Madmen join the gameMarch 20th, 2010 by Ville Miettinen
Health failing, he cowers behind the bombed-out shell of an armored tank. The enemy is getting close. Too close. There is nothing else for it. He has to move, and move now. Lobbing his last grenade high over the tank to distract his tormentors, he bolts for the safety of the abandoned bunker. Just meters from the entrance, he cops that final, fatal bullet. Lying prone, his vision begins to fail. But not before noticing an advert for men’s antiperspirant near the bunker’s entrance. Hmmm. Must remember to get some of that when I go to the supermarket later on.
If this seems like an unlikely scenario to you, it probably indicates that you do not spend a large portion of your free time fighting wars, racing cars or shooting monsters in a video game. In which case, you’ll have to take my word for the fact that just as in the real world, advertising is now pervasive in the virtual world of video games. While I’m not that avid a gamer anymore (I’ve spent the last 15 years in the games industry, and – like dealers of non-virtual drugs – I don’t get high on my own supply), my annual pilgrimage to the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco the other week was an eye opener. I spent two days at the Social & Online Games Summit listening to lectures on how to get people to try out online games, how to keep them hooked, and how to monetize them.
Game developers have increasingly embraced in game advertising as a stream of revenue at a time when the rising cost of game development is making for tough times in the industry. These rising costs mean that even though a lot more people are playing games, game-makers need to sell ever increasing volumes to turn a profit. To that end, even if developers prefer not to clutter their virtual worlds, they recognize in-game advertising is a necessary evil.
The choice of a new generation?
Because the people that play the games are also the ones that buy them (or pester their parents to do so), their views on in-game advertising are obviously rather important. Some studies suggest gamers are okay with it, although such studies tend to be sponsored by companies that produce the advertising. The keen-eyed among you might notice a slight conflict of interest there.
But even setting that aside for the time being and indulging my own personal preferences, I have no qualms about in-game ads that add to the realism of a game. A good example, in my opinion, are the ads that appeared during the Obama campaign in games such as Burnout Paradise and Madden 2009. Billboards like this are all over the place during elections, and lend a sense of time and place to the gameplay.
But more important that enhancing the gameplay and realism of the virtual world, in my opinion, is not detracting from it. That is why efforts like the gleaming Pepsi vending machines that exist in the devastated cityscapes of Bionic Commando cause some angst. If indestructible materials existed in the future, it seems unlikely that their use would be restricted solely to the construction of vending machines. Such lack of cohesion contributes to a less believable virtual environment, and brings you back into the real world with a thud.
“Yes We Can……use in-game advertising“
The Obama ads had relevance and a cohesive fit with the games they appeared in. However, they still had potential to irritate gamers, perhaps even more so than confronting Coke aficionados with indomitable Pepsi branding. After all, politics is right up there with religion when it comes to eliciting a strong reaction — be it positive or negative.
This means that the gaming industry has to tread very carefully to avoid alienating its customers and ruining its brands. Currently to most game players, Sonic is just a hedgehog, albeit one that functions at impressively high revs per minute. But add a bit of in-game advertising for say Republican sweetheart Sarah Palin, and suddenly he might become Sonic the Republican. Would a card-carrying Democrat want to help a Republican in their quest to collect magic rings? I think not!
The official word from EA sports, whose games carried the Obama advertising, was that they approach political advertising like a television station does. It makes it sound like they’ve been airing political content for years. But you can bet that the extra media attention the leading-edge nature of this new subject matter generated made the decision just that little bit easier.
EA Sports no doubt would have weighed up the revenue from the in-game advertising against the potential for reducing their customer base. Along with Obama’s huge popularity, mitigating factors in this case are the younger age of most gamers, meaning they are less likely to have developed strong political leanings. Also, the advertising was only targeted at the MMOG (massively multi-player online game) users in 10 swing states, that is, states where neither Republicans or Democrats had a clear margin. The implication here again is that the political views of the audience would be less polarized than say New York (Democrat) or Utah (Republican).
Like that? Then you’ll love this
The Obama ads’ focus on only those swing states also provides an example of how advanced audience targeting already is within games. This dynamic in-game advertising will no doubt be taken to a more granular level with the rise of games on platforms provided by social networking sites. These sites contain a wealth of information on users like and dislikes that would make in-game, and even real world advertisers drool. And the means for achieving this are already being put in place.
Self-confessed fans of Kings of Leon can expect excerpts of the new album specifically streamed to them as background music while they play Facebook games. And if you’ve said you like holidaying in Amsterdam, check out that virtual billboard promising great deals on central city hotels this month only!
Whatever your opinion, it seems that advertising is here to stay in the virtual world. Unlike in the real world, where ugly billboards assault the senses every time you leave the house, at least you have a choice whether or not to buy a game. Whether or not it actually makes you drink Pepsi or vote Obama may depend on how good the game is: I know I need to apply a good antiperspirant before spending a grueling day fighting rebel forces.