We’ve been warning about advergaming—the combination of virtual reality (VR) and ads—for years on the Labs Blog. I’ve given a few talks on the subject too, and how ad networks will slowly work their way into enclosed spaces formerly reserved for your head. They still might, but thanks to a recent decision by Oculus VR game Blaston, that version of the future looks like certain than it once did.

VR gaming: The hardware differences

There are two main types of VR headset, one more expensive than the other. The cheaper option is any “empty shell” headset you care to mention. They could be made of plastic, or cardboard, and may require self assembly. There’s no hardware or software component at all, it’s just fancy goggles with a space for your mobile. All of the VR activity takes place on your goggle-mounted phone. Unless you have a recent model, you may struggle to run software successfully.

The more expensive option is the dedicated headset. These work with VR-ready PCs, and combine a lot of intricate hardware and software built into the device. There’s frequently additional synchronicity with platform specific software installed on the PC. A final splash of integration may come from gaming platforms such as Steam.

The major players here are Oculus, HTC Vive, and Steam’s new Index headset. Now that we’ve covered the headsets, we’ll briefly dive into potential types of VR advertising.

VR adverts: The lay of the (virtual) land

VR ads are attractive to advertisers because they have the potential to crank the behavioural advertising we’re used to on the web—where advertisers watch what you do, build a profile, and show you personalised ads—up to eleven.

For the cheaper, mobile VR sets, Adobe made waves in 2017 with an ad platform optimised for mobile VR platforms. It also potentially had the ability to pop ads while in a movie theatre, which may or may not be your cup of heavily discounted tea. Nokia were particularly enchanted by mixed reality advertising. Indeed, adding digital elements to real world views has become very popular and mimics many common mobile features used daily. This familiarity probably helps put viewers of mixed reality ads somewhat at ease.

The really big potential for ads lies with the top end hardware though. In 2017, HTC made headway with “Innovative VR ads.” This was a pretty sophisticated setup, similar in look and feel at the sign-up process to other ad platforms, like Google Ads. Sales/payout reports, test/publish facilities, 2D and big screen video ads were just some of its features.

The most interesting part was the eye tracking functionality. Many VR games track eye movement to further aspects of gameplay. Here, it served to let publishers know if gamers or headset users looked at their ads. If nobody looked, no charges from the ad system would be forthcoming.

Deepening the ties between games and adverts

One potential danger from advergaming is that a deep level of ad tracking can impact a game’s level design. For example: developers make use of systems like heatmaps, particularly in multiplayer titles. A heat map shows where players go, and where they avoid. You can see which parts of your map are popular, and which are essentially dead zones. Developers will sometimes revamp maps based on this data.

Where it goes wrong, is if developers become too immersed in ad systems populating their games. Imagine a scenario where developers generate income from ads in their title. They may make money when people look at the ads, for example, the same way ad publishers are only billed if the ad network tracks players looking at the ads.

There’s an incentive for the developers to place the ads in ever more prominent…some may say intrusive…locations. This could harm the overall aesthetic of a title, or make level design bad in favour of jamming adverts everywhere. It also raises an interesting question. Is a game developer making adverts that are gaming the advertising network system? That’s something for the devs, ad publishers, and ad network to figure out.

This was all back in 2017. How did the VR ad landscape evolve?

The changing face of VR ads

By the end of 2018, companies involved in the VR/AR ad space were talking about serving 1 billion ad impressions, and how the “novelty” factor had mostly fallen away. By the end of 2019, there was evidence that some organisations had found success with so-called “immersive” ad campaigns. This was especially the case where technology like 360 degree video was deployed. Even so, there hasn’t really been a buzz with regards VR/AR ads in gaming spaces. Until now, that is.

Negative buzz is still a form of buzz, right?

A timeline of ad disaster

May, 2021

Back in May, Oculus announced a lot of additions for tools, apps, and videos. It also mentioned the introduction of an ad ecosystem, and tied it to notions of “discoverability” and helping developers. They did also link to an article explaining how to control the ads users see. However, leaving mention of ads till the very end is something which would annoy some people on the assumption it may be something a lot of folks don’t bother reading. What sort of reader numbers make it to the end of an arguably already niche post?

Not a major thing, but something which immediately leaps out.

June, 2021

This is the point where Oculus explained how ad testing is going to work. Specifically, adding in-headset ads to the popular VR title Blaston. There are ways to make ads properly integrated into a video game title. You wouldn’t have an advert for SPACE WARS 2067 in a World War 2 setting, or an advert for a brand new motorcar on the last billboard in a ruined apocalypse. I mean, you might, but it wouldn’t look very good.

Things like that leap out. By the same token, we can argue that ads seamlessly integrated into games to the point you don’t notice them are incredibly sneaky. You can see more of that fine line here.

I’m not familiar with Blaston myself, but the screenshots look very out of place. The blog talks about making sure the ad content is relevant to the VR user, but nobody seems to consider the relevance of the ad to its environment. Put simply: An ad for “Fast free delivery” of Jasper’s something or other, lit up in bright green against an otherwise grimey, purple landscape fairly screams “I don’t belong here”.

The post also goes into detail about restrictions on ads, which is welcome. For example, they don’t use information processed / stored locally. They don’t use movement data to target ads, unlike some other ad plans where tracking / movement is an important element. Random conversation content is also off the table, they don’t want it.

That’s good, then. However, they also promised “more to come”. Shall we see how this all panned out?

The crushing inevitability of what comes next

You can probably guess where this is going, so without further ado:

The major problem here is that Blaston is a paid-for title. Given Oculus headsets are a premium purchase as it is, gamers would likely feel incredibly annoyed at having ads placed in something they paid various amounts of money for. The game is also available on the Steam platform, where it can be played via Oculus, HTC Vive, or Valve Index. Unless I’ve missed it, there’s no mention of ads being introduced while playing with Vive or Index.

That’s an immediate product disparity liable to fan the flames of anger.

The devs appear to have realised this, and have suggested resuming the ad trial in one of their free titles at a later date. All the same, some damage has potentially been done to the game’s brand. I hadn’t heard of it prior to this, and now all I’ll probably think is “Oh, that game with the advert blowout.”

Game over?

Despite ads in VR games being pushed as “the next big thing” way back in 2017, it’s now 2021. There’s a lot of ad impressions for VR/AR generally. Organisations are definitely making money from it.

Games, though? Those are going to be a very tough sell. This is, again, one small test of ad-placements to see how it all fits together…and look what happened! Game developers will be looking at the sudden blast of negative reviews for Blaston, and likely choosing to avoid ad integration for their paid titles at a bare minimum. For whatever financial boost it gives a software house, the solid chorus of condemnation is probably something they’ll want to avoid for a long time to come.