Arts & CultureVideo Games

Berg: What Clash of Clans' Super Bowl ad tells us about social gaming

Super Bowl commercials are often seen as a barometer of American culture. They’re what we talk about the next morning, and often how we know that a company has cash to throw around. You also very rarely see video games advertised during the game. This does make some sense; the year’s biggest releases usually don’t hit until the fall season, so a Super Bowl ad would either be teasing a game more than 9 months from release or pushing a smaller scale spring release. It has only occurred once, for EA’s Dante’s Inferno (the rare AAA title to release in early February). Compare this to the film industry, which regularly purchases spots for debut trailers, teasing the early summer flicks. It just rarely makes financial sense for a gaming company to throw down the millions necessary for a big game ad spot.

Until this year, that is. For the first time we saw Super Bowl commercials for not one, but three different video games: Game of War, Heroes Charge, and Clash Of Clans (the lattermost of which had the night’s most memorable ad, recruiting Liam Neeson). It’s crucial to note that all three are games of the same breed: mobile and free-to-play. If you’ve never played one, they all follow a simple formula. The initial download is free, but pressures players to pay for in-game upgrades to get a leg up on their friends. The games are also fairly simple with 2D visuals, turn-based gameplay and rarely see large overhauls throughout the life of the product.

As a result, these games aren’t terribly expensive to create or maintain. Clash of Clans developer Supercell only has a staff of 138, a microscopic number when compared to the far larger team it requires to create a blockbuster title like Assassin’s Creed. Yet despite working on a smaller scale, Supercell is making money hand-over-foot. Back in 2013 (before Clash of Clans even hit peak popularity), the company reported $829 million in earnings. It’s what they spend that money on that reveals the power behind the mobile space.

Spending $9M for sixty seconds with the Super Bowl audience is a big investment. In addition to the ad space, there’s the cost of creating the commercial itself (Liam Neeson doesn’t show up just for the love of the game). But I doubt Supercell even flinched when looking at the bill. Neither did the developers of Game of War or Heroes Charge, because for these games, exposure is everything. They’re free downloads, so it’s very easy for every one of the 100 million+ people who saw that ad to start playing the game. But it’s not just about directly reaching new customers. Clash of Clan’s value is directly linked to its popularity. It’s a social game, in which players are frequently encouraged to invite friends to play via Facebook and Twitter. Thus, even if one percent of the Super Bowl audience downloaded Clash of Clans, each of those players is a marketing force alone.

This is why so many F2P titles took to the Super Bowl to advertise. Social standing is their greatest value. While a AAA game may invest in a new physics engine or lighting effects to stand out from its competition, a mobile title invests in new players and hopes to stay on top. They’re only powerful as long as people keep playing. So while many people may speculate that the presence of these ads spells doom for traditional gaming, it’s crucial to understand just what purpose they serve.

Follow Chris Berg on Twitter @Mushroomer25

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Chris Berg

Chris Berg