Between 2005 and 2007, the U.S. game industry passed up first the movie and then the music industries in terms of overall revenue, clearly staking its claim as a major media player for anyone who was still unsure.
And when the business world sees money being made, it figures, usually correctly, that there is more money to be made through indirect methods like in-game advertising (IGA). IGA is not new – it started at least in the late ‘70s with ads for developers’ other games and ads for products had appeared by the early ‘90s (possibly late ‘80s). But the bigger the business, the bigger the ad market, so we’re in a different world of in-game advertising today, a world expected to do over a billion dollars in annual business by next year (after all, you won’t fast forward through your game like you might through TV commercials). Leaving aside free-to-play online gaming with its very, very different advertising world (think Mafia Wars on Facebook, etc.), most of what you’re going to see in your console or traditional PC games is static IGA, product placement, or dynamic IGA.
The first two are pretty familiar from movies and TV – billboards or products being used in the game or movie also function to advertise those products to the real-world viewers or players. Dynamic IGA is the new kid on the block that takes advantage of the fact that, since games are a programmable medium that can be patched, updated, and altered even after it enters your home, ads in a game can be resold later on – in effect, Rockstar can change the billboards in Los Santos to keep making ad money off GTA V – and to bring in advertisers who don’t want to schedule their ad content a year-and-a-half in advance as is sometimes the case with static ads getting built in during initial development.
So how does this affect gamers? Well, as will come as a surprise to no one, the funnest examples are the big mistakes. Oh hell, Shaun White Skateboarding. In this game (2010), players skate around a world controlled by the Ministry which makes everything boring and grey and oppressive and it’s your job to skate around and magically bring color and life back to the world (so basically, de Blob on a skateboard). As you do so, however, billboards featuring the Ministry’s mean rules, such as “No Chewing Allowed” transform into…ads for Stride gum. Yes, in this game, the ads are the unlockables, and an achievement/trophy (“Ridiculously Long Lasting”) even pops once you’ve ‘liberated’ five Stride billboards. Wendy’s ads are used (complete with trophy/achievement) in the same way.
By making the ads obtrusive and suggesting you should feel happy to see them, this game overbalanced, making the ads visible but also easy to ridicule and hate (it won, for instance, Giant Bomb’s “Most Egregious Use Of Product Placement/In-Game Advertising Award” in 2010). Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory (2005) used static ads more successfully, having the player traverse a cityscape that – like real cities – included company and product names in lights on the tops of some buildings, so when you are forced to zipline across a building with a giant Axe ad, it fits the world of the game without being as obnoxious. And for Axe, this is golden – the game was a big success, and every player had to encounter the Axe brand as part of the game in a way that didn’t slow down their progress. And, being a static ad, it’s there forever.
Product placement can also go either way. In the beginning of Alan Wake (2010), Alan’s in a car using the Ford-Microsoft Sync communications/entertainment system. Which is fine, but I remember being slightly annoyed when the camera carefully kept the Sync logo prominently framed and lingered on it longer than necessary at the end of the scene. It was enough to make me feel less favorably inclined toward Ford and Microsoft rather than neutral but more aware of their product. Another controversial recent product placement was in Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots (2008), in which Solid Snake has an iPod with both pre-loaded and unlockable songs and developer podcasts (Apple computers also pop up throughout the game, and unlocking all songs pops a trophy/achievement called “Sounds of the Battlefield”). Critics argue that this is making a featured product too central to an experience players have already shelled out retail price to play. Defenders, however, point out that spec ops soldiers often do have iPods on them – snipers actually have an app that helps them determine ballistics paths. Also, many players enjoy being able to control the music/audio environment while playing, so giving them a way to do so in-game without turning off the game-related audio signals can leave some players with a more favorable impression of the game and Apple.
Sports games have shifted considerably from static to dynamic ads – much like real sports stadiums – with a ribbon of ads around the field shifting from time to time during games. This is usually relatively unobtrusive, since we’re used to this functioning exactly the same way when we watch sports in person or on TV, and since these ads are often for sports-related products or services. Integrating ads into other games can be trickier, though. Famously, the Obama campaign paid over $44,000 dollars for one month of dynamic IGA in racing game Burnout Paradise in 2008 (and later at least 17 other games like Guitar Hero 3 and Madden 09), but gamers and critics were divided as to whether the game content was a good fit for the image Obama was trying to present and whether Burnout Paradise players would be open to Obama encouraging early voting in their racing game or think more favorably of him for being tech-savvy enough to be advertising there. In the aftermath of these ad buys, the tech and especially gaming world seemed somewhat flattered that Obama cared about them. Dynamic ads also offer advertisers the chance to pull an ad if the partnership seems to be backfiring…something Stride might wish it could do in Shaun White Skateboarding. While I haven’t played GTA V yet, I’ve heard both that there are plenty of in-game billboards, but also (in Forbes magazine – this is a game expected to hit the $1B mark very quickly) that most of the brands are, in vintage GTA fashion, spoofed rather than featured (iFruit for iPod, Bleater for Twitter, LifeInvader for Facebook), with cars looking good but bearing similarly snarky names. So what’s an advertiser to do to try to get in on this action? And is Rockstar even interested in letting them?
With games and IGA becoming such big business, researchers are getting busy studying how all this works to figure out how to maximize IGA success, exploring, for example, a hypothesis (by Will Chan) that the best way to advertise in game is when the player’s attention on the game is at a medium level and the ad is prominent, so the ad isn’t distracting from important action but it doesn’t get overlooked. They’ve determined that gamers don’t mind ads so much that allow them to play a game for free, but a distracting ad in a retail game pisses gamers off, while an ad that fits the game world is more likely to get favorable responses. In other words, if you’re charging gamers, make sure the ad is not a blatant departure from the world they’ve paid for. There’s a lot more to be said about the growing world of IGA – when have you noticed it for better or worse? Are there any games where the ads slipped in under your radar? Any ridiculous, Stride-like missteps? What rules would you like IGA to follow?