In-game advertising is worth $1+ billion a year – is PS4′s future commercial?
Codemasters’ F1 2012 features cars emblazoned with ads for Santander, Lucozade, Dell and even Air Asia. But at its more basic level, the game is stuffed with licensed car-makers – Ferrari, Mercedes, Renault and more – all of which are static products. Without all these real-world brands, you’d be driving generic cars around generic tracks – just like gamers did in the ’80s and ’90s. Euw.
When ads invade games
In Japan, Sega’s Yakuza franchise has taken product placement to new heights. While Brits may not recognise knick-knacks superstore Don Quijote, Pronto Cafe or Club Sega arcades, these are all real-world businesses in Japan that Kazuma Kiryu and chums can visit in the games. In the convenience stores of Kamurocho, players can browse the magazine racks for Friday and other popular gossip mags, or stock up on Boss canned coffee and Suntory whisky.
“Product placement in the Yakuza games is actually offered to companies for free, so it has nothing to do with raising revenue or the budget for the game,” asserts Yusuke Watanabe, Sega Japan’s publicist who is also responsible for organising and overseeing these tie-ups. “Our main goal is to increase the realism of the game world. It also attracts coverage to the game from related specialist media, such as fashion or food media, which is great advertising for the games
That other great Japanese series, Konami’s Metal Gear Solid, is also laced with real-world products – and often from a different time period than the one in which the game is set. The ‘prototype’ Sony Walkman in Peace Walker? That didn’t exist until 1978, while the game is set in 1974 (and also features Doritos, Mountain Dew and Axe deodorant in the Japanese edition). In Snake Eater, Big Boss chows on Caloriemate, a nutrition snack introduced in Japan in 1983 – almost two decades after the events of the game took place.
Venting on Twitter, mastermind Hideo Kojima defended his use of product placement in Peace Walker by claiming, “It’s because I want to surprise players. If there’s no surprise or freshness, then I’ll stop the tie-ins. It’s different from Hollywood-style merchandising.” That hasn’t stopped us stocking up on Pepsi Nex in the hope of being more like Big Boss.
“A brand can be integrated into the plotline or the game’s hero can physically interact with a brand,” Ubisoft strategic sales manager Jeffrey Dickstein told License Magazine when asked about the attraction for advertisers of games such as CSI: 3 Dimensions Of Murder. “A hard-coded placement needs to be considered in the early development stages (as early as writing the storyline), because it’s incorporated into the gameplay itself.”
And that’s where static in-game advertising can go wrong. It might not exactly be a story-based game, but Sega’s Crazy Taxi is one series to fall foul of such tie-ups. In the original games, players ferried passengers to real-world stores such as Pizza Hut, KFC and Tower Records (remember the days of CD shops?). But when the licences to use those brands expired, the developer had to go back into the game and code generic locations instead. “Take me to the Fried Chicken Shack!”, as commanded in the PSN version, just doesn’t have the same ring to it.
Still, at least the game is on sale. Not so for poor old Outrun. In 2003, Ferrari granted Sega a licence – let’s face it, the red sports car used from the 1986 original onwards always looked like a Testarossa, but Outrun 2 made it official. Ferrari’s iconic rearing stallion logo adorned not only the car but also the on-screen speedometer through several iterations of the game – before Ferrari launched its own racer, System 3’s Ferrari: The Race Experience, in 2010. At that point it revoked the licence, causing Outrun Online Arcade to be pulled from the PS Store – where it remains conspicious by its absence.
Studies over the years have been inconclusive as to whether in-game advertising really works
So, advertisers have your eyes and ears. But do they have your undivided attention? Studies over the years have been inconclusive as to whether in-game advertising really works. In 2006, Microsoft bought in-game ad company Massive for a reported $200 million to generate ads for its Xbox games. But in 2007, Wired magazine reported on a study by British user-experience consultancy Bunnyfoot in which eye-tracking showed that gamers playing Need For Speed: Carbon were too busy taking tight corners to notice the ads Massive had placed around them. Microsoft closed Massive in 2010.
“Somebody who’s very engaged in a game is focusing on one thing to the exclusion of everything else,” Bunnyfoot co-founder Robert Stevens told Wired. “But while he’s in that trance state, he should also be reasonably suggestible. The question is, how do you put [the desired] suggestion in there?”
One thing’s for sure: with so much at stake, both advertisers and developers will keep trying to figure out the answer. According to Howard, Reloaded charges between $5,000 and $20,000 for a single ad campaign, with a non-binding set of universal guidelines providing the only rules it has to follow. As PS4’s online and social features continue to redefine how we play, games will redefine how we see ads – and that price on your head will only go up, up, up.