I just saw this about the in-game advertising in Splinter Cell Chaos Theory, where an Ubisoft representative says that the advertising is implemented “in a thoughtful and selective way to enhance the realism of the game.”
Call me cynical, but I haven’t seen security operatives ‘working’ at computers with a parade of Nokia phones scrolling past. I also highly doubt that super spies like Sam Fisher make an effort to hold their packets of Airwaves chewing gum full-frontal so that everyone can see what brand they chew, and although it might technically be true that in the event of a blackout of New York City the only remaining light would come from the Airwaves blimp above the Yankee Stadium, doesn’t that image sound like the perfect opportunity for an advertiser to show their product logo on an otherwise blank screen?
Now I’m all for advertising in games if it keeps the development costs under control – with piracy being rife, competition being fierce, and costs spiralling ever upwards it’s unreasonable to expect games to guarantee their own profit margins – and when it’s done properly it can enhance the realism. You walk down the street and see signs for McDonalds and Coca-Cola after all; not ‘Fast Food’ and ‘Coola’. The Japanese version of Shenmue had Coca-Cola machines along the streets which sold Coca-Cola and Fanta, and it was more realistic than the English versions and their generic soft drink machines. Similarly, the fact that Sam Fisher’s PDA in Pandora Tomorrow had Sony-Ericsson at the top didn’t bother me because they didn’t bash you over the head with it.
It’s not just games that do it – movies and TV shows where the characters drink beverages with generic white labels take will draw your attention more than one where they drink Pepsi and drive a Ford. Castaway was criticised for being one long Fed-Ex commercial, but I contend that it would have been criticised by the same people if he’d worked for a non-existent delivery company that just happened to have offices in most countries and its own fleet of aircraft. That’s product placement done right, but I, Robot is the perfect example of it done wrong.
If you’re a developer sat there trying to work out how to draw a few extra bucks from your new game, don’t be afraid of advertising. It isn’t annoying by default and certainly can enhance the realism for the player. Just don’t cram it down our throat because then it does ruin our experience. If that means you get a few dollars less from the advertisers, who cares? If your fans had a better time with the game they’ll be that much more likely to give you another $50 next time around.