The future of in-game ads may be bright, but hopefully not in fantasy!
Over the past year, we’ve begun to see the first inroads of advertising into massively multi-player online games. First, an older version of Anarchy Online became free to anyone who does not mind ads. Second, for a time, EverQuest II introduced a ‘/pizza’ command that lets player order a real life pie without leaving their keyboard. Then, SOE announced that they have partnered with the same folks powering Anarchy Online’s advertisements to put them into Planetside and The Matrix Online.
For developers and publishers, this represents a new frontier of income that has long been established in other entertainment mediums: digital product placement. Yet, how have consumers reacted? To date the range of emotions have gone from indifference to anger. As we look to the future, I want to examine firstly whether this path is a fair one, and secondly what forms are most appropriate for players and effective for advertisers.
Let’s face it, MMORPG gamers have been spoiled by the lack of advertising so far. Advertising exists in every medium people pay attention to. In television we watch advertisements and then see products all over the shows themselves. In sports, we no longer go to arenas and stadiums with classic names like “The Montreal Forum”, but rather “The Bell Centre”. In movies, product placement has reached all time highs – anyone see The Island? – and if you go to the theatres you not only have to watch a slew of previews, but also sit through non-movie advertisements. Entertainment grabs people’s attention and when they have your attention it is only a matter of time before they try to sell you something.
The main hurdle for in-game advertisement has been setting. We still don’t see product placement in most period films. From a gameplay and design perspective, fans often whine about the fact that nine of ten games seem to be medieval fantasy. This has saved us to date. It is really hard to do product placement and non-intrusive advertising in this setting, although Hollywood certainly tried with “RockDonalds” in the old Flintstones movie. EverQuest II seems to have found a loophole with their successful /pizza promotion, but what is to stop a game from building that into the game by setting up “bakeries”? It is a tightrope walk, but even /pizza was very easily ignored if the player was not interested. I suspect that in general the fantasy genre will be safe from product placement for quite some time.
What about direct advertisements? Are you waiting for games with ads built into the UI? Advertisers in television and film have learned that we tune out blatant advertising, which led to the rise of product placement. Thus, I doubt we will see many games with straight-forward banner ads along the top and bottom of the screen, although this may be one way for fantasy games to do advertising without subverting their game world.
The real future in MMORPG-advertising is poised to come from games designed with advertising in mind. Look at console games. Racing games like Need for Speed show off real cars and have billboards around the sides of the track. In fighting games – like Def Jam –you buy Air Jordan sneakers for your characters and control some of the world’s most popular rap artists. Even sports games like NHL ‘06 paint digital advertisements on the ice and boards while playing a soundtrack of up-and-coming rock bands. The common threads? All these games were designed to offer an easy, non-intrusive form of advertising and all of them are produced by Electronic Arts.
EA are the masters of advertising in games. They do it flawlessly and make you not only pay for it, but crave it. Need For Speed would not be the same if I could not drive the latest Nissan car or Hummer and playing hockey wouldn’t feel real if I didn’t see real advertisements on the boards. That is the key to in-game advertising. Do not shove a square peg in a round hole – like billboards in fantasy worlds – but build a square hole for that peg.
Over the coming years I firmly expect we will see a leveling off the playing field between medieval fantasy and science-fiction/contemporary games. Fantasy still rules, as it draws the most players, but the combination of fantasy-fatigue and possibility of alternative-revenue streams may prove irresistible to gaming companies.
The superhero, contemporary, sports and science-fiction settings are all ripe for this kind of content. At various major gaming studios around the world, there are already confirmed and unconfirmed MMORPGs in development in each of these settings and I would not be surprised to see them quietly come out with product placement not simply tacked in, but as a major part of the game’s design.
Soon you’ll be earning virtual dollars to buy virtual Nike shoes to put on your virtual toon that gets into their virtual Ford car and drives by a dozen billboards hawking everything from iPods to Viagra. And guess what? You’ll probably be thrilled to do it if they design their games correctly.
While this is quite probably the future we have to face, if it drives down subscription fees or even simply lets game companies spend a bit more on production, then so be it. It has its place. I have no problem with well conceived, well placed advertising. I just don’t want to be taking my ancient Roman warrior to RockDonalds anytime soon.