In-game advertising has had some ups and downs over the years as marketers have struggled to adapt to the new medium. A large issue is that ads can potentially disrupt the gameplay experience, so timing is as important as placement. AdventureQuest Worlds is taking a unique tact by having ads running when the player dies; it's a natural pause during gameplay and its a novel opportunity. We talked with Adam Bohn, the CEO of Artix, about the death ads and more about the game.
[a]list: There was a bit of a cheeky tone to the original release announcing the death ads – was it purposeful to make the announcement a bit light-hearted?
Adam Bohn: We're very cheeky, I think. It's part of our core competency! A lot of our games really punned based, so we've been linking together things we think are funny that nobody else does.
[a]list: Where did the idea for the death ads come from?
Adam Bohn: Back in 2007, we started doing an optional in game advertising. Back then, the games were a one-time payment to play. We made an optional area where players could watch optional ads and receive an item. I got into quite a few arguments with our business folks... needles to say I won't going into the idea of “Sellout Island,” but there were ongoing discussions about ads.
AdventureQuest was our first MMO, and by 2010 what ads marketers were willing to do had changed and they were moving away from in game promotions, so we looked into other types of ads and we thought we could bring the joy of optional ads to players. So we took on the idea of the death ads; we started it with just our stuff and we have a lot of stuff to promote. We run six of our own games and have Heromart with plenty of cheeky products to sell and we have mini-games on our site. We recently released a card game at Toys R Us and this holiday season we're releasing two expansions, and were going to release a Death Ads card in the expansion. It's a trap card that can send an armor or pet to graveyard.
[a]list: What has been the response to the death ads so far been from users?
Adam Bohn: When we first released it, they laughed and then they died and for those who died saw it and said “How come we see the ads if we pay?” I put in a toggle switch; it's not automatically turned off because some people were like, “What if I want to see it?”
It's very rare to die in the game. I think it would be better if there was more funny ads because then it will be a pleasure to die! I know because I talk to players in game all the time.
[a]list: So you're personally involved with the community?
Adam Bohn: They look at the character online, with the shiny armor and they imagine a 6 ft tall German guy in the armor making the game. I know, because parents say that to me all the time is what their kids imagine.
I did hear online early on that I was prodigy genus. The funny part is I've been trying to build a game for most of my life. I was doing things in Silicon Valley and I found a way to do a game in a browser. Runescape came out around about the right time. It always felt like I built something after it was hip. I was trying to build something for lunchbreak-sized engagement. I love the players, I don't know if this comes across clearly enough, but it's all due to the players... the reason we're here is due to the players. Everyone once in a while we, get a player that loves us TOO much.
We were taking payments from Paypal so I was latched onto our computers 24/7. I sort of felt like if we didn't upgrade every few hours I was irresponsible. We had this one player around Christmas. He was writing me under different accounts; he claimed he was FBI and I had to give the FTP info. He later claimed to be our ISP. Then he offered a shiny diamond for the FTP info, and I got multiple emails offering that. Then my ISP said they were getting the diamond offer and I was like, “Are you going to miss your chance to get the diamond?” I didn't realize it was a younger fellow at the time and my girlfriend was so freaked out because he did things like call us and hang up. I called the real FBI and I found out it was some kid. I called up the house and somehow managed to get his father on the line; I have a feeling he did not sit down for Christmas!
So there's cases like that, but then there's also phenomenal fans as well. One guy from Japan buys everything we make. On a day that we original made we did rats of unusual size and we got shirts from him based on that.
[a]list: What's the click through looked like on the death ads so far?
Adam Bohn: It's done some good numbers so far. We're happy with it. In all we have about 12 – 13 million players a month on the Artix Network and AdventureQuest Worlds has an average amount of concurent users at about 20,000. Between our free and paid online accounts, there's over 138 million, about 30 million are from AQ.com.
[a]list: Right now I know the death ads are just for other Artix products. Would you ever consider put in ads for outside companies?
Adam Bohn: Right now we're only running our own stuff. I'm really protective of our player base. Our demographic runs around 13. This wasn't on purpose – we just built games we wanted to play. We weren't trying for a specific audience. We have older and younger gamers but we try to keep [our content] clean.
We did stuff for movies like Legend of the Seeker and the Chipmunks movies, where we'd integrate the content in the game and there'd be an area dedicated to that. But for some reason people don't want to do that anymore.
We'll get a musical guest star occasionally. Voice actor George Lowe was on, and we had people fight Space Ghost in a game. We had Voltaire and our fanbase seemed to like it and it's like, “Wow aren't they to young to do this?” We were running a promotion for a band call Architect and I'll do play by play no matter how embarrassing. We're pretty close to our fans; we're on Facebook and Twitter and our forums and we started this back before everyone did it. We did everything, if not first, before things became mainstream. We got an offer to buy the company; we're talking tens of millions of dollars, even if you account for bank fees.
If you're going to buy a a top web company, don’t sent send offers by regular mail! 2002 nobody cared about us, by 2005 people started to notice. We went to a road show because we wanted to be a big boy some day. We got a lot of offers, but the largest was $84 million. There's all sorts of rules and nothing's ever as pretty as it seems.
[a]list: So how'd you come to make games in the first place?
Adam Bohn: I won't bore you with the full story how it originally started; around 2002, I made this project just built around wanting to make a video game. When it started expanding, we had to ask players for help because we couldn't afford the cost of the servers. We found a talented artist from Canada and the team grew and we have 16 employees – like, real ones that get paid! We have two office buildings here, and we're going to get a fancy place around the way in a bit.
When I was in elementary school, I knew a little bit of basic and was excited to try and make a game when the first Castlevania came out. Me and my friends were talking about Castlevania and we loved fighting the undead and my father suggested “Why don't you make your own games?” We shoveled some snow, bought some books for programming.
[a]list: Adam, thanks for all the details.
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