The concept of advertisements in videogames is not a new one. However, it received a major boost recently, when Atari announced that they would be providing a free content upgrade patch for Roller Coaster Tycoon 3 that will also insert ads from companies such as Coca Cola, Honda and Intel into the game. Items such as billboards and shop windows in the virtual parks will now be plastered with real-world advertisements.
Advertising in videogames is seen as the Next Big Thing [tm] to beleaguered marketing folks. Thanks to the complete and utter saturation of ads in other sectors, and the ability to block ads completely on TVs using systems such as TiVo, they have been looking to find new ways to penetrate our skulls and sell us crap. Videogames are fairly untouched by advertising, and also feature great market penetration to the younger set, who are a major target of advertisers. ("Get ’em young, get ’em for life," as some say.)
The company leading the advertising charge into the videogaming world is Massive Incorporated. They have brought together developers, publishers and advertisers and paired them off to bring us such oddities as the aforementioned Coca Cola ads in Roller Coaster Tycoon . They have also signed with companies such as Eidos, Vivendi, Ubisoft and Codemasters, aiming to bring us concentrated ads in every form of videogame imaginable.
Now this is all well and good, says I, the fan of innovation and progressiveness, but there are a few catches. Coca Cola ads on billboards in a Tycoon game add to the atmosphere ; it’s the same principle as billboards and trackside ads in racing and sports games making them realistic (can you really imagine a football game without pitch side ads ?) The problems arise when the ads start winding up in less than realistic situations. Say for example, you ran across a Honda ad in a fantasy MMORPG - it would ruin your suspension of disbelief, and jolt you back into the real world with a bang.
Can we really trust advertisers, publishers and developers not to get greedy and simply throw ads all over the place, regardless of their impact on immersion and gamer satisfaction ? I’m sure someone already has a nicely worded press statement on their hard drive telling me that, of course , developers, publishers and advertisers are all committed to bringing the gamer the most immersive, realistic experience possible - all while "enriching" the world with ads in an attempt to get everyone to drink Coke and drive 4x4s.
Anyone who has been to a movie theatre recently might chuckle at reading that. You can now enter a theatre at the time printed on the ticket and spent upwards of a half an hour sitting through ads and movie trailers until you get to the feature film. At this stage, when going to the cinema with friends, I can arrive at the cinema moments before the film is due to begin, purchase my ticket and then head off to a shop half way across the shopping center - mall, for those teenage American girls in the audience - at a leisurely pace to get food. By the time I finally arrive at my seat, I can still catch about five minutes of commercials and a couple of trailers. If this is what they’re doing in cinemas, I can only imagine what they have planned for videogames...
With advertisers beginning to insert 10-second ad spots into videogames "dynamically" - that’s a key buzzword, in case you were wondering- as you pass a television in a game, for example, these advertisements could become as much of an annoying distraction as they are on TV. The problem is that we may not be able to simply walk away : advertisers are trying to force you to interact with their products. For example, in Ubisoft’s Splinter Cell one has to use a provided Sony Ericsson cell phone to deal with some challenges.
Now, as I’ve said, I don’t mind advertisements in videogames, particularly ones where they make sense. But greed is a powerful motivator, and I can almost see the day when in Everquest II I have to sit through a magic mirror giving me a 30 second McDonald’s ad before I can progress to the next skill level.
Even after putting up with all of this, we might not reap any real benefits as gamers apart from the err, "fun", of seeing advertisements in our videogames. Massive Inc. estimates that by the year 2010, all this in-game advertising will be worth somewhere in the region of $2.5 billion worth of revenues - just a shade under 32% of what the gaming industry is making today. Still, good luck getting much of that money out of publishers’ profit margins. Instead we’ll still be left to pay $50 for a game, and probably shell out another few quid a month if it’s an MMORPG. For our money we will get to enjoy the benefits of Gillette ads in our Tolkienesque videogames, and our special forces agents chewing branded gum before a mission (making sure to flash it prominently across the screen during what’s supposed to be a tension-building intro.)
As consumers, our only hope now lies in voting with our virtual feet. If you begin to see inappropriately placed ads that jolt you out of the world you’re supposed to be inhabiting, or have to sit through ten seconds of crap before you can progress in a game, then you should walk away from it. Spread the word, and with a bit of help, the advertisers will get the message quickly, and stick with billboards in Tycoon games and handy fast-food ordering buttons in our MMORPGs. Otherwise, things are going to get very monotonous and frustrating, very quickly.