Play to Pay

Play to Pay
Dan Ferguson: The Escapist Interview

Howard Wen | 18 Dec 2007 08:11
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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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