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August 31, 2006

Advergame: Friend or Foe?

Cross-posted on GameDaily.


"Mommy, can we buy Stouffer's mac & cheese?" comes the urgent request from the little man in the next room.


"Oh, yeah. I mean... Mommy, can we buy Stouffer's mac & cheese... please?" comes the properly-formatted request from the little man in the next room.

"Why Stouffer's?"

"Because they use 100% real cheese!" comes the reply (no doubt followed by a silent "duh!").

"Oh. We'll see."

As all parents know, children are the dream target of many a marketing message, because they have not yet become jaded about advertising, and in fact, don't always recognize it when they see it. Or put another way, their bullshit detectors are still being assembled.

Over the past few years, companies have been taking advantage of a new and growing medium for their advertising messages - games. This phenomenon is called Advergaming. According to Wikipedia:

Advergaming is the practice of using games, particularly computer games, to advertise or promote a product, organization or viewpoint.

Advergaming takes several forms. For the purposes of this column, though, I won't be dealing with 1) in-game advertising (like the infamous Subway ads that were placed in Counter-Strike for several weeks), or 2) games like America's Army, a full-length console video game commisioned by the U.S. Army in order to immerse the player into all of Army culture, as opposed to combat alone.

Instead, I'll be focusing on games that companies put on their websites in order to attract potential customers. Often, though not always, the product itself is the character, or the treasure at the end - the very object of the game.

As I wrote in my first Dad's Take column, as well as my first GameFam post, it took a while before my kids and I started playing console games together. And although games for the PlayStation 2 and GameCube (not the Xbox) take up the majority of our joint gaming sessions these days, early on, advergames comprised a much larger percentage.

Here is a short list of some of the advergames my kids and I have enjoyed together over the past few years. This list is far from comprehensive, as it merely reflects the ones we've played and enjoyed most. If you're looking to stay abreast of the latest in advergaming, Water Cooler Games regularly writes about that very subject.

  • Wonka.com Game Central has a big list of games, but the Laffy Taffy 3D Pyramid Challenge was my kids' favorite. Explore a maze inside an old pyramid. Find flavor-themed keys to unlock corresponding doors. Collect pellets to power your all-important flashlight. Use ropes and secret codes to cross open spaces. But watch out for the big burping red guys!
  • Barbie. Ugh. Don't get me started on Barbie. It's enough already with Barbie. But what are ya gonna do? My daughter loves it, and she like to play some of the games on this site.
  • Ice Age. We found this site (based on the 2002 film) a few years ago, and my kids loved it. You find games by exploring several screen-sized levels. The games are well-made and fun. Some of their favorites are Whack-a-Skrat, where you can bludgeon Skrat with a fish, and Ice Track Derby, where kids can create their own tracks and then race on them as characters from the movie.
  • Wrigley's CandyStand / NabiscoWorld Games. Although these two websites are owned by two separate companies, they were both owned by Kraft when they were created, hence the striking similarities. Each site has a huge selection of games, some more fun than others. But everyone should be able to find something fun to play. My kids loved the mini-golf games, my son loved the Sumo wrestler-themed sandwich cookie battle, and my daughter's favorite is the Sims-esque Chips Ahoy! Fun Room Designer.
  • Too many television-based games to count. Some of the best are:

On the bottom of the NabiscoWorld Games page, Kraft has put the following message:

Hi kids, when you see "Ad Break" it means you are viewing a commercial message designed to sell you something. Remember, if you are under 18 years old, you should get a parent's permission before you submit any information about yourself or try to buy anything online.

Well, there's a nice little bit of irony for ya. While it's nice to see that Kraft warns kids not to submit information by themselves, Kraft is well aware that the messages flagged as "Ad Breaks" are far from the only...what was it?... "commercial message designed to sell you something" made on these advergaming sites. By definition, every one of these games is designed to increase the brand equity of and loyalty to the product in children.

Marketers know that people buy products not only because of how they taste (or look, or sound, or mow, or copy, or... widgetize...), but because of how it makes them feel - the bundle of emotions associated with every brand.

To improve brand image among kids, companies use things like fun packaging and fun commercials. But unlike those fun commercials, which interrupt the chosen leisure activity of watching TV, advergames are the leisure activity itself.

So the next time your kids spot a familiar package on the lower shelves in the supermarket, the advergame provider hopes that that they will exclaim, "Daddy! that's the candy from that maze game! Can we get it, Daddy?!"


"Oh, yeah. I mean... can we please get it, Daddy?"

It's all too easy to throw out the "gaming" baby with the "adver" bathwater (yes, that's horribly, horribly written, but you get my point), but especially if your family has a limited gaming budget (which, I assume, are 99.4% of the families out there), you're missing out if you dismiss all advergames out of hand. You just need to be there to filter the marketing messages your kids receive in game form. As with anything that touches the lives of children, the key is active parental involvement.

You know what they say: Keep your friends close, and your advergames closer.

Happy gaming!

August 17, 2006

REVIEW: Namco Museum (GBA)

Namco Museum for the Gameboy Advance includes:

  • Galaxian (1979)
  • Galaga (1981)
  • Ms. Pac-Man (1981)
  • Dig Dug (1982)
  • Pole Position (1982)

Smell is one of the most evocative of senses. For example, when I open the trunk in my basement and take a whiff (as I am wont to do), I am suddenly transported back to summer camp in rural Wisconsin in the early 1980's. I can almost taste the bug juice and adolescent angst.

That's not to say that my old trunk is the only time machine around these parts. There's nothing like the smell of day-old hot dogs on the countertop grill, brain freeze-inducing cola Slurpees, and a freshly-opened pouch of Big League Chew, to bring me back to my local 7-Eleven, also in the early '80's. More specifically, these smells transport me to my favorite spot in front of their Galaga machine. Ahh, Galaga. Such fun. Such excitement. Such double-shippy goodness.

Galaga was one of my favorite classic arcade games ever, which is saying something, given the large mushy area that classic arcade games occupy in my heart. Which is why I was pretty happy when I got to play Namco Museum for the GBA, on the flight to and from GDC and E3 (moment of silence) this year.

My kids were also happy to play Namco Museum on a recent plane trip, but instead of the relatively difficult Galaga, their faves were Dig Dug, Ms. Pac-Man, and Pole Position.

Dig Dug is such a happy little game, from the delightfully cheerful music to the bright backgrounds. My kids sometimes have to ask for help on the more advanced levels, but at least early on in the game, it's not too hard, and lots of fun. They both love blowing the crap out of Pooka and Fygar with Dig Dug's little bicycle pump... of death. As an aside, as I mentioned in my GameTap review, Dig Dug's "Joey" is one of the funnier (though not the most kid-friendly) A Day in the Extra Life animated shorts.

Ms. Pac-Man suffers from being a portrait game in a landscape world. So your choices are; 1) the tiny, cornea-straining full-screen mode, where the playable area shares the screen with an equal amount of black nothingness, or 2) scroll mode, where at any given time, you can see the entire width of the screen, but only half of the length. So although you may not be able to see Blinky and Clyde plotting their evil deeds somewhere offscreen, scroll mode is the better bet, because the entire GBA screen is playable. And once you start playing, it's the genuine article.

My kids enjoyed Pole Position, even though, like all driving games, it's tough to control the car with a digital pad. The result is that without the ability to make smooth analog changes in the car's heading, you end up driving all herky-jerky-like. One of the things my kids like to do as they drive around the track is to find the Dig Dug billboards along the side of the road.

Galaxian may be a slower, uniship version of its sequel, Galaga, but it will always be a special game for me, because of the role it played in arcade history. Before its 1979 release, the only color we got to see in games was when arcade companies would project the monotone game image onto a painted background, a la Space Invaders or Boot Hill. And just like the effect the big orange splot had on Mr. Plumbean's neat street, when Galaxian burst gloriously onto the scene, it was like a rainbow. It was like an explosion.

For the older kids, Galaga plays pretty well, though if you have to move the GBA up and down in the course of trying to hit the fire button fast enough, it can be tough to concentrate on a single spot on the screen.

In general, given the technological advancements made in the gaming industry in the last quarter century, the Gameboy Advance is just about the perfect vehicle for classic arcade games. These 3-minute, easy-to-learn, hard-to-master adventures are perfect for portable gaming, but not sophisticated enough to feel at home on the DS or PSP. And other than Ms. Pac-Man's pesky aspect ratio issues, the games are faithfully ported over with their sights and sounds as authentic as I remember them.

The only area that takes a significant hit is the controls. Even if we take Pole Position's steering wheel out of the equation, a teeny-tiny d-pad simply can't measure up to a robust, full-size arcade joystick, especially for North/South/East/West games like Ms. Pac-Man and Dig Dug.

As someone who lived through the golden age of arcade gaming in the late '70s and early '80s, I really get a kick out of seeing my kids enjoy playing the games I loved as a kid. Namco Museum for the Gameboy Advance is a terrific game for all ages, and will come in mighty handy on your next trip in the Family Truckster. And if the game isn't enough to satisfy little Rusty and Audrey, you can always stop off for a Slurpee break along the way.

August 16, 2006

You've Got Content!

It's official...

AOL acquires GameDaily from Gigex.

More detail in this Q&A with the General Manager of AOL Games - AOL's Ralph Rivera Explains the GameDaily purchase.

I, for one, welcome my new AOL overlords. ;)

As a reminder, since I posted about them in May & June respectively, here are the features that AOL Games did for some notable Mom & Dad gamers:
Mother's Day Feature
Father's Day Feature

August 12, 2006

Ordinarily I'd Be Thrilled...

...but I live in Illinois.

As I wrote in the comment section of Kim's blog:

As a game industry type o' fella, I'm thrilled, yet as a citizen of Illinois, some of those 1/2 million shekels are coming outta my pocket.

I couldn't be more conflicted.

More from the always relevant GamePolitics.

August 10, 2006

REVIEW: Stuart Little 3: Big Photo Adventure

Cross-posted on GameDAILY.

In reviewing Lego Star Wars a few weeks ago, I wrote about how my kids had begun to play more independently, instead of being more passive (or more accurately, intermittently active) consumers of the games we play together.

While they're still playing and enjoying Lego Star Wars (no surprise), my kids recently started playing another game that allows them the freedom to play by themselves - Stuart Little 3: Big Photo Adventure.

From the game's title alone, we can deduce the following:

  • The game features the beloved Stuart Little (duh), in his recurring role as mouse-living-among-humans-as-member-of-family. And apparently, there have been 2 previous Stuart Little games.
  • Something about photos, or the taking thereof. Correct. In this case, Stuart accidentally knocks big brother George's photo album into the fish tank, and the game revolves around Stuart's efforts to re-create every photo in the album. Along the way, Stuart has...
  • ...oh, you guessed it, huh? Well, you're right; a Big Adventure.
The interface in Stuart Little 3 is friendly and unintimidating, so just as in Lego Star Wars, my kids didn't have a moment's hesitation before plunging hip-deep into the Stuart Little pool.

From the outset, it is clear that Stuart Little 3 achieves a balance all too rare in licensed games for kids, in that it embraces the license without being too constrained by it. The game is true to the spirit, appearance and environments of the Stuart Little movies, yet it gives the young players enough freedom to feel that they are in charge of the adventure (as opposed to the unseen conductor of a train traveling on-rails). And speaking of that freedom, while there is a lot of open-ended, freeform gameplay, there is enough gentle guidance to make sure that the player doesn't feel lost or confused about what to do next.

Stuart Little 3: Big Photo Adventure achieves a delicate balance in another crucial area - difficulty. While it is easy enough for young kids to play by themselves, it is also just challenging enough to keep them interested for more than just a few minutes. As for the controls, they feel intuitive and solid.

The game also teaches a nice lesson about responsibility. Even though it was an accident, Stuart ruined George's project, so it's Stuart's responsibility to replace it. In addition, in order to get some of the people to agree to pose for Stuart's camera, he needs to help them by performing good deeds and fairly easy tasks.

There is an EyeToy component to the game, but although my kids have been playing the game for a while, it hasn't come up yet. From what I've read, though, we're not missing much, as it's more of an add-on gimmick than a central component of the game.

If you were looking for more in the way of in-game details, here you go, in the form of one big stream-of-consciousness mega-sentence......... right after I psych myself up for the task. Ready?


(* channels Veronica Corningstone before her first newscast as anchor, while Ron Burgundy was busy crying hysterically about his dog Baxter, who had just been punted off the bridge by Jack Black's biker character, after Ron tossed his delicious-but-too-filling burrito out of his car at him while singing about taking Baxter to foggy London town, causing Black to wipe out on his bike, after which he said "That's how I roll" ............ did people even say that in the '70s? *)

Where was I? Oh yeah, the little mouse kid. And by the way, that wasn't the mega-sentence from hell. This is:

You explore several different levels (backyard, park, basement, etc.), trying to find the objects of Stuart's (via George) photographic desire, pausing along the way to collect Snowbell-bribing cat snacks (without which that darn cat won't lift a paw to help you - what is it with cats, anyway?), as well as shiny blue and yellow blobs to charge the flash (without which you can't take the pictures), and you get to dress up in several outfits (photographer, fireman, Native American, etc.) with corresponding abilities (taking pictures, spraying water, shooting arrows, etc.), and although the races aren't so easy, you get to ride/drive a garage full of unlockable vehicles, including skateboard, BMX bike, scooter, roadster, tank, dune buggy, hovercraft, motorcycle, helicopter, blimp, sailboard, speaking of which, not only can you easily switch vehicles in the garage, but when you move from land to water (or vice-versa), the game auto-switches you to the appropriate vehicle, and I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the fun mini-golf and skateboarding mini-games.

* passes out from prolonged oxygen deprivation * Maybe instead of channeling the lovely and talented Ms. Corningstone, I should have channeled this guy.

So I think I've made it pretty clear what I think, but if you still need me to bottom-line it for ya, here you go: Stuart Little 3: Big Photo Adventure is an out-freakin'-standing game for kids of all ages. Or to paraphrase the lovely and vacuous Brian Fantana, 100% of the time, it's fun EVERY time.

August 09, 2006

GameDAILY Download of the Day: Lego Star Wars II

Here's the link to the demo for Lego Star Wars II: Original Trilogy.


August 03, 2006

REVIEW: Nintendogs / PREVIEW: The Sims 2 Pets (a.k.a. Pets will do what Nintendon't)

Cross-posted on GameDAILY.

So I'm browsing through my Google news aggregator home page, when lo and behold, I see that the top story on Sims 2 News is the following headline:

"CNet Video Interview With Sims Designer Robin Hunicke"

Hey! I know her! She's good people. Salt of the earth, that Robin.................................... except for the fact that she's a cat person.

Relax, people, I joke, I kid. I like cats. Really, I do. Some of my best friends are cats.................................... but really, dogs kick ass. They just have that certain... dogness about them. Cats? Please.

Before I get all the cat people up in arms, there's actually a reason for stirring up some pet-owner passions. So bear with me, 'cuz I'm going somewhere with this.

As some of you may remember from my review of Dog's Life, my family is most definitely a dog family. Last October, we lost our own beloved pooch of 10 years, and we were all suffering from acute doggie withdrawal.

A few months later, we got a Nintendo DS for the holidays, along with a copy of Nintendogs: Dachshund & Friends, because that was the one that included beagles in the original group of breeds.

It was love at first sight. The puppies were indescribably cute, and we couldn't wait to get started. Unfortunately given the language recognition glitches with some DS games (e.g. saying "blue" in Brain Age), it took several tries and a surprisingly considerable chunk of time to get past the initial training/imprinting stage (where the player establishes the connection to the specific dog), which was frustrating.

At first, my daughter named her beagle puppy "Otter", after our dearly departed beagle, but my wife and I asked her to choose a new name, because it was just too painful to hear her training her new puppy using the name of the family member we'd lost just two and a half months earlier. So she chose another name and was on her way to making a new friend.

One of the best things about gameplay in Nintendogs is using the stylus to give your puppy baths and belly rubs. Physically "touching" your puppy really helps to cement the emotional relationship between child and dog.

My kids loved the fact that they could each choose their own puppy. My daughter had her beagle, my son chose a husky, and my wife picked a golden retriever. I was waiting for the yellow labs to be unlocked, but before that happened, our enthusiasm for the game trailed off considerably.

While there are many good things about Nintendogs, depth is not one of them. There is a great deal of repetitiveness to the gameplay. For example...

  • You enter a competition (e.g. obedience, frisbee-catching, etc.) to win some prize money, which you can use to buy supplies like food and grooming tools, or fun extras like ribbons and 3D sunglasses for your dogs. The competitions are fun... the first couple of times. But the problem is that even though it gets slightly harder each time, there isn't really a sense of advancement.
  • You leave your puppy alone for a month, while you visit your fabulous cousins in the south of France. Upon your return, you check on your dogs, expecting them to have run away (as the game warns that they will). Instead, you are eagerly greeted by a motley crew of filthy, hungry, parched pooches. After a bath and a few gulps of food and water, it's like you never left.
  • You take your puppy for a walk. You meet another puppy. They may get along. They may not. Nothing really happens. Your puppy poops and pishes. You don't have to clean it up (though the game tells you that you should). There's no penalty of any kind for befouling the sidewalk.
  • You take another walk. Second verse (and the third and the fourth), same as the first. Again, nothing really happens.

Although very very cute, Nintendogs is like a Bizarro World god game, where no matter what you do, you get the same results. This, of course, is exactly the opposite of what a god game is supposed to be.

Speaking of god games, if some of you are wondering why I started this column by writing about Robin (she's probably wondering herself), here's why:

The interview was about the upcoming Sims 2 expansion pack, The Sims 2 Pets, and it is very clear that Pets will have the characteristic Sims depth, customization, and realistic, real-time cause-and-effect gameplay.

And whether you're a dog person, a cat person, or would rather have a lower-maintenance pet like a hamster or a bird (do the parrots speak Simlish? - "Squawk! Kskrank! Glugiado! Squawk!"), The Sims 2 Pets can hook you up.

Until now, when playing The Sims 2 with my kids, we only play a little here and a little there, as opposed to doing more of a "deep dive" into what is an impressively deep game. We'll play for half an hour before bed, or 20 minutes here and there. And we always enjoy it together. When the fat alien man suddenly gave birth to a bouncing baby...... creature, my kids were on the floor.

The reason we haven't delved that deeply into the game is twofold. First, with so many games to play, we simply can't (nor do my kids want to) spend so much time playing one game above all others. Similar to World of Warcraft, if you try to get as much as possible out of The Sims 2 experience, it can be quite the time sink.

Secondly, The Sims 2 is rated T, and while that hasn't necessarily stopped me in the past (e.g. Ratchet & Clank & Dog's Life), there is the small issue of WooHoo, and given that getting laid is one of the goals in the game (depending on your character's personality, aspirations, etc.), that's a tad more mature than I want to expose my kids to right now. That said, though, there's a lot of great stuff for kids in The Sims 2, and we do have a lot of fun with the limited way we play.

So, as we shift our focus from hoochie to poochie, The Sims 2 Pets looks to be a lot more uniformly kid-friendly. My kids are going to love, love, love the Create-a-Pet function. Though they may try to create some realistic-looking animals, I can't wait to see some of the stranger creations they come up with. In a way, it's a more advanced version of the interchangeable body parts in Lego Star Wars II.

One way the game improves on Nintendogs is that there are consequences to how you treat your pets. If you don't treat them well, they will be taken away, which is similar to having your animal adoption privileges suspended in Zoo Tycoon.

Another way is that you get to guide and accompany your pets through their entire lifecycle, which is the way it works with all the Sims species.

All in all, it looks like The Sims 2 Pets will be both a solid addition to the Sims franchise, as well as a great option for pet-loving gamers.

To summarize, I realize that these two games aren't necessarily direct competitors, but given the subject matter, it's natural to compare and contrast them with each other.

My kids enjoyed Nintendogs. It was a lot of fun for a little while, and a little fun for the long run, the main reason being repetitiveness and lack of depth. So if you're looking for a deep experience with your virtual pets, The Sims 2 Pets will do what Nintendon't.