Case Study: Burger King's Advergames - Part 1

This week, Advertising Lab is pleased to offer highlights from a book that just came out, Changing the Game: How Video Games Are Transforming the Future of Business, co-authored (together with Ethan Mollick) by an old friend and former MIT colleague David Edery, who now works as Worldwide Games Portfolio Planner for Xbox Live Arcade.

You will find a review in Economist, and Cliff Notes in Inc. Here, with authors' permission, I'm publishing their findings and insights about Burger King's set of blockbuster advergames that are at least in part credited for the 41% jump in company's quarterly profits.

Changing the Game: How Video Games Are Transforming the Future of Business
by David Edery and Ethan Mollick

An advergame worthy of purchase must be a cut above the usual advergaming fare. Creating such a game requires close cooperation between an advertiser and a game developer. That can be a challenge for companies not accustomed to game development, but the end result is worth the effort. The Burger King promotion illustrates both the benefits and the risks of undertaking such a complex project.

In late 2006, Burger King began selling three games: a multiplayer racing game called Pocketbike Racer, a bumper-car game called Big Bumpin’, and an oddly compelling game called Sneak King, in which players must sneak up on hungry strangers and surprise them with a burger.

The games were playable on both the original Xbox and the Xbox 360, with upgraded graphics on the latter console, and were all developed in just eight months. By all accounts, it’s a miracle that the games were even finished on time, much less at any reasonable level of quality.

Philip Oliver, the CEO of Blitz Games and a longtime industry veteran, doesn’t pull any punches when describing the entire project, which was awarded to Blitz by Microsoft and Burger King earlier that year: “Burger King’s ambitions for the games evolved substantially over the life of the project. If someone had told me ‘You have eight months to write three Xbox games, which also must run on the Xbox 360, and can’t simply be a port to the 360 but must actually look better, even though the 360 hardware isn’t fully finished yet,’ I simply wouldn’t have signed up for it. That being said, I’m delighted with how it all turned out!” As well he should have been, given the 40% increase in Burger King’s profits during the quarter in which the games were released.

Many factors drove the success of the Burger King games.

Chief among these was the recognition by all parties involved that the games needed to be fun first, and serve as advertisements second. In Oliver’s words, “Burger King wanted nothing more than to provide players with a great deal of fun and a lot of laughs—it would be pure coincidence that the games took place in the Burger King universe.”

Fortunately, the Burger King universe happens to be a rather bizarre and interesting place, thanks in no small part to the energy the company has invested into characters such as the King and the Subservient Chicken. Dr. Stacy Wood, Professor of Marketing for the Moore School of Business at the University of South Carolina, summed up Burger King’s approach: “There wasn’t a heavy sell with these games. Consumers thought they were getting a fun experience—not a sales pitch. For brands that have some kitsch value—some cultural capital—this is a great way to connect with consumers. When turning off the highway, their instinct to eat at Burger King, instead of another fast-food restaurant across the street, is going to be driven by a very fast decision that is influenced,in large part, by warm feelings like ‘Burger King is fun.’”

To be continued.

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