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A quick look at how video games are still managing to struggle with in-game advertising, in regards to ethics and immersion, despite having a pretty extensive blueprint laid down by decades of television and film.

Aaron & Alex Leach, Blogger

September 21, 2010

8 Min Read

[Written by Aaron Leach.]

As much as we love to try and trumpet video games as works of art, and I’m not saying that they are or aren’t here, it is important to remember that the industry is also a business, often times first and foremost. Therefore, a large reason that most games get made is to make people money.

Video games do indeed have it a little tougher when it comes to seeing a return on investment when compared to other entertainment mediums since the one shot to make money back is the direct sale of the game. They don’t have multiple avenues of return like ticket sales plus DVD sales, or album sales plus concert ticket sales. Not to mention the fact that games are more or less competing with themselves in the form of used copies that don’t yield any sort of return for the people making the games, but that topic is for another time. The bottom line is that the games are purchased and make money, or they’re not and they don’t.

With such a small window of opportunity to eat from the money tree, it’s not surprising that publishers and developers have looked at another option to recoup some of their costs: in-game advertising. I’d like to start by simply making it very clear that I am generally not opposed to in-game advertising. Other visual mediums such as television and film have been doing it for decades, which actually brings me to my point and question. With such an extensive blueprint for correctly putting advertising into a visual product laid out for us by years upon years of movies and television, how are video games still managing to screw it up?

As I stated before, I’m not opposed to the practice in general. In fact, properly executed product placement or advertising can actually add to the realism of the game’s world. There are a few games, like sports games and racing games, that currently do this well, and they are great examples of establishing touches of realism in the game world.

Having ads line the inside of a stadium in Madden or on a billboard as I drive around in Burnout Paradise’s open world establish a reflection of what we see in real life almost every day. By mirroring an environment that is already engrained into almost any gamer’s frame of reference helps to bridge the gap between reality and the virtual space, thereby potentially creating a greater sense of immersion.

The other possible non-monetary perk of doing in-game advertising correctly is the potential to create a greater connection between the player and the game’s characters. This can easily be achieved through subtle product placement. People are naturally self-centered and therefore we tend to like other people who like the same stuff we do.

So if I see Max Payne go to his fridge and pull out a Pepsi, I might think to myself, “Hey, Pepsi is my favorite drink too,” and a slightly closer connection between Max and I has just been formed through our shared taste. Even if you’re a Coke drinker instead of Pepsi, no harm has been done. Seeing the Pepsi still helps equate the fictional world to our world more so than if he were drinking Genero Cola. It really is that simple.

If it’s so easy then what’s the problem? The problem is that sports and racing games are just one segment of games overall, and the dirt-simple example above almost never happens that way in narrative based games. Instead we often get sloppy implementations that interfere with and intrude upon the gameplay experience overall. In-game ads often seem to conflict visually, narratively and sometimes even ethically, and that is what I absolutely take issue with. Let’s look at some examples.

The most recent game to botch in-game advertising in almost every way conceivable is Alan Wake. I know I just said the ads were bad across the board, but let’s get into some specifics. Starting with the visual aspects of the game, Alan Wake offers a few instances of awkward and non-sense camera angles all for the sake of getting close-ups on product logos.

Whether it’s a low-angle shot from beneath the momentarily transparent floor to get a nice view of a Verizon logo, or a weird interior shot of a car’s dashboard that makes certain to get a good look at the Microsoft Sync logo, both examples use angles or camera moves that are jarring and intrusive.

There are two cases of narrative intrusion that Alan Wake is guilty of as well. One is laughable, but the other is nearly unforgivable. Starting with the more humorous of the two, the use of Energizer batteries to power Alan’s flashlight has to be the worst product placement idea ever, if for no other reason than the fact that your batteries are always dying and constantly need to be replaced.

Why would you want your company’s batteries to be used in a way that positions them to look like they are not a good product? I’m just saying that after playing the game, if I’m ever out in the woods at night, I’m going to make sure my flashlight is filled with Duracells.

The other example isn’t so funny and is one that you may have already heard about. It is such a breach of immersion that it’s hard to believe Remedy really let this in their game. There is a point in the game in which you are being chased through a building by the game’s evil forces. During this chase you come across a television. Hitting the ol’ on/off switch on this television treats players to a full color, real life Verizon commercial. That’s right. In the middle of a life or death chase sequence, you are able to stop and watch an ad. Immersion destroyed. Of course you don’t have to stop and turn on the tube, but the problem is that the game has already established these televisions as collectibles, all of which offer something related to the game, except this one.

Did I mention that clicking all the TV’s is an achievement too? They really wanted you to click on this thing. I hope Verizon paid them a lot of money to recklessly destroy the intensity of a great gameplay moment because if they didn’t, and Remedy just thought that was a good idea to put that ad there, that was the sloppiest use of in-game advertising in the history of the medium.

The idea of in-game ads creating an ethical dilemma may seem like a stretch, but hear me out. While I was playing Tony Hawk: Ride (Don’t laugh, I was curious.), I noticed the loading screens were presented to me by Stride gum. At first glance this may not seem like a big deal, or like they just found yet another place to slap an ad. But stop and think about it for a moment.

If Activision sells Stride ad time on the loading screens by telling them that gamers will be fixed on that screen for X amount of seconds every so often with nothing to do other than stare at their logo, what then is the incentive for the developer to reduce the load time or get the game to run with fewer instances of loading? The answer is that there isn’t any incentive. In fact, the ideal situation for both Activision and Stride, in this case, is to have the most numerous and lengthiest load screens possible. This may seem paranoid, but I just can't get comfortable with the possibility of an outside corporation having an influence on load times.

Oddly enough, Activision CEO Bobby Kotick recently stated that he isn’t a big fan of in-game ads. He feels that gamers already pay enough for the disc or for a subscription fee and, therefore, don’t want ads or need ads in games unless it enhances the experience. That’s the thing though, Bobby, if done well, in-game ads can indeed enrich the experience. And if you can supplement your earnings with some smoothly placed adds that also have the ability to lower the cost of the game for the player, an idea that Kotick did say he was open to, then that’s a scenario in which we all win.

Look developers, television and film have already laid the groundwork for correctly including ads in narrative visual media. You’re often keen to copy them in almost every other aspect, so why don’t we try copying them here too? As Alex pointed out in his article, this isn’t an instance where you need to reinvent the wheel on advertising. The established methods are used for a reason, to help create that sense of reality and a connection to your fictional world. I realize not all games call for in-game ads, I definitely don’t want to see Master Chief with a Nike Swoosh on his Spartan armor, but if you are going to use ads, let’s go with what works.

[Reprinted from www.pixelosophy.com]

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