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Advergaming and Other Horror Stories

Today I'm going to talk about the rise of advertising in games. Advertising is a relentless growth industry, it seems the marketing people won't be happy until we’re exposed to adverts of some kind 24/7 and over the last few years they have turned their focus on games. The main reason for this is declining TV audiences and the growing popularity of gaming amongst the coveted 18-34 demographic.

When it comes to my attitude towards advertising, I tend to agree with Bill Hicks, who famously opened a stand up gig by saying; "By the way, if anyone here is in marketing or advertising...kill yourself. Thank you. Just planting seeds, planting seeds is all I'm doing. No joke here, really. Seriously, kill yourself, you have no rationalisation for what you do, you are Satan's little helpers. Kill yourself, kill yourself, kill yourself now."

The two main ways that advertisers have launched their campaign on games are in-game advertising (product placement and billboard ads in games like Burnout Paradise) and something they like to call advergaming (commissioning games that are essentially big adverts).

There have been a couple of studies suggesting that people don't mind in-game advertising when it fits with the game world and adds to the reality. There may be some truth in that - though it's worth pointing out that the studies are generally funded by advertising specialists or publishers looking for a cut of advertising money.

"I tend to agree with Bill Hicks, who famously opened a stand up gig by saying; "'By the way, if anyone here is in marketing or advertising...kill yourself. Thank you.'"


We've got used to sports games especially having real brands advertised on billboards (the FIFA games have been doing this since 1994) and for the most part this doesn't offend and perhaps even adds to the immersion. Unfortunately, if not carefully implemented, product placement can be jarring.

I'm reminded of the copious Red Bull adverts that appeared in the Judge Dredd game. While a mixture of posters and billboards in a modern or futuristic city map can be fitting, when you only have one advertiser and so make every flyer on the ground and every poster on the wall advertise their product it really detracts from the setting.

A popular approach at the moment seems to be to create dynamic billboards so that adverts can be changed and updated over time. This often creates problems for the developer who now has to integrate some piece of advertising software into their game. The advertisers would like to push the idea that the extra money they provide will enhance the game development but in reality I see little evidence of this happening directly.

"In Everquest 2 for example the player can type "/pizza" and they'll be taken to the Pizza Hut website so they can make an online order."

More often it’s the publishers who strike the deals and then insert a request to the developer to integrate the advert system, so when they should be bug fixing and polishing developers end up having to make sure all the dynamic billboards in the game, that they didn't want in the first place, are working correctly.

The area of gaming that advertisers seem to be getting most excited about now though is massively multiplayer online worlds. In Everquest 2 for example the player can type "/pizza" and they'll be taken to the Pizza Hut website so they can make an online order.

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Simon Hill

Virtual worlds are also a popular target for advertisers. In Second Life a number of companies have purchased land within the game to establish a permanent presence. You can buy products from retailers like Nike and Amazon. Apparently Starwoods Hotels and Resorts built a digital replica of a hotel they were planning to build in real life to see the reaction from people. You have to wonder about this logic though – if companies think they can garner useful information from people's online choices they may be in for a nasty shock, after all, gaming is about escapism and most people frequently do things in games that they would never do in real life.

There are all sorts of fantastical predictions about the amount of ad spending there will be in future games, but so far despite claims it will reach $2 billion by 2011 it remains far short of this target. There's a suggestion that this revenue could be worth $1 per game to publishers – which is certainly enough to catch their attention. Still I think I'd be willing to spend an extra $1 on the game to get it without advertising. Personally I don't mind advertising when it's bundled into something free as they have to pay for it somehow but when you are already paying a premium price for something it’s cheeky to just bombard your customers with adverts regardless.

Advergaming is another approach altogether, this is where companies actually commission a game, which is often distributed free (though not always), in order to promote their brand.

"The most pernicious of advergames were the Burger King series, they were actually developed by Blitz's arcade division and sold for $3.99 in Burger King restaurants throughout the US"

There have been a number of examples of this stretching back a surprising number of years - Coca Cola had cartridges for the Atari 2600 made featuring a game called Pepsi Invaders (though this was for their own employees as a joke). There was a Japanese game released in 1999 for the PlayStation called Pepsiman. The freely distributed America's Army was funded by the US army as a recruitment tool – though it always puzzled me when you already have realistic FPS games done far better why bother with a cheaply made bad one?

The most pernicious of advergames were the Burger King series, they were actually developed by Blitz's arcade division and sold for $3.99 in Burger King restaurants throughout the US and Canada. Depressingly, they shifted more than 3.2 million copies. Sneak King was the one that really creeped me out. In it you play the Burger King and have to sneak up on people and give them a hot delicious sandwich.

I despair at the growth of adverts in games; there is no longer anywhere to hide from the deluge of marketing drivel. I also miss the fake ads that artists would stick into games, usually gentle digs at real brands; they were enough for me to give that sense of reality and I could play without the fear that desires were being implanted in my brain.