The role of in-game ads

Entertainment is probably the biggest business out there right now, with films grossing hundreds of millions of dollars, and television ads during major sport events costing hundreds of thousands for a thirty second spot. Gaming may not be getting those numbers at this point, but it’s definitely catching up and has the potential to surpass non-interactive entertainment mediums with little resistance.

Fewer people want to watch TV these days, when they can play out storylines for themselves in their favorite RPG games. While watching a sporting event on television can get your heart racing, it’s that much more intense when you’re the one making the passes and saves, and the growing frustration you experience as your team loses again and again is directly proportional to the cheers you keep hearing from your best friend sitting next to you with the other controller.

It’s a fact that games are big business and they’re getting bigger. Budgets for games have increased dramatically in the past 15 years, much as budgets for films have gone from 6 million to 70 million in a blink of an eye. And advertisers are starting to notice just how much potential there is in games.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There are plenty of things that simply wouldn’t be possible without the help of advertisers… anytime you see a pop can knocked over by an explosion in an action film, or a hockey or basketball playoff game with ad banners all over the court, those advertisers have partially made the entertainment that we enjoy possible. Advertising is essential to our society as we experience it, and I believe it has its own place in games, just like in everything else.

There are plenty of ways that advertising can be smoothly integrated into games. If your game takes you to the busy streets of New York city, then you would expect to see stores and billboards with products plastered all over them. Nascar 2000 has sponsors’ ads all over the cars – much like the real ones. It adds to the realism, rather than detracting from it or seeming out of place. The problem is knowing when advertising and sponsorship has gone too far.

For example, I could deal with having a character drink from a labeled pop can in a restaurant scene, with a poster behind her for a TV station. However, I would not want to watch a 45-second ad for soda pop during the introduction of a game. Games are designed for endless hours of uninterrupted fun, sans commercials. I’m not saying that gaming companies or advertisers are planning this (not being a gaming company or an advertiser, I wouldn’t know what they intend), but I wonder what the future of advertising in gaming holds.

Where would it stop? Would they include charitable organizations’ messages, religious missionaries’ pontifications, companies that sell products that are bad for your health (e. g. tobacco companies, like there isn’t already enough media on that topic…), and other potential financial contributors to the development of games? Would advertisers have the power to stipulate aspects of the game that must be present, or absent, or they’ll pull their funding? Will there be a battle between what makes a game entertaining and what the “sponsors” want? I would hope that someone would point out the fact that a game with too much advertising simply would not sell, no matter how good that game is.

I doubt a game would be fun if it was full of propaganda. What’s plaguing the success of Battlefield: Earth? I haven’t seen it, so I don’t know this firsthand, but everything I’ve read about it seems to suggest that it’s just a glorified commercial for Scientology. Whether or not it actually is a commercial for Scientology doesn’t seem to matter – the perception is there, and once people believe they’re paying for a commercial, they lose all interest in putting that money out. Who wants to pay for something they can get free and to excess in prime time television? I know I don’t.

Too much advertising can only do harm. Do we really want to see a game of a Pepsi can vs. a Coca-Cola can – boxing? How about a Calvin Klein department store perfume-sprayers game, where you’re the sprayer and you have to infect (err… spray) as many people as possible with your trusty bottle of perfume? We can’t let it get this out of hand.

There’s a point when escapism blends with reality, and that’s what makes it most effective. There’s also a point when it’s gone too far. People play games because they want to be entertained, and we’re already bombarded with way too much advertising. Yes, there could be a place for advertising in games, the same as there is in everything else… advertising is a reality that we can’t avoid. The idea is to keep it creative and keep the flow of the game – don’t interrupt our gaming time to sell us something. Gamers aren’t stupid, they know what they want, and if you try too hard to sell them something, they will object… loudly.

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