Ads Can Be Fun in Mobile Gaming

Skiing Yeti Mountain proves that it's not what you advertise, but how you advertise it.

I like mobile games. There, I said it.

I play a lot of games on my iPhone, some of which I've paid for and some of which are free because they feature ads. I actually don't mind the ads, and this seems to put me in a very small minority. At least, it seems like what feels like a very small minority based on the vitriol that I see and that I hear online whenever "ads" of any kind are mentioned. I don't get the general hate (I can stand to look up from my phone for 30 seconds and acknowledge the world around me before going back to ignoring it). Though, as with all things, there are both pleasant experiences online along with nuisances. Skiing Yeti Mountain is one of the former, a free iOS game supported by ads that actually made me smile when it tried to sell me stuff.

You're a nameless skier searching for the titular yeti on the titular and aptly named Yeti Mountain. It's a rather great game on its own with simple and intuitive controls and a crap-ton of levels. As you ski these slopes, you'll meet a colorful cast of characters. Among others, there's the zen ski master, a paranoid survivalist who thinks the United Nations is out to get him, a religious zealot who thinks the rapture awaits her at the peak, and Larry. God damn Larry.

Larry is the "chief marketing officer" on Yeti Mountain, and he's only too happy to do his job. He's put billboards on some slopes, hired blimps for those more dangerous slopes that couldn't fit a billboard, and he'll occasionally find you on the slopes himself to make his sales pitch. He's the in-game source of all the in-game advertisements, but it's hard to hate him because he's just too happy, too eager, and too terrible a salesman.

Larry is too entrenched in his corporate marketing lingo to be an effective salesman. He'll ski up to you and casually say, "This product really speaks to me as an individual," before a video ad plays. The ad thus becomes part of a joke. It's not a joke aimed at the product being advertised or at the players of the game, but at the very concept of advertising. The developers, Featherweight, are rolling their eyes at Larry along with you. Skiing Yeti Mountain is a game going through the motions with a wink and a nod. It’s free because the economics of the app store practically demand it to be free, and it has ads because the economics of game development demand it to make some money back. However, Featherweight knows you’re bored of any ad and doesn’t really want to waste your time. So they make fun of it and make it part of the fun. Thus, even when I see a billboard and an ad starts to play, I think of Larry and his terrible sales pitch, and I can’t help but be a little amused. By the time my amusement fades, I can skip the rest of the ad and get back to playing. No harm, no foul, no annoyance, no real interruption.

What's even more interesting about the game, however, is that it uses this same technique to advertise itself, creating an overall self-mocking tone that makes it even more enjoyable.

Dylan is an indie game designer who asks you about what kind of controls you’re using, finger controls or thumb controls. “I see you like the thumb controls, me too, finger is for noobs,” he says, then skis away, thus personifying every elitist, condescending gamer. Thank God he’s immediately eaten by the yeti. It’s hard not to feel smug when you ski past his corpse.

Paul is a sound designer who admonishes anyone not playing with headphones because he put so much work into the sound effects. He too is immediately eaten.

Gary is dudebro dick who taunts you, challenging you to beat his times on the harder slopes. Unfortunately, he has not yet been eaten by the yeti. But I’m patient.

These are all advertisers like Larry, but instead of highlighting something outside the game that you should pay attention to, they highlight something within the game that you should pay attention to. They’re ads for a specific aspect of the game that you might be ignoring: a new control scheme, the sound effects, or the harder levels.

If you hate Larry because he passes you traditional advertisements, literal commercials, these other three characters reveal the hypocrisy of that hate. They're doing the same thing, fulfilling the same role. Skiing Yeti Mountain proves it's not what you say, but how you say it. It's not what you advertise, but how you advertise it. Any ad just wants to show you something new, and there's nothing inherently wrong with that, yet we're inclined to skip them and scream at them whenever possible.

To look at this from a broader context, consider that E3 was a few weeks ago, and I guarantee you that a number of the people who despise these mobile pop-up ads lapped up the press conferences and previews from gaming's biggest show. E3 is a giant advertisement for gaming itself, made up of a hundred smaller ads for individual games, developers, publishers, and peripherals. But these are all part of a larger game, a metagame in which fans can become analysts, making predictions and arguing over who "won" the show. Both E3 and Skiing Yeti Mountain are evidence that ads can be fun when they're part of a game.

Eventually I paid a few bucks to Featherweight to remove the ads, not so much because I was annoyed by them, but because I had played Skiing Yeti Mountain for several hours and wanted to give them something in return for my fun. Larry's billboards are still here, but they're now vandalized with graffiti like "Larry Sux" or "We love F.W." It's a fun way of acknowledging the payment within the fiction while still linking all the commercial advertising back to Larry, who has disappeared. Larry existed as a joke to make his commercials more bearable, his ads charming rather than annoying, and now he has no reason to pester me. And I kind of miss him. I miss his inauthentic enthusiasm. I actually miss his ads.

Not all of them, mind you. Just Larry, but Larry was an ad. As were Dylan and Paul, who I also kind of miss. Skiing Yeti Mountain made its ads fun by acknowledging them within its own fiction and mocking those making the sale. This arguably made them even more intrusive by adding an intro and outro of dialogue to highlight that advertisement, but it worked.

At least I still have Gary to interrupt my game. He keeps mocking me for not playing the harder slopes. What a stupid, annoying, intrusive, elitist ass. I love him. I can't wait for him to get eaten, then I'm gonna ski the harder slopes in his memory.

I guess his ads worked.

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