This is part of our best-of 2008 series, previously featured on our newsletter, Advance. Imagine, for a moment, a universe that does not yet exist. A flying saucer navigates a galaxy of oddly colored planets and moons teeming with life. The saucer slows upon reaching one particular world, and moves in closer. It is a lush green landscape, and scattered around the planet are cities – sculpted from Coke bottles. Moving closer, vehicles created from Coke bottle caps race back and forth between the buildings. And zooming in reveals the townspeople of this foreign land to be none other than the creatures from Coca-Cola’s "Happiness Factory" commercial.
This imaginary planet sits in a galaxy created by Spore, EA’s new hit game. Or rather, it could. There’s a trend beginning to hit mainstream in-video game design: User-generated content. September saw the release of EA’s aforementioned Spore. a "universe simulation" that allows players to create and share entire worlds with other players. In late October, Sony released LittleBigPlanet for the PS3, a highly anticipated title for all ages and both genders where the user generated content provides levels for sack-puppets to play through. These two games are the first mainstream titles that put heavy emphasis on content creation and sharing as part of the “play” process. The buzz and success surrounding these titles indicate they will not be the last. These games adopt the YouTube model – content consumers and creators are one and the same. And by doing so, these games open up an incredibly powerful avenue for marketers: viral in-game marketing. And that brings me to my next point…when I said the universe with Coca-Cola creatures didn’t exist, that wasn’t entirely true.
As of this writing, Spore’s Sporepedia, the directory of user-creations, has over 40 million entries. Of those, a handful of users have created rudimentary forms of Coke related creatures or buildings. They aren’t particularly good, but the effort has been made. In fact, many brands are represented in the Sporepedia – my current favorite is a modeling of the robot Johnny Five from the movie Short Circuit. Even without an active marketer presence, users are interacting with virtual incarnations of branded content. LittleBigPlanet is getting in on the branding action too. As part of its retail pre-order exclusives, the team behind LittleBigPlanet created videos for different retail outlets that incorporate their brand into the level design. The Amazon.com one is particularly neat, and has the sock puppets opening a mailbox and pulling out an Amazon branded cardboard box.
What exists informally today will be industrialized by tomorrow. With the barrier of entry so low in terms of both content creation and distribution, the cost of a viral game execution is minimal. Additionally, in both Spore and LittleBigPlanet, content that is imported into a user’s game can then be modified and re-distributed. LittleBigPlanet has also incorporated a number of social networking features such as photo sharing and tagging which will facilitate additional viral distribution of content. As long as a brand fits within the context of the game and is okay with letting go of control over the content, they should jump into these platforms while they are new and fresh. In short order viral in-game marketing will become standard fare, but as of today, this is the bleeding edge.