Edited by Liam O'Donnell
31 , 2004
| What do you get when you cross the world's most measurable
medium with the world's most immersive medium? Video games peppered
with Internet-style banner-ads. This new method of marketing allows
measurable demographic and exposure data to be collected from the
elusive online gaming community, targeting dynamically-downloaded
advertisements at specific demographics. The promise of a new revenue
stream is obviously attractive to advertisers and game publishers,
but will the idea win over gamers?
Print has been used for the purpose of reaching consumers for hundreds
of years. Primitive advertisements for goods and services gained
popularity with the development of printing tools, but only began
reaching the masses when introduced to early periodicals. In the
20th century, we saw print ads increase in scope and
quantity, often overshadowing the content of the magazines and newspapers
that carried them. Today, "advertorials" and other integrated sell-messages
masquerade as reading material. Broadcast media were quickly and
similarly exploited, from early sponsorships and interstitial commercials
to brands guest-starring on popular shows. In 1998, J. Crew outfitted
the cast of teen TV success Dawson's Creek. The stars of
the show were also featured in two of J.Crew's catalogues that year,
creating a synergistic tie-in between television and apparel products.
Movies have increasingly been similarly used as a venue for product-placement
such as soft drinks, clothes, and cars. Audi vehicles have played
the vehicular lead in over five motion pictures between 1998 (Ronin)
and 2004 (I, Robot). Accessible American hamburgers play
the starring role in the summer 2004 release of Harold &
Kumar Go to White Castle. The film, arguably an 88-minute commercial
for the fast food chain, might only be a taste of things to come.
Analog media aside, the fastest-growing and most pervasive advertisements
are found on the World Wide Web. Banner ads, pop-up ads, pop-under
ads, so-called "rich media" ads, and advertorial content have grown
explosively since their introduction. Internet advertisements represent
a huge leap in marketing technology. Unlike analog media, the reach
of internet ads can be absolutely precise, targeting consumers demographically,
reporting back statistics on the frequency and duration of exposure.
It follows that this dynamic, digital-exclusive technology would
find its way to online-game space.
Manhattan-based Massive Incorporated, partnered with the Internet
Advertising Bureau, will soon be bringing internet-style ads to
games by publishers Atari and Ubisoft. Massive's system facilitates
timed ad-campaigns aimed at specific segments of the gamer population-a
game player might not see the same ad twice in one week, for example.
Massive is not alone in mining gamers for measurable marketing dataNielsen
Entertainment Media has sided with publisher Activision in bringing
ad-tracking to games with a system superior to the Neilson "People
Meter" currently used to gather television viewing habits.
Massive Incorporated polled 200 gamers in February 2004 and found
that over 70 percent "…indicated that incorporating ads in video
games would greatly enhance the quality and realism of the gaming
experience provided they were done well." A separate Neilsen survey
found 70 percent of respondents would like to see real products
in their virtual environments, according to an August
2004 MSNBC story on advertising in games.
Products Advertised in Doom 3
Games such as Enter the Matrix and Disney's Extreme Skate
Adventure, which both take place in contemporary urban environments,
may be more realistic with the inclusion of a Powerade drink vending
machine or a McDonald's restaurant. Some games can be cheapened
by excessive product placements, such as the inclusion of the Red
Bull real-world energy drink as both product-placement and plot
point in Judge Dredd: Dredd Vs. Death (Vivendi Universal
Interactive Publishing, 2003). Other
games may be better off featuring make-believe products, where undertones
of commerciality are replaced by story expansion or whimsy. Doom
3, for example, developed by id Software and published by Activision,
features numerous brands. All are fictional. "If you look at some
of the [in-game] magazines, and even the soda machines, there's
always a little tongue-in-cheek humor or even inside jokes incorporated,"
says Marty Stratton, Director of Business Development at id Software.
"We all got a good laugh the first time our artist Andy Chang included
the 'Guns and Nachos' magazine in the game. It's a great cover--tasty
and deadly….I think the players appreciate finding the little funny
or clever things that are incorporated into the materials like this."
Although Doom 3 has many places where real-world products
could have been featured, Stratton says id Software wasn't actively
looking for marketing hooks. "Product placement is becoming more
popular in some of the sports and racing games, but hasn't really
found its way into too many action shooters."
Few games genres are by nature an appropriate venue for banner-style
marketing. Sports-related titles are probably the most-easily and
realistically-exploited genres, since modern sports are already
replete with logos and billboards. Another reasonable environment
is the contemporary urban setting. But sports and urban settings
make up only a fraction of the gaming spectrum. The remainder chiefly
includes fantasy, science fiction, humour and horror. Even if 70
percent of players feel that in-game ads increase their feeling
of immersion, only a small portion of games can credibly support
banner-style marketing. If you imagine half of game titles are sports
or urban-themed titles, Massive's and Neilson's surveys don't look
quite so promising. Suddenly we're down to 35 percent of gamers
pleased with in-game ads based on appropriateness.
Gamers are more savvy than other audiences, having an advanced
vocabulary in interactive media. Many
are well aware of when they're being sold out. "Ads aren't something
I believe can enhance gaming to any significant degree," says Adrian
Crook, a 29-year-old Vancouverite working as a Producer at developer
Relic Entertainment. "I can see a dynamically updated ad in a PC
or console game being at least a novelty and at best a game play
mechanic of some sort." Crook, who is currently working on
a next-generation console title, has previously held producer positions
at ad-agency MacLaren McCann and developer/publisher Electronic
Arts Canada. "When I was at MacLaren," recalls Crook, "we were simply
designing ads that we thought would annoy the least. In-game ads
seem to bring very little to the table besides the tangential validation
a brand name brings to a new videogame property, i.e. 'hmm... they
managed to get Mountain Dew involved...not bad.'" Other game enthusiasts
are dead set against the plans of companies like Massive. "I will
not pay for a game that tracks me or downloads ads," wrote Slashdot.org
user Stretch0611 in an online
discussion about in-game advertising. "I am not even sure I
would play it for free under those conditions…. It may be a game
publisher/ad-exec's dream, but it is not a player's dream."
Game advertisers would be foolish not to take a cue from internet
marketing, online game marketing's closest relative. Web surfers
don't generally enjoy banner adsthe slew of ad-censoring software,
including browsers with built-in blocking (such as Firefox and an
upcoming version of Internet Explorer) is testament to this. Many
web sites offer premium services that eliminate banners from their
pages, or offer free content to those who will sit through a timed
advertisement. ShackNews.com raised the topic among its readers.
"I have no problem with appropriate product placement," wrote a
gamer nicknamed Seven in an online
discussion about in-game ads at Shacknews.com. "If it's a more
intrusive 'ad', as opposed to simple texture on billboard, is not
actually adding to my gaming experience, and I'm paying three times
the cost of a DVD for the game, then I'm definitely against it.
If it means significantly cheaper quality games, that's fine, as
long as you can pay more for an ad free version." Adrian Crook doesn't
think publishers will share their increased revenue with consumers
by lowering prices. "Games won't get cheaper if ad revenues are
added to a publisher's bottom line," says Crook. "Does your cable
TV bill get cheaper in January when CBS is able to charge a million
dollars for a 30-second Superbowl spot? Nope. That's called growing
your profit margin. There's no way in hell that money will find
its way back to the consumer."
In-game ads featuring all the bells and whistles of their web-based
counterparts offer an unprecedented opportunity for the game and
advertising industry to commoditize online game-players. With capable
and established firms providing enabling technology, game publishers
will soon reap the benefits of even greater profits, at least in
the short term. The benefits of dynamic in-game advertising are
negligible at best, offering a small percentage of gamers a heightened
sense of immersion when executed appropriately. History has shown
us that once ads get a foothold in a medium, they not only persist,
they pervade and dominate. Once all available appropriate uses are
depleted, advertising encroaches increasingly on the integrity of
the medium until the art form is eclipsed. Today, Ratchet and
Clank, tomorrow Ratchet and Clank Go to White Castle.
Walsh is a Toronto-based freelance Jack of all Trades, practitioner
of the Arts, avid gamer and renegade digital anthropologist. He
keeps a near-daily journal at clickableculture.com
but lives at secretlair.com.
email for info