Playable Ads: how we use them to generate heavy buzz for our games

Leonardo Lemes
Aug 31, 2020 · 8 min read

One of the most endearing things about what we do at Wildlife Studios is the way we promote our games. You see, we are a data-driven company that aims to get better and better and offer new experiences to our players. And much of that comes from how we advertise all the amazing things we create: don’t get me wrong, our games are top-notch, but nothing would come out of them if we didn’t get the word out and make people know about them, right?

Think about this: if our games already reached more than 2 billion downloads, our playable ads could have reached much more.

That’s where I come in: alongside my team, I develop “playable ads”, a form of digital advertising that isn’t really new, but we got to work on a whole new level for us. And the most interesting part of this story: when I joined Wildlife almost two years ago, I didn’t even know what playable ads were. What represents a major force towards our external communication efforts today, literally started with an epiphany from one of our top executives, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

My job at Wildlife started at college: company representatives came into my classroom and introduced themselves, the company, and its portfolio, and gave us a test for skill assessment. At first, they told me I could test for a game developer position, but then I found out there was this other marketing-related position that required JavaScript knowledge.

Despite having little experience in that particular language, I thought I could learn more once I got into the company. I did pretty well on that test after all and was later contacted by our Human Resources department for an interview. When asked, I made it clear that I knew how to code and was learning new, general stuff at college, but there were minor gaps that I felt I should be upfront about. Specifically, I didn’t know how to work with Javascript frameworks.

I honestly thought I was done for, but much to my surprise, I got a call a couple of days later and got the job. Back then, I had a general idea of what I would be doing: programming. After I joined Wildlife, I learned about the details, and the work I would be doing with “playable ads.” I use quotes here because, much as you’re probably feeling right now, I had no idea what that meant, apart from the obvious — that they were some kind of advertising (I mean, it’s right there in the name).

Anyway, playable ads: basically, they’re a digital form of advertising inserted in the context of gaming. You can think of them as “the short experience of particular gameplay”, regarding the game we would love you to download on your phone. As I said earlier, it isn’t really something new, but we’re probably the first company in Brazil (and probably one of the firsts to use playables in 3D with advanced tech worldwide) to use them with data and style.

What do I mean by that? Well, a successful playables needs to stand out in a crowd, looking good and getting our user excited about the content but, unlike the game itself (which has technical limitations, especially for user hardware, but nevertheless more flexible than playables), the ad needs to be light.

In the early days, we did some pretty bad playables, which was expected, because we had technical restraints and we lacked experience. We used to create a kind of static only advertising piece. But those will only get you so far and, soon and surely enough, we started to feel like we needed to do something different… So we decided to go bold and invest in better playables.

So we studied many (seriously: many!) playable ads to see what we could create based on our viewing experience. As consumers, this allowed us a unique view of what we wanted. I’m sure you have seen them by now.

We want to create the experience, not just show you an ad in order to sell you something — it has to be fun. Hundreds of millions of people have already seen them!

The tech part of it is where the real charm is at like I said, playable ads have to be light. This comprises not only its duration (unlike inside games where people play for several hours on playables they just interact a couple of minutes) but also its file size, processing, memory consumption, and user experience.

At Wildlife, our playable ads can be as small as a floppy disk, and under that, we have it all: 3D character; scenarios, animations, interactive elements (your controls for playing the ad), as well as all the links and buttons that redirect you to the game’s page on the app store so you can download it.

One of the main aspects of our technology is efficiency. For those who are not well versed in programming, picture this: your character needs to move from one side of the screen to the other. The character walks on a floor that must be continually visible in the ad, right?

A regular programmer would create a huge amount of tiles as a first step, presuming that the player would never move so far away, until it reached the bottom of the screen, or draw tiles as the player moves, but leaving the “old” tiles back there, useless. Problem: it takes a lot of space and increases memory consumption.

A good programmer would draw the first three to five floor tiles and, as the character walks by, the previous tiles become useless, being destroyed (deleted) in the process and new tiles are created to make the floor look continuous. That helps save up memory usage, but it raises the demand for processing, since deleting something is quite expensive in terms of processing cost.

How do you think a Wildlife programmer would solve that?

Most frameworks would not allow us to edit our ads at its core programming level. We have to think of delivering all of this in a way that does not clog up your device’s performance. By the average data, most smartphones have 2 GB to 4 GB of RAM memory available and, while the game we’re advertising can and probably will use most if not all of it when launched, the ad most certainly needs this kind of restraint.

So our proprietary tool helps us make sure that the whole ad will flow efficiently. It’s the Wildlife way.

Which leads to the relevance of a tool we developed within our team is called “miniplay”. Basically, it’s an engine used for game development, like Unity, Phaser, and other ones publicly available. The difference, however, is that miniplay is the kind of resource that we developed “on the go”, meaning that, whenever we hit an obstacle that common tools did not provide means to solve — or did solve but not in a way we would like to–, we went on and created our own solutions by hand. In the end, miniplay became the engine that puts it all together in one package, and we feel it fits our needs much better than any option out there, although we studied external solutions as well.

Wildlife requires a lot in terms of programming knowledge whenever hiring a new contributor to our team, but we don’t look for a specific language — instead, we’re looking for people very good at data structures, algorithms, and complexity analysis. Taking myself as an example, the company usually asks that you know the general do’s and don’ts about coding. Web-based development, game development, and digital art are all part of the extras you can bring with you.

The reason behind this is that our department grew so much, and so organically, that our hands-on approach allowed us to create a multitude of documentation that you’ll not just study about, but use in your day to day routine. For example: if you need to animate a scenery with, say, raining, tools like Unity and Phaser have pre-made resources for that: you just select one, insert it in your playable project and see what looks best.

It’s all very simple. Is it bad? Of course not! Everyone loves simple and easy. But it did stop us from growing, creating much of a comfort zone that did not allow us to tinker and mess with core coding the way we wanted too.

That led us to create our own tools. And the way we did it was the best possible: we went full hands-on, made a lot of mistakes, and created and reviewed a lot of documentation. We spent months trying to find a framework that worked for us and not one that made us work for it. It’s a demanding process, I won’t lie, but as I said in the beginning, I didn’t consider myself an expert, and now I can deliver a simple playable ad project really fast, in a programming language I didn’t appreciate very much back then. That goes for you too. At Wildlife, you’ll evolve.

So, as I said, we developed all of our resources internally. They may not be as easy to use as the more readily-available solutions out there, true, but they will empower you to edit your work so deep to a level you’ll be coding and programming what Picasso was to painting.

Sometimes during a playable development, we’ve had people asking us to send a playable ad file so they can kill some time playing it, which is proof that we’re going in the right direction.

Now, I know you may be asking yourself: “who wants to work specifically in playable ads?”. I used to ask the same thing, but the reasons became clear.

Our job entails creativity, programming knowledge, and self-adaptation and improvement. There are a ton of challenges, but there’s also a sense of partnership that brings our team together and helps us overcome them.

Wanna join our team? Check out our open positions.

Wildlife Studios Tech Blog

Wildlife Studios is building next-generation mobile games

Wildlife Studios Tech Blog

Wildlife Studios is building next-generation mobile games, and it takes a lot of data, innovation, and knowledge. Our tech people are here to share how they are building the best in class technology to improve people's life with fun and innovation.

Leonardo Lemes

Written by

Playable Ads Engineer at Wildlife Studios

Wildlife Studios Tech Blog

Wildlife Studios is building next-generation mobile games, and it takes a lot of data, innovation, and knowledge. Our tech people are here to share how they are building the best in class technology to improve people's life with fun and innovation.