Online Games: Hard Times = Play Time

By Steve Smith

When the going gets tough, we all start playing. According to the latest comScore figures, online game playing, arguably the most popular use of the Internet apart from email, expanded its audience 27% in 2008. In December, 86 million unique visitors went to gaming sites, most of them in the casual category.

As we have reported in the pages of min in recent months, branded media are embracing casual games as a way to retain users, increase engagement metrics and expand inventory. As part of its relaunch last year, for instance, added a prominent gaming section largely on the strength of earlier usage patterns. Publishers Clearing House is betting big on the allure of casual games with a series of sites that both sell magazines and reward players with prizes. Even has a thriving online gaming section.

One of the dirty little secrets of many general interest branded media sites is just how much of their traffic is coming to play with casual games rather than engage formal editorial. One third-party game provider tells min that 25% or more of overall site traffic to some media sites is coming to the gaming area, where visitors often spend the most time.

And so the rapid rise in digital play is good news for sites that embrace the add-on but a missed opportunity for those that don’t. Not only are many more of us playing games online but we have upped the ante, now devoting 4.9% of Internet time to games, up from 3.7% a year ago. The amount of games-related time spent online overall has ballooned 42% in the past year.

Arkadium, a provider of games to many Hearst Digital Media destinations,, CBS properties and NBC, says it saw similar growth in 2008. “Across our larger client game implementations, we saw more than a 100% increase in visits and 20% increase in time spent,” says Tina Shih, director of marketing. Page views per gamer were up 158% at partner sites as well.

Hallmark announced yesterday that it was launching a major new games initiative on its Web sites. Early returns for the new Fun & Games section suggests the kind of multiplier effect game content can have for a site. A video pop quiz generated 35,000 games played in two weeks, initiating 315,000 video streams, the company said.

More importantly for publishers of all types, gaming is sticky with advertisers. While display advertising clearly is distressed at many sites, in the gaming category, comScore reports 29% growth, to 8.6 billion impressions. The average number of impressions per user has remained relatively static (127 views per person in December), but the overall ad clutter (ads per page view) actually has declined 17%. The reduction of clutter suggests that publishers are maintaining the CPMs in this category and not struggling to monetize a page with more ad units. Until recently, advertisers often avoided gaming inventory ironically because the gameplay is so engaging. The players focus so intently on the game activity itself that the ads became invisible or users were reluctant to interrupt the experience by clicking out of the page. The emergence of new rich media ad units played as pre-rolls in front of the game play or as wraparound “skins” on the page itself have given clients more impactful options. And users themselves seem to expect free and ad-supported models for gaming. comScore analyst Edward Hunter speculates that people are hunting for diversion in tough times as they cut down on discretionary spending like pay-to-play games.

Yahoo, Electronic Arts and Disney dominate the category as the three top destinations in the category, attracting roughly 19 million, 15 million and 13 million visitors respectively. Almost all of the top sites enjoyed double-digit traffic gains between December 2007 and December 2008.