When do deceptive playable ads help, and when do they hurt?

Dan Greenberg of ironSource says misleading interactive mobile ads were huge in 2019, but likely to be reined in this year

Anyone playing ad-support mobile games these days is probably familiar with the concept of a playable ad, a brief interactive snippet walking users through a basic gameplay scenario and then prompting them to go install the game on their phone.

But just like any other kind of ad, playable ads can be misleading. In fact, speaking with recently, Dan Greenberg says he saw a bumper crop of misleading and outright deceptive playable ads last year.

Greenberg is the chief design officer of ironSource, an app monetization and advertising outfit that began building playable ads for companies about three years ago. In the past two years, Greenberg says companies have spent $350 million putting ironSource's playables in front of prospective users.

"2019 was a really crazy year. '17 and '18 were years where mobile games didn't really focus on [playable ads]. They'd usually have one good game trailer they would run, and it would either work or not. There wasn't a lot of experimentation. But in 2019, I think most mobile games understood the kind of critical way to succeed was crafting ambitious new angles of marketing."

That led to experimentation, Greenberg says, which led to companies drifting away from a title's original gameplay in order to hook new audiences. For some saturated genres or those where users tend not to switch between titles much (Greenberg suggests match-three games as one example), publishers would get particularly brazen about it, tossing out an ad with completely fabricated gameplay mechanics just to see if they would appeal to more people.

He brings up Matchington Mansion, a rather calm and relaxed match-three game with a mansion-decorating focus, and says the playable ads for it instead showed scenarios that never occured in the game, like fires erupting and needing to be put out lest the entire mansion burn down. Greenberg says such misleading ads had a few knock-on effects.

"It appealed to a much larger audience, so it worked for them. It drove a lot more downloads. But when users found out that mechanic is not reflected in the actual game, some went to the store and gave it one-star; there are lots of bad reviews."

"There are so many mobile games today, the way for users to discover games by going to the store when they're interested is kind of not working any more"

While some users gave it a bad review, Greenberg says others simply assumed the gameplay mechanic was something that would be introduced later on in the game.

"Either they forget or they get hooked on the game because the game has good retention anyway," he says. "And some of them, a minority, got pissed and removed the game. But it did work for [the developer]. There were a few games that managed to do this. It didn't work for all of them, but a lot of them experimented with it."

As for how much damage those one-star reviews caused, Greenberg doesn't think they mattered as much as they might have in previous years.

"I think today the stores themselves are not as significant as they used to be," he says. "There are so many mobile games today, the way for users to discover games by going to the store when they're interested is kind of not working any more... Most users who are installing a new game are essentially doing it based on seeing ads on social channels, seeing ads in other games, or getting a recommendation from a friend.

"Star rating has an effect on conversion -- some users check what other users think -- but for most, if they see an ad that reflects something interesting to them, they'll go to the store. And we know from data we have that it takes one to three seconds to decide if you want to install or not, so there's not really a lot of exploration in the app store. It's not as significant as you would think today."

That's not to say deceptive playable ads don't have tangible downsides. The cost of acquiring a user is already high enough when a publisher is finding the audience its game was built for. When that company is bringing in a flood of new users who signed up for a very different game experience based on a misleading ad, the average lifetime value of those users takes a hit.

"Those tactics allow you to increase conversion up the funnel, but then you see usually those users probably won't stay enough, won't spend as much as other users. You need that balance."

Even so, some publishers are continuing to use playable ads mismatched to the gameplay. In recent months, Greenberg has even started to see devs of smaller games begin to incorporate the hooks from such ads back into their original games, pivoting into what appears like a successful marketing angle.

After a particularly experimental 2019, Greenberg expects the pendulum to swing back the other way for 2020. Besides the concern over how misleading ads impact the lifetime value of an acquired user, he says gamers are also catching on to the tactic. He pointed to YouTube channel i3Stars as an example; the channel regularly posts comparisons of mobile game ads and the games they sell (such as the one embedded above), and has nearly 82,000 subscribers as of this writing.

Just how far back the pendulum swings might have more to do with how good an understanding companies can get on when their ads that differ from a title's core gameplay start to hurt more than they help.

"The challenge -- and where our teams have an advantage -- is they can actually see the effect, get the real data on the audience you're attracting with different marketing [approaches]," Greenberg says. "And then [they can] see the trade-off of going further from the gameplay to attract a different audience that is equal or similar, or is it too far away and you're attracting a bigger audience but it doesn't really help the bottom line?"

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Latest comments (19)

Willem Mertens Product Analyst A month ago
Interesting article, although I find it strange that apparently retention rates are not hit. If you are communicating a false message, you should attract a different audience, so how come this is not affected?

Regardless, like the article points out, although it might've worked for this particular title, deceitful advertising severely compromises ad integrity, and upon continued practice, consumer perception will shift away from ads all the more.
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Just checking but we're very casually discussing weaponised lying for profit here, correct? Like, scam artists dressed up as marketeers, and how too much scamming might hurt the scam artists?

Am I reading this wrong?
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Ian Griffiths Product Owner, HutchA month ago
@Barry Meade: I don't think it's being so much casually discussed as it is consequentially discussed; the effects of deceptive marketing on the actual market. I don't see any tacit approval, more just an analysis of the likely ramifications assuming regulators continue to ignore these practices.

I do wonder where this skirts the line in relation to CGI trailers for games which are almost never representative of the actual product. I guess these videos tend to more strongly suggest that this is actual gameplay and provide no 'this is not actual gameplay' warnings.

It also makes me wonder why no one has tried making any of the games that perform so well in the ads given their popularity.
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James Barnard Founder / Developer, SpringloadedA month ago
I think no one cares about the ratings, because these companies pay people for false ratings. I see games on the store that have lots of 1 and 2 star written reviews, and then somehow are holding a 4.5 average.

We have a watchdog for false advertising in the UK, and things like TV adverts regularly get hit, or can even be fined. It sickens me that this state of lying is a free for all. It damages the consumer faith in mobile games, which is already bad in the first place.

as a small indie developer, I feel like the small local fisherman, losing his business due to a giant ecosystem destroying factory ship coming in a fishing the waters dry. I wish there was a body to watch over this bahaviour, and even some meaningful punishment (such as delisting from stores for a period of time, just like youtube videos get taken down when they do bad things - but then you tube videos dont make as much money as games do)

Edited 1 times. Last edit by James Barnard on 29th January 2020 2:15am

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I'm aware marketing isn't a world I'm familiar with but at the same time, we can all agree what honesty is right?

Everybody in the life-cycle of this kind of marketing - from the developer who ok'd it to the group that came up with the content - are scam artists. The chap said "The challenge -- and where our teams have an advantage -- is they can actually see the effect, get the real data on the audience you're attracting with different marketing [approaches]," Greenberg says. "And then [they can] see the trade-off of going further from the gameplay to attract a different audience that is equal or similar, or is it too far away and you're attracting a bigger audience but it doesn't really help the bottom line?"

Lots of military-style abstract phrasing there. He's talking about his business which whether he meant it or not is helping arseholes navigate their own scam, for money.

I genuinely cannot fathom how the mind works of developers who want to abuse their own players. I don't know how we're even in the same industry. And I don't understand why marketing experts like Dan would want to work with them and even sound like he's boasting about it.
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Robin Clarke Producer, AppyNation Ltd30 days ago
There are two separate issues here as I see it.

1. It's unfortunate that the name "playable" ads stuck, rather than "interactive". The original assumption was that developers would only ever want to use this tech to create a miniature version of their full game. But some games can't be reduced down to a 30 second blip easily. I can think of benign ways that you could make an interactive ad that doesn't directly replicate the gameplay - e.g. introducing the game's characters or setting in an engaging way. However...

2. The money fight between certain thematically similar Match 3 games is becoming increasingly grim. This isn't just restricted to playable ads though, their videos and banners use similar tactics. Inevitable when VC money favours engaging in a race to the bottom rather than trying to differentiate themselves in the market. I expect that the long-term ramifications will be more serious than a few 1-star reviews.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Robin Clarke on 4th February 2020 5:59pm

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I don't claim to know much on it beyond what I've read here, I don't pay close attention to the streams and currents of mobile marketing. We all understand it's tough out there for everyone and we are all sinners. But looking on as a noob it struck me reading this the casual everyday-ness with which such an obnoxious practise can be treated in industry press suggests mobile gaming is quite a bit more ill than we thought. It seems if you abuse legitimate channels to be successful it means you are legitimate full stop. Black economy criminals earn bank by selling stolen goods through legitimate shops. Nobody pretends they’re not criminals. Nobody who deals with them is unaware they’re facilitating stolen goods. But that’s what this piece reads like it’s doing and with no countervailing voice it gives the impression the whole sector is wrapped up in this attitude, if not this black economy.
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Brendan Sinclair North American Editor, GamesIndustry.biz30 days ago
@Barry Meade: Hey Barry, completely understand where you're coming from here, and it's one of the things I wrestle with a lot in this job. On the one hand, I personally find deceptive ads to be a pretty loathsome practice, and I would hope we could all agree on that. But I think the same about a lot of free-to-play and loot box monetization schemes, and we clearly don't all agree on that. So when it comes to those, I make my case about why they are bad in editorials, and in the rest of my coverage, I try to be as straight-forward and informative as possible to serve the site's readers and inform them of what's going on in this industry.

I also report on loads of contentious issues, behaviors, and viewpoints I don't personally agree with. While I absolutely think there are times where you have to be unequivocal about something being awful -- I get sick when I see media treating white supremacists as having just another equally valid political perspective -- it's a lot fuzzier in gaming, especially when (as Ian mentioned), there's a long history of doctored screenshots and CG trailers and other marketing slight of hand that everybody seems to think is just dandy.

I also think as Robin mentioned there are probably ways to create playable ads that don't reflect the gameplay but also don't create the impression that the game will be just like the ad.

I wish this weren't part of the industry, but it is. And if it's unethical and needs to stop, people need to know about it and understand it first in order to make that happen.

I absolutely get it if you see my perspective as an excuse that doesn't hold up. These questions of coverage are ones I'm often thinking about but rarely certain about the best way to handle them.
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Ian Griffiths Product Owner, Hutch29 days ago
@Barry Meade: I don't think we can agree upon what 'honesty' beyond the personal definition based on individual perception. Coming back to the CGI trailers, I don't think of those as dishonest but plenty of people do.

You say you don't understand how you're in the same industry as these people, fine, the behaviour isn't good and it should be open to criticism. But I think marketing does have its grey areas because not everything needs to just be footage of gameplay. Let's take a look at one of your company's advertisements, "The Room Two Trailer" -
-It starts with a closeup of a real man's hand folding a letter and initialing it with the letter 'A'. That's not in the game but it's alluding to a stronger narrative, selling the player on the mystery, was it 'honest'?
-Later in the trailer 5 real people are shown doing some sort of seance, certainly not gameplay, was it 'honest'?
-Lastly it shows a hand closing a pocket watch in the real world before skipping to a clip from an in-game FMV, not gameplay, is it 'honest'?

Look, I think your games are great and innovative but there's a part of marketing that is involved in this sort of grey area of selling a feeling around a product or service. I'm not saying that any of this is misleading, and I'm certainly not saying that it's anywhere near what this article is talking about where these mobile developers simply don't seem to care about whether things are misleading.

I don't think it's as black and white as you're suggesting and I think it's a bit close to mud-slinging by complaining about the people, rather than just the activity.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Ian Griffiths on 30th January 2020 5:31pm

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Way to go Detective Griffiths, you got me, I made it all up. I ran those ads for Matchington Mansion. I would have got away with it too if not for your bad faith-cum-delusional reply.

Pointing out we all inhabit the same continuum of industry practise does not mean, through some mystical process, everybody is also the same. Just like ignoring a red light doesn't make me adjacent to a murderer, I'm quite at home accepting I'm not scamming anybody just because others exist that do.
Some things in gaming are lame. Some things are in bad taste. Some are criminal. It's ok to say it, even out loud. I don't know why you'd want to grey up this black & white example of obvious badness .
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Rebekah Valentine Staff Writer, GamesIndustry.biz28 days ago
Hey, folks? Let's please keep things civil in here and avoid attacking one another.

Our house rules, as a reminder:
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James Barnard Founder / Developer, Springloaded28 days ago
Obviously I think this article should exist, the industry is overflowing with deceptive adverts, and deceptive you tube promotions for "raid shadow legends" where respected you tubers claim to like the game for a payoff....product endorsements have been around for years, but in this case it feels worse than ever. This is happening and not writing about it doesn't help any of us.

Let's have a conversation about I said above, I think this is beyond games, there may be real laws being broken here. The issue is how we move forward, and whether anyone will do anything about it, as it's a destructive trend for an already much maligned market
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Ian Griffiths Product Owner, Hutch28 days ago
@Barry Meade: You talk about obvious 'badness', how about calling someone delusional because they countered your argument? Why is lying bad but insulting someone not?

I said that you're ads weren't deceptive. Nor were they in the realm of the ads mentioned in the article. My point was there's a grey area where selling something is about more than demonstrating just gameplay footage and it's not as simple as - 'these people are bad'.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Ian Griffiths on 31st January 2020 12:07pm

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Ian Griffiths Product Owner, Hutch28 days ago
@Rebekah Valentine: The rules say
If you cannot respect each other even as you disagree with one another then you shouldn't be here commenting at all.
Barry wrote:
I would have got away with it too if not for your bad faith-cum-delusional reply.
How is this an example of a respectful disagreement? And why when people are rude to me, which I'm not in return, is there only ever a vague warning to the group?
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Rebekah Valentine Staff Writer, GamesIndustry.biz28 days ago
@Ian Griffiths: Ian,

I stepped in, as have my colleagues on other recent threads, because the conversation on multiple sides was carrying an unnecessarily hostile tone that had continued to escalate over multiple replies. I'm asking absolutely everyone in this thread, without exception and regardless of level of input, to just take a gander at the house rules again and make sure you're treating the other people behind the keyboard with respect so that we can keep having good, insightful discussions in here.

Thank you to everyone for doing so.
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Ian Griffiths Product Owner, Hutch28 days ago
@Rebekah Valentine: There's nothing hostile in my tone, I take great care to avoid it. While tone may often be hard to gauge from text, insults are not.

I feel as though there is a false equivalence being applied with my evidence based, reasoned arguments and what can be objectively described as insults.
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Brendan Sinclair North American Editor, GamesIndustry.biz28 days ago
@Ian Griffiths: Ian, you performed a shot-by-shot breakdown of the trailer of another commenter's game in an attempt to make him look like a hypocrite and reiterate a tangential point that I don't think anyone had disputed. I'm not sure there's another way to view that except as hostile, especially when his previous remarks had not been directed at you personally.

Since you wanted to quote our house rules back to us, I'll point you to this one:
"As editors of we determine what's appropriate and what's not, and if we feel the need to steer the conversation in a certain direction, that's our prerogative. If you can't play by our rules, then you won't be commenting here."
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Ian Griffiths Product Owner, Hutch27 days ago
@Brendan Sinclair: My intention was to respond to someone was making broad strokes about people in the industry and show that their own studio's output wouldn't necessarily hit, what I interpreted to be, the high standards they expected of others. In my opinion by complaining about people in the industry they opened that door.

I don't see this as hostile but I can understand how people might. I do wonder how could I have addressed such a dogmatic view given that generalised examples had been dismissed.

In any case, while I may disagree that this was hostile I respect your opinion and will yield to the rules.
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Ian FWIW I took Rebekah's post to be obviously pointed at me. As you said "There's nothing hostile in my tone, I take great care to avoid it" and I agree. I read zero rude words in your earnest smearing of our trailer (and us) as adjacent to scam artists.

"I feel as though there is a false equivalence being applied with my evidence based, reasoned arguments and what can be objectively described as insults"

Your 'arguments' are not in the slightest bit evidence based, they are clearly produced 100% at the whim of your gut. That's why they come across as identical to fully fabricated insults, rude words or not. If you want to discuss dishonest advertising, comment on the article or at least don't immediately paint me as a hypocrite for disliking, well, a scam. FWIW I know there’s millions, billions of people out there better than me but I'm comfortable asserting a scam artist who swindles their own players for profit may not be one of them. If that makes me a stuffed shirt, Lord save me from living or working in your worldview.

As for my insults I apologise to GI if I lowered the tone but better a rude vocabulary than a bad faith disposition. Happy to end the discussion here.
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