Video games have become serious business with the rise of viral advertising. Tom Scotney sees how computer games have become the latest tool in the marketing kit.

The release of the latest video game blockbuster last month showed an industry that was starting to rival film and music for scale and extravagance.

Just 24 hours after hitting the shelves, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 had sold about one and a quarter million copies in the UK alone, bringing in some £50 million. The game designers marked the release with a celebrity launch event in London’s West End.

But as budgets soar and development times stretch out in the world of mainstream gaming, even more people are having a go on ‘viral’ games – quick and easy time fillers made to be played online during coffee breaks and lunchtimes.

Games like Stick Cricket and the self-explanatory Penguin Smash saw millions of people logging on to have a bash at work.

And the digital marketing experts were quick to pick up on a potential new opportunity.

Agencies around the West Midlands have moved into viral games, with companies like Staffordshire’s TAMBA Internet and Koko Digital making games for clients ranging from Comic Relief to Chris Moyles.

Kay Hammond, the managing director of TAMBA, said viral games and associated social marketing online now made up about 80 per cent of the company’s business, from practically nothing two years ago. The agency has made about 75 games directly for clients since it set up the viral advertising division in 2006. The games division now employs 12 people.

Ms Hammond said good viral games could get viewing numbers vastly higher than any other kind of marketing because of the community built around playing them and the fact people would keep going back to play again.

She said: “There are whole portals and communities dedicated to playing these games. Serious publications will run these kind of things.

“They aren’t hardcore advertising, it’s more a case of informing and entertaining.”

When the company made a game called Red Lead for Comic Relief, as many as one in four players clicked through to make a donation after playing – a success rate unheard of in any other kind of advertising.

Most recently TAMBA was taken on by city tourism body Marketing Birmingham to make a game promoting the joint Birmingham-Amsterdam marketing project the agency was working on.

The game, called ‘Dam to the ‘Ham, is aimed at wdriving overseas visitors from Amsterdam to Birmingham as part of a wider international airlines campaign. It has been launched this week and test players’ abilities to navigate the canals of Birmingham and Amsterdam picking up and dropping off passengers as they go. It is aimed at travellers in Holland and the UK and has instructions in both English and Dutch.

The company created a digital representation of Birmingham’s landmarks for the game.

Ms Hammond said the rise of viral games had completely turned around the way her agency worked.

She said: “In the second half of the year, things have really turned around and this has really had an impact on our turnover. It’s predominantly the viral games.

“To be honest, when you look at the figures about what our games are achieving, it’s a very easy sell – we are talking about very large numbers.

“In terms of the audience reach we are talking millions of users, so if you compare it to another medium like TV the costs are more beneficial to the user. And more importantly they are getting direct interaction with users.

TAMBA has won a number of awards for viral games, and has picked up some of the world’s top advertising agencies as clients, including names like Dare Digital and i-level. The first one it made was for the website of TV gardening programme presenter Chris Beardshaw.

Ms Hammond said: “We were actually approached and asked if it was something we could do when we were doing some website work for him, that’s where it all began.”

As well as getting consistently higher viewing figures from users compared to videos and other online ads, viral games also have a number of other reasons going for them compared to other online advertising, agencies say. The interactive nature of the games means people are more easily tracked, making the statistics more valuable for marketers.

They are also much more likely to get people clicking through to visit a website than a video or standard ad.

Karl Bloor, a director at Midlands agency Koko Digital, said: “There are three things that viral games are great at – brand awareness, an increase in web traffic and data capture.

Earlier this year, Koko Digital were given a contract to make a Romeo and Juliet-themed game for Shakespeare Country tourism board in Warwickshire. The game has now been played about 17 million times in three months.

Mr Bloor added: “If you imagine the cost implications of getting numbers like that through other advertising methods it’s immense.

“It’s got a 45 per cent return rate, which is fantastic because it means users are coming back again and again.

Koko has been working for two years making viral games. Their latest contract is with Radio 1 DJ Chris Moyles to make a game similar to the Romeo and Juliet one, to promote an upcoming album.

The work was inspired by a game that was a sensation on the internet around 2004, where players play a yeti trying to hit penguins with a club.

The game turned into a massive global success, sparking off an idea for digital marketers.

* Visit figures from Memecounter viral chart at

* What is viral advertising?

* The rolling out of broadband internet technology and the increasing power and ease of use online software means people can interact with each other more easily than before.

* This means networks of internet users sharing content have sprung up, largely through social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.

* Viral advertising aims to take advantage of this by creating advertising material that people will want to pass on themselves. This is where the term ‘viral’ comes from, as an advert, video, piece of music or game can take on a life of its own spread by users to places and people the advertiser could not have reached if it was publishing on its own.

This viral spread of adverts, pushed by consumers, not advertisers, can mean an advert reaches an audience on a scale previously unimaginable, with a potential internet audience of hundreds of millions.