The many faces of in-game advertising
22nd Aug 2010 | 11:00
How in-game ads can help pay for titles big and small
As gamers we're easily hypnotised by swish. When a game engine manages to make the real world look rubbish in comparison to a 3D tree, our eyes well up like we're witnessing dawn's rays rising across the ziggurats of Machu Piccu.
Games have a long history of mimicking reality and making games that look and feel like realistic environments are key goals for many developers wanting to immerse the player in their worlds.
Ignore for a moment honest physics, expressive facial animation, even the vast, open world of GTA 4 and the GPU shredding graphics of Crysis, because one other area where reality has seeped into games is the wall-to-wall coating of real-world products and ads in games.
For over three decades game developers have combined forces with advertising agencies and commercial brands to create games that have incorporated a plethora of ads from billboards, movie ads and mascots to in-game products and brand-hyping posters to your local polygonal neighbourhood.
These in-game ads have made game environments as commercially important to big corporations peddling their 'shiny new thing' as real ads, and naturally gamers have taken notice of the growth.
Space, I'm lovin' it
With enough promotional material from Pepsi, McDonalds, AXE Deodorant, Adidas and T-mobile to fill out a prop quota for an American sitcom, in-game adverts (IGAs) have developed a reputation for shamelessly commercialising games.
But since their inception thirty years ago, IGAs have changed in tone and style alongside the games themselves, and modernised almost as dramatically as graphics have in that time. Which begs the question, are IGAs as much a commercial coup as they were decades ago?
Step back just a few years to 1979 and we see product placement at its earliest. There she was, Atari's Lunar Lander, wretchedly archaic to us now. It was a bleeping, blooping coin-op game to be played on a single, hulking arcade cabinet. And even though Atari had no specific relationship with advertisers during its development, these days it's widely considered the first game to incorporate a corporate brand.
In this case it used McDonalds as its reference of choice. The game provided an Easter egg that allowed your astronaut to leave his ship to buy a Big Mac at a hidden McDonalds when you land on just the right spot. Lunar Lander followed the classic arcade tradition that fine-tuned gameplay to create compulsive titles that hooked arcade players into repeat plays, and this genre became the very first platform for true in-game adverts, which were seen throughout the early 1980s.
Pepsi is funded by martians (maybe)
It is astounding to realise that the corporate world had started kneading its bejewelled knuckles into game design at a time when games were struggling to make objects look round let alone recognisable.
Pac-Man had just been released on the Atari 2600, and so had Sinistar; the games industry was still in its infancy at this point. But alongside the arcades was a new genre of game: the adver-game.
One of the earliest examples had come out of a partnership between Coca Cola and Atari, with both companies pooling their expertise to create the Space Invaders clone, Pepsi Invaders. In a stroke of marketing genius worthy of The Apprentice, the game replaced all invading aliens with the letters 'P', 'E', 'P', 'S' and 'I' and added a command ship in the form of a Pepsi logo, followed by the words 'Coke Wins'.
These words would flash repeatedly on the screen once you destroyed its commercial rivals, presumably to counteract the effects of the Pepsi Challenge Pepsi Invaders had been commissioned specifically for a 1983 sales convention and it was a hefty piece of marketing that had more to do with strategic advertisement than it did game development. But this was the nature of the adver-game: a genre wading in corporate imagery and built largely to sell breakfast cereal and bargainpriced soft drinks.
The eighties were riddled with adver-games, and that trickled out into the nineties too. Pepsi Invaders was quickly followed by similarly heavy handed promotional video games that featured the likes of Johnson & Johnson's Tooth Protector and Kool-Aid's human pitcher of juice, the Kool-Aid Man.
That was followed by 7 Up's Cool Spot on the Mega Drive and Cheetos' Chester Cheetah: Too Cool to Fool on SNES.
Volvo: Need for Tweed
Today few modern brands bother to continue the traditions of adver-games because of the difficulty of finding an accepting market. The classically-styled adver-game has been crossed off the list of relevant genres and relegated to the ranks of interactive banner ads and free CD giveaways wedged in your mailbox.
It's only natural that modern adver-games in the vein of Pepsi Invaders are rarer finds on PCs and consoles as society, as a whole, has become more adept at blocking the messages they attempt to peddle.
There are always exceptions, and in 2003 Volvo made a go of it with their Xbox release Drive for Life. Burnout: Paradise It Ain't. Drive for Life was a pseudo-simulator designed for the sole purpose of marinating users in the brand's core value: car safety. The game challenged you with such tasks as moose-avoidance and the mouthwatering objective 'avoid pile-ups'.
Beyond the problems of developing a game that can actually compete in a market that expects the cutting edge, the real difficulty is finding gamers who have been clamouring for a good 4-door hatchback racer. Anyone?
Deodorant for the covert op in you
These days modern games embrace a level of subtlety that wasn't required twenty or thirty years ago. We're a street-smart bunch, we sniff out the heavy-handed promotional rubbish they throw at us, and both developers and ad agencies alike have learned to cater to this.
The next logical alternatives came in the form of static and dynamic in-game ads. Both kinds of adverts could be incorporated into a game's environment and placed in a natural setting. It was a slightly more subtle approach to promoting brands, and in some instances they actually helped to create an authentic-looking setting for the game.
An early example of this kind of advertising can be found in 1992's FIFA International Soccer, a game that featured a football field decorated with Adidas banners.
Similarly, 2005's Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory slid in an enormous, glowing neon AXE billboard into the New York mission. Players, controlling Sam Fisher, had to zap the AXE sign with their EMP pistol to get to a strategically placed zipline undetected, which led on to an adjacent building.
Both of these were static in-game advertisements insofar as they were put into the game and could not be changed on the fly. But dynamic ads let developers and ad agencies create advertisements that could be modified at any time, allowing campaigns to be promoted depending on their relevance at the time.
If a film needed promoting for a November release date then it could be done, and it could be pulled a month later when its promotion was no longer necessary.
In-game ad networks, such as Massive, IGA and Extent made dealing with in-game ads almost as apple-pie simple as churning out a web banner for your website by including a string of code in the upcoming title that let networks stream ads from their servers when the game was released.
The upside to this for the networks and game developers has been that they have avoided hard-coding an advert into a game for a single product that might not be relevant in six months' time and, in theory, offer a supply of relevant and up to date ads.
The downside, of course, has been that the products have often been completely unrelated to the game, which has sometimes prompted a gloriously ranty horde of gamers to headbut down the door of irrelevant ad peddlers in response – or prompted a Penny Arcade comic strip.
See your ad here
Recent IGA trends have led gamers into a tight corner. On the one hand these adverts rarely take anything away from gameplay; an IGA often will show up as a billboard on the side of the highway or a relatively innocuous poster and only exist in-game as a petulant eyesore on the worst of days.
On the other hand launching ads that are consistently suitable for any game and genre is highly unlikely, and combining a game with an ill-fitting ad provides a bucket of cold water for any gamer seeking an escape from everyday reality through a game world.
A billboard flashing an ad for Motorola might fit in the backdrop of Times Square in True Crime: New York City, but we're not always so lucky. In 2005, SWAT 4, a tactical shooter not known for wising cracks, included a promotional campaign for the Canadian animated sci-fi comedy Tripping the Rift for US players. While the game tried to convey the tense experience of leading a five-man team around a serial killer's lair and coping with realistic firearm protocols, ad posters for a comedy show peppered the walls. Surreal maybe, but also a great way to shatter the atmosphere.
Similarly, the MMOFPS Planetside, a game that took place one thousand years in the future featured posters promoting the premiere of Rob Schneider film Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo.
Ads saved the videogame
However IGAs don't always hinder a game, in fact they help pay for the big titles. With the current cost of cranking out good AAA games, ad revenues at least offer the possibility of offsetting initial costs. Costs so high you'll feel a bit ill.
Gone are the days when a developer could turn out an MMO for eight million dollars. The current poster boy, Modern Warfare 2 cost between $40 to $50m to produce and even after 12 million copies sold, the publisher wasn't guaranteed a profit. It has subsequently bounced back with a hefty $381m net profit for the first quarter for this year, but from a commercial standpoint, IGAs offer publishers a much needed cheque after years of production costs.
And likewise, the gaming industry has grown as a leading player in commercial entertainment. The work put into shoehorning brand names into games is evidence of the mainstream's acceptance of games as both a steadfast medium and competitor, as opposed to a simple novelty.
And with TV demographics drifting since the early noughties, advertising agencies all want to reach the 18 to 34 year-old, couch-bound male demographic. As we've seen with the internet, television and radio before that, games are being shaped into commercial spaces, although it's not necessarily a commercial takeover.
And that's because from a creative standpoint, the revenue taken from adverts can help to recover some of the costs put into creating games, giving development teams more leeway to take risks for the sake of experimentation and new innovative gameplay.
But more than that, it can offer a very helpful hand to smaller independent companies. It's a land of pirates out there in the commercial market, pirates and cheapskates. With the ease of downloading it can be hard for some to find the incentive to cough up the 30 or so quid for a top-class AAA game. But for an independent company already trying to avoid sickeningly high developing costs, pirated downloads can be crippling.
Traditionally this has been dealt with through dear ol' DRM, that's used various means, some more controversial (*cough* Ubi *cough*) than others to impose limitations on how game content can be accessed.
Security guru, Bruce Schneier once described attempts to make files uncopyable "like trying to make water less wet". Maybe then, ad revenues are the lesser evil that could be the far less tedious and cumbersome alternative for gamers and a way for developers to off-set their losses?
Thirty years in and IGAs are still a work in progress, but in their current form they have the potential to offer us DRM-free games – as well as a burger and a side of fries.
First published in PC Format Issue 242
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