Having seen the news from a couple of days ago that post-apocalyptic MMO car combat game (what a combination) Auto Assault is to start getting in-game advertising, I felt the time was right for a nice little rant on the subject. Product placement is a phenomenon that’s gotten really big, often ridiculously so, in film recently and with development costs soaring it’s always a good thing to offset some of those costs, right?
Nuh-uh. EA games are full of product placement but the money plainly isn’t poured into improving the game and they’re still all the full price of £50/$60. In Fight Night Round 3 even the achievements are branded so that if you happen to win a certain tournament your account will be adorned with a Burger King logo for all who care to look at it.
I can actually deal with that because real sports are heavily commercialised and anyone who watches them on TV is used to hoardings around the pitch and tournaments named after beers and banks, but is having ads for current companies or this week’s TV shows in a post-apocalyptic world actually helping immersion? Doubtful. It didn’t help in Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory when I had to watch sustained shots of Airwaves chewing gum or when I saw Manhattan plunged into darkness…except for the Airwaves blimp hovering above the city.
Thinking about how it affects immersion or the gameplay, the sheer amount of PR crap that goes into this is just creepy. A couple of months ago Edge had an interview with a guy from one of the in-game advertising agencies who said that “it’s really about enhancing the gameplay”. How exactly? They got a reply the next month from someone who used to work in development who listed stories of changes to actual gameplay that were vetoed because advertising space had been sold, or this one:
“I have personally heard the sponsoring companies haggle to get a ‘special mission in the game where the player has to buy a XXX phone to complete the mission.'”
I’d be pissed if I bought a game and it had something like that in it, but this kind of stuff happens all the time and is getting more and more invasive, now to the point of using your connection to stream in new ads. It’s downright insidious.
Advertising won’t drop prices just like products in movies haven’t meant prices dropping and products in TV shows haven’t eliminated commercial breaks, because the savings won’t be passed onto the consumer. The only example of free but ad-supported gaming that I can think of is the ‘Smarts Adds’ (their spelling) Gizmondo, and I think about 12 people bought it. A company with shareholders to answer to will pocket a few thousand off their development costs and continue to take £50 a time as long as people are willing to pay it.
Commercialisation of games is as inevitable as it has been with any other medium where costs only go up with technology, but I hope publishers can keep their feet on the ground with this. They’ve been making money for decades with little or no licencing (hell, even paying for licences to use in driving games) and I hope they don’t forget that because alienating thousands of fans isn’t worth a few extra notes in the pocket.