Remember the time when the phrase ‘making it onto the Big Screen’ meant something? What is the Big Screen now? Is it in fact the relatively tiny screen that accompanies us in our pocket virtually everywhere we go, from when we wake and often to the time we shut off the lights to go to sleep? Is it the digital billboard you drive past every day? Is it the headset that an increasing number of VR, and indeed in some cases AR, enthusiasts don to enter new worlds, and shift the perspective on their existing one? What is clear is that screens proliferate. They dominate and dictate our world and how we engage with it. As such, branded content, itself a proliferation to serve a proliferation, is no longer traditional in any sense of the word.
The norms of advertising and marketing are being challenged and remodelled, seemingly at a dizzying pace. A magazine print ad no longer carries cut through or penetration because, well, who buys magazines really these days? The 30- or 60-second TV commercial and ad buy is not obsolete, or indeed as endangered as some may assume, yet it needs to find new ways to reach eyeballs. How do brands, therefore, cut through the noise and win the battle for eyeballs and attention, the hearts and minds (and data) with consumers as adept at skipping messages as they are absorbing them? The answer lies in gaming, and in particular using gaming technology and in a lot of cases aping gaming behaviours.
The ways that audiences are interacting with brands and advertisers is changing faster than our behaviours and habits can keep up. The rise of streaming and digital content platforms is changing when and where you can capture audience views. In response brands are looking for new ways of engaging with their consumer, and interactivity and immersion and experience are increasingly to the fore. In 2021 marketing is still about storytelling, the traditional mainstay of effective communication, but now that takes place in different spaces, in experiential engagements, on interactive screens with consumers often placed as active participants within the brand narrative and giving them the ability to explore and shape their own, independent and often unique experience.
Screen proliferation has invariably meant more demand for content, and particularly quality content, driven by innovation of thought, creation and delivery. Meanwhile budgets are getting tighter and timelines compressed, often driving creative content studios to find ways to offer new production solutions to deliver the same quality and ROI. Audiences are also in different places and spaces, with the generation we know as Z, spending more time gaming and streaming gaming and talking about streaming gaming, than prior generations can even comprehend. It is perhaps fitting, therefore that the technology at the heart of the solution is technology that the gaming world has used for years. Game engines, real-time 3D world building tools, are now being adopted and adapted for more traditional content creation and delivery. And because they can offer real-time rendering, they can also form the heart of real-time interaction and play. Game engines are the technologies that facilitate the live-play and interactivity aspect of games, from mobile apps to VR headsets, and on to triple-A console or pixel-streamed cinematic masterpieces.
This tech also widens the ways we engage with our audiences, through experiences built for and delivered through web, mobile, augmented and virtual reality platforms. And in crucial ways it also alters consumer and audience behaviours, as well as expectations for how to engage with a brand and its marketing communication. Branded content is no longer a passively consumed set of messages wrapped up in stories or visual layouts. It is delivered via multiple media, often simultaneously, it is interacted with, it is discussed in real-time, it is participatory and welcomes audiences into the world of the brand and expects them to affect it directly.
By gamifying traditional marketing approaches, in user experience and in mirroring intuitive behaviours around engagement and interactive touchpoints, advertisers can enable consumers to take an active part in brand narrative. This increasingly means them helping to create a personalised and thus unique experience that activates emotion and memory, a huge benefit of providing users with agency and choice. As consumers we desire interactivity more than ever in all facets of life. This means that as advertisers and content creators, we must lean on this powerful and versatile toolkit to continue to make creative content and experiences to shape and define the next generation of brand engagement and commerce.
Creative teams in advertising agencies and content production shops are embracing gaming, arguably the new movie industry for the post-millennials. Particularly real-time tools, processes and pipelines are being used to deliver heightened brand experiences and new ways of producing work. Increased graphic and computing oomph increases the power of the pixel and means CG and VFX touch more and more of the production, and in the case of virtual sets most commonly referenced with Disney’s The Mandalorian, these elements dominate the production.
In the world of brand advertising production and filmmaking, the benefits are also manifold. Productions can become more agile and cost-effective. Virtual workflows are collaborative, iterative and responsive, and as such can be highly efficient and faster. The creative and advertising industry is still trying to fully define virtual production. Different definitions persist depending on process and output, but in essence it can be summarised as the replacement of some or all aspects of a physical film or content production by one or more virtual processes or tools. Solutions are almost exclusively driven by real-time game engines to help with elements such as location scouting, virtual backgrounds and scene-building, visual effect and CG asset visualisation, and much more. The concept is not new to filmmakers, but recent developments and interest in virtual production is down to a convergence of technologies reaching maturity, both in terms of hardware and software. Real-time engines are at the heart of this revolution, but evolution in virtual and augmented reality are also driving toolkits for filmmakers, as well as extending virtual production into live events and interactive applications.
Epic Games’ (makers of Fortnite) Unreal and Unity are perhaps the biggest corporate names in the real-time and virtual production spaces, but many game studios have their own proprietary engines driving their blockbuster releases, and Snap and Instagram have their own smaller but perfectly formed 3D engines to drive mainstream AR. Magic Leap, Microsoft’s Hololens and much-anticipated-but-not-yet-officially-confirmed moves into the wearable space by Apple give us mainstream hardware for AR, all driven in one way or another by real-time game engines. We also have next generation AR-enabled spectacles and contact lenses on the near horizon. And soon real-time rendering will be present in more and more elements of our day-to-day lives. Game engines will power screens, display systems and augmented experiences at live events, in retail spaces, at airports, in galleries. VR, AR and XR applications will become increasingly widely used in enterprise in fields such as education, medicine, product manufacture, architecture.
If we think the oblong devices we carry in our pockets are the end of screen interface technology then we have learned nothing from the mobile revolution about the power and pace of technology to change and be adopted. When it comes to vying for consumer eyeballs, the place to do so is increasingly some kind of gamified mixed-media ecosystem. Consider that Netflix has 170m members total, while Fortnite alone has over 200m active players. The real-time market is exploding, as a tool for multiple industries, and as a driver of entertainment and advertising media. For the creators of content and brand experiences, the challenge of success today is not making it on the big screen, but the screens that we don’t yet use or even know about. The way to unlock the secret to success lies in games and game-engines.
Dan Phillips is executive producer for emerging technology at The Mill LA