"[CLICK HERE]": how mobile game commercials use Facebook's algorithm

9 minutes to read
Szymon Zbiegniewski

In 2018, the first “Mafia City” trailer appeared on Facebook which revolutionized advertising on social media. A few days after it was released, it became a characteristic template (level 1 crook and level 60 boss) that is still popular. This is an example of a commercial that a Facebook user can see every day on their newsfeed and the number of mobile games with a similar form of advertising is enormous. Almost all of them have something in common – they are not what they establish they are in the commercials.

This article will explain how fake commercials have come to dominate Facebook and will present some of the developers’ tactics, to get as many players as possible. Thanks to these techniques, these mobile games are trendy and even though they are annoying for Facebook users, they are not disappearing from social media. This article will inform you about the traps these mobile game commercials use and will therefore make you a more self-conscious user of Facebook. 

Facebook's newsfeed update

From 2016 onwards, newsfeeds have become more personalized which has resulted in non-chronological ordering of posts. Instead, the posts at the top are mostly connected with groups and Facebook sites you like. After this update, every Facebook profile became more of an echo chamber, a so-called filter bubble. Now users are more likely to see posts of friends with the same views or hobbies and all opposing opinions become less prominent.

What is more, after this update, the platform shows more personalized commercials, as the Facebook algorithm collects data from every action on this platform. For instance, when a person spends more time on one post while they are scrolling down on the newsfeed, the algorithm will show other similar posts. This update not only revolutionized the way users acquire knowledge but also what ads they see. For instance, a young man who is a big fan of computer games is more likely to see a game commercial than a 40-year-old woman who is a fan of gardening (Tufekci, 2015; Khouri, 2016).

How do these mechanics work?

Producers of mobile games have taken Facebook's new way of constructing the newsfeed as the perfect opportunity for more aggressive campaigns because of the chance of gaining more users thanks to the algorithm. For instance, when a user spends a few seconds watching one game commercial, it is highly possible that sooner or later, he or she will see another commercial of the same type. By doing this, they construct an algorithmic profile. Thus, producers try to create commercials that will pressure a customer to watch the whole video and leave a reaction or a comment.

Users might believe that by playing this game, they might become more similar to their favorite celebrity. 

These commercials are often entertaining, but they can also be damaging or inappropriate. Most importantly, the commercials do not present what games actually look like. For example, the trailer is a visually striking masterpiece with outstanding mechanics, but when a user installs this game, he or she finds out it is just a 2D simple game, where players build their villages and they can do it faster if they buy game diamonds for real money, so-called ‘microtransactions’. This category of game is called 'Freemium' – the game is for free, but it is boring to play it without a premium account. (Khouri, 2016)

Mobile game commercial mechanics 

Figure 1: Jennifer Lopez playing Coin Master

Coin master is a simple mobile game where players spin a slot machine to receive gold and attack other players. In 2019, this game had 81 million downloads worldwide. How is it possible that such a simple game became this successful? There are plenty of commercials of this game starring celebrities like Jennifer Lopez, Cardi B, Emily Ratajkowski, and Terry Crews. But in the commercials of this game, they are presented as simple people who just enjoy playing mobile games. They seem authentic by doing the same thing as ordinary people but because of their celebrity status, users might believe that by playing this game, they might become more similar to their favorite celebrity. 

Another example is the game Harry Potter: Puzzles & Spells. One of the commercials of this game starred a former member of One Direction, Zayn Malik. He said that this game is great and he is a big Harry Potter fan. We cannot even see gameplay in this commercial, just Zayn. Harry Potter: Puzzles & Spells is a game where a player must solve a puzzle to finish a level. The aim of these two commercials is not to sell a game as brand-new gameplay with advanced mechanics but to sell a vision of a game that is so popular that even celebrities play it. Jennifer Lopez and Zayn Malik seem authentic playing these mobile games even though they are extremely popular celebrities. These advertisements do not harm their authenticity, but present them as true, normal people, that others can relate to (Cunningham & Craig, 2017). That is the true purpose of these mechanics.

Figure 2: Game of Sultans advertisement which shows sexist content

Another aggressive form of advertising became very popular in 2020. It is a type of commercial that contains sexist scenes, where a man must make his own luck. One of the most popular games with these commercials is Game of Sultans and King’s throne: game of lust. Although they seem like interesting strategy mobile games, they are simple 2D village-type games with tonnes of microtransactions in them. Trailers do not convey what the games look like as real gameplay would not be interesting enough. Instead, viewers receive genre scenes where a sultan or king is placed in a situation where he must make a decision about a woman. Sometimes these commercials are funny but most are just painfully sexist. In fact, according to Facebook's advertising policies, commercials like Game of Sultans are not allowed because of the rule “ads must not discriminate or encourage discrimination against people based on (…) sex, sexual orientation, gender identity.”(Advertising policies on Facebook). However, both games found a loophole to obey to this rule.

Sometimes these commercials are funny but most are just painfully sexist.

The authors of Game of Sultans explained that their game does not break the guidelines, because situations shown in their commercial do not reflect a real situation, but a historical event, so it is not actual discrimination. The question is why, even though these ads are harmful, Facebook users can see so many of them. Alexander Lyubenko, a developer of online games at one of the biggest game studios Nekki said: “You can stand up against harassment as much as you want, but as long as people click on these kinds of ads, they will continue to work”. The key to comprehending these mechanics is to understand who is the target group for developers. A type of game where players are lords that build castles is a favorite genre of young men, who fantasize about a kingdom, beautiful women, and power that they cannot acquire in the offline world. And, looking at the number of downloads and popularity of these games, this form of manipulation is working well. (Pankratova, Stognei, 2019)

Figure 3: Mafia City commercial with fake gameplay

There is another mechanic that should be noted. Creators of the ads try to make them hilarious or even design them to be “memeable” (so users could easily transform them into memes). This happened with the game Mafia City. It is another 2D game with a ridiculous number of microtransactions. In 2018, creators of Mafia City launched almost 30 short trailers of their game, containing various situations with mafia bosses, crooks, and hitmen. What they all had in common, was that they were funny and had a characteristic element of leveling the players. This form quickly became viral and the game now has more than 50 million downloads on Google Play. Developers timed perfectly with actual trends and showed the magic of the marketing and algorithm. When the user decides to watch the full trailer of the game, he or she unknowingly buys a product and in the future, he or she will see more trailers with similar content. It is debatable if this form of marketing is harmful. Comparatively to Game of Sultans, it is not harmful to any social group. It is fake, because players do not see actual gameplay, but funny content. Producers did not sell the game itself, but content with the hope of spreading between unaware users (Shifman, 2013).

Use of fake content in commercials

Figure 4: Big Farm trailer which presents a certain gameplay which differs from the actual content of the game

Figure 5: Big Farm's real gameplay which differs from the gameplay presented in the commercial

The last tactic that is worth mentioning, is presenting a trailer with amazing playing mechanics and graphics when the actual game is a simple farm-builder with microtransactions. Rise of kingdoms and Goodgame big farm are great examples of games with fake trailers. In the trailer of Rise of kingdoms, users can see a scene of an attack on the convoy with advanced bow aiming mechanics, dynamic action, and quick building of the kingdom. But after downloading this game all they will receive is a simple game about collecting resources, building a castle, and avoiding microtransactions.

It is very clear in the example of Goodgame big farm where viewers are presented with a 3D game, with amazing graphics looking like a game for advanced computers, while what they actually get is another isometric game where they click a screen to collect crops or upgrade a henhouse. How is it possible that these fake commercials are legal, and it is extremely hard to cite a huge corporation with a lack of true gameplay?

The mobile games industry develops extremely fast, so a commercial may contain something fake but after a few hours, it is already gone. Also, advertising laws have lots of catches. For instance, it is legal to release a trailer if it has any part of actual gameplay. In the example of “Rise of kingdoms”, both trailer and gameplay have miniatures of sources in the upper-right corner, so the trailer presents the actual game according to the law.


The future of mobile games 

The reason why developers run such aggressive campaigns is the fact that all the above-mentioned mobile games are free to download. So, to be able to create a profit, developers need players that will buy products in games (such as crystals, premium accounts), and the easiest way to achieve it is by having as many players as possible. As it is hard to sue these companies, Facebook users must choose another way to stop the spread of these commercials. Some users at some point will see this type of commercial on their newsfeed. If they decide to click “I don’t want to see ads like this”, the algorithm will choose an ad in a different category in the future.

It is unlikely that this commercial trend will spread further from mobile games to PC or console games. The biggest advantage for mobile games developers is the fact that everyone has a smartphone while consoles are more exclusive products. It is also highly possible that changes in the law will stop this trend. One of these changes is already working. If the trailer presents completely different content than players can find in the game, it must have a caption “Not all images represent actual gameplay” (Aptica.com, 2020). While these commercials can be annoying for users of platforms such as Facebook, these changes may possibly reduce the number of commercials in the future.


Advertising policies on Facebook, Discriminatory practices 

Aptica.com, Will The Fake Ads Outbreak In Mobile Games Continue In 2020?, Mar 30, 2020

Cunningham, Stuart & David Craig 2017. Being ‘really real’ on YouTube: Authenticity, community, and brand culture in social media entertainment. Media International Australia 164(1), 71-81.

Irina Pankratova, Anastasia Stognei, A sexist and his hostages: why you see ads for Game of Sultans everywhere, 27 march 2019 

Khouri, Hanadi, Facebook Updates in 2016 – A Year in Review, Dec 20, 2016

Shifman, Limor 2013. Memes in a digital world: Reconciling with a conceptual troublemaker. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 18, 362-377.

Tufekci, Zeynep 2015. Algorithmic harms beyond Facebook and Google: Emergent challenges of computational agency. Colorado Technology Law Journal 13(2)