we’ll try to channel the user: When the game is over, we encourage the user then to take the “call to action” the client is wanting them to do.

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We take the essence of their brand and try to inject that into some sort of gameplay that makes sense, and also keep in mind the target audience. We’ve done a game for Always tampons – how do you make a game for a feminine product? Sometimes you’ve got to really think way out there.

We just released a game for Panasonic promoting one of their Toughbooks to the medical community. Panasonic wanted to do something fun. We did some medical games. One of the games was called Treat It or Eat It. We’ve taken photos of either food, a disease or something really disgusting. As it’s revealing more of the photo, you quickly decide whether you “treat it” or “eat it.” Here’s a computer company doing something totally disgusting that’s a lot of fun. It gives them a chance to break out of their standard-issue advertising mold and do something wacky.

TE: Is there a conflict a lot of times trying to balance making a game that’s fun as opposed to designing one that delivers the client’s message?

DN: All the time. All the time. There’s a lot of misconceptions of what [customers] want and how they play. We’ve experienced over half a billion game plays, and so we have a lot of knowledge that we’ve learned from our users. We try to educate [clients] what their audience will play, how much of a marketing message is too much. We have had to walk away from some projects before. But generally advertisers are pretty accepting of the direction that we try to point them. It’s a balancing act of managing their expectation and trying to create something for the user.

TE: Which side usually wins out?

DN: (chuckles) Generally, the one paying the bill.

We build a lot of games just for ourselves. So creatively and professionally we satisfy that need. But we do build games that we’re not happy with the direction that it went. We’ll remove our name from the game.

TE: Are there certain game genres that don’t work well in the advergame format?

DN: I could tell you which ones are extremely popular. The puzzle, casual categories are extremely popular. We have yet to do a shooter.

TE: Why is that?

DN: Well, most brands don’t want to associate themselves with any kind of violent act.

We’re starting to do a lot of games in educational, training areas. We’re building games that educate employees, sales staff, students. Nowadays people in the business world have grown up playing games, and so they don’t look at it as this thing that kids do.

TE: How does the advertising industry currently regard the idea of using games to advertise?

DN: It’s unbelievable. Our business has grown over 250 percent the last year. The scope of the projects are getting in the seven figures. We have a broad range of projects we’re working on all the time.

TE: Where do you see advergames evolving in the coming years, in respect to the overall videogame industry?

DN: Internet users have [an] insatiable appetite for free content. Most don’t want to pay for content if it has an advertising message. There are ads being put in games that people are having to buy; I for one don’t want to spend 50 bucks and see an advertisement. However, as long as developers are creating games that happen to be sponsored, it will grow quite a bit. It’s going to move towards the console market. I think ad-supported content is going to win out in the long run. There’s only so many $60 shooters a person is going to buy.

TE: So you predict that not only will there be continued growth in the advergame business, but also that a lot of downloadable games will be given away for free, supported by ad sponsorships?

DN: As long as they are fun games, people are going to be very accepting of that. When I buy a game, I don’t think I should get ads.

Howard Wen did not goof off playing an advergame during office hours while transcribing and editing this interview.

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