Nothing captures the video gaming ideal better than the tagline for Sony's PlayStation 2: "Live in your world, play in ours." In seven words, Sony conjures the escape -- the frivolity, even -- of video gaming.
Pick up a console best seller, however, and the promise comes up short -- unless your idea of a gaming Eden includes corporate branding.
In today's sports titles, players hurdle past signs advertising soft drinks. Product placement in the stealth title "Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell Pandora Tomorrow" takes a more active role: Success is contingent on agent Sam Fisher mastering an Sony Ericsson P900 smart phone.
Is the fantasy officially over? Or is there a hidden benefit to "selling out" -- at least for certain video games?
Where's the rage?
When Gary Ruskin, the executive director of Commercial Alert, finds hidden product placement in sitcoms, films or video games, he sees exploitation.
"Embedded ads are deceptive because many people don’t recognize them as ads," he said.
His organization, dedicated to "stopping the subversion of our culture by corporate huckstering," is lobbying the Federal Communications Commission to create laws that identify embedded advertisements as such when they appear on TV or film. Commercial Alert hasn't turned its attention to video gaming, but Ruskin sees little difference.
"Solely as a business strategy it's deeply dubious because they are going to alienate their market," he said.
An April survey of gamers by Nielsen Interactive Entertainment found otherwise. A startlingly high 70 percent said they favored in-game product placements.
"Gamers said that they prefer real products because it makes games more realistic," said Michael Dowling, general manager at Nielsen Interactive Entertainment. "Advertisements and products are endemic to their worlds and gamers can be distracted by generic visuals."
So it's come to this: The better the game fantasy, the more real it needs to be. And for today's gamers, it's not real unless there's advertising.
Keeping it real
In-game ad placement started innocently enough. As video game graphics evolved from 8-bit blocks to multi-polygon objects, games were able to move away from the generic in favor of detail-rich environments. In sports games, for example, developers could create recognizable pro-ballers down to the brand of shoe they wore.
Publishers eventually found a way to sell particular in-game slots like shoes, t-shirts and billboards to hip companies that recognized the buying power of gamers. And gamers appreciated the touches of realism.
"Consumers expect to see brands that make games more real," said Dave Anderson, senior director of business development for Activision.
In "Tony Hawk Underground," Activision's skateboarding series, characters occasionally wear corporate logos and skating areas are occasionally marked with advertisements. Indeed, the game is more realistic because of (and not despite) the blatant commercialism. Ever watch the X-Games? It's one tattooed athlete shilling for his sponsor after another.
For the fantasy of reality to work, however, brands and games must be carefully matched.
Last year Activision outfitted Nick Kang, the tough-talking protagonist of "True Crime: Streets of LA" in clothing by Puma. The campaign made news. Who could ever imagine video games pushing real-world fashion? More importantly, by partnering with a brand associated with urban cool, "True Crime" earned a street credibility it wouldn't have received if Kang was outfitted in say, Old Navy.
"The litmus test is does that brand make sense," said Anderson. "Do they add authenticity?"
At game publisher Electronic Arts, the ad-sales team spends time in the game studios to find in-game areas that lend themselves to advertising. The team then draws up a finite list of potential advertisers to contact.
"We’re being relatively conservative," said EA ad sales director Julie Shumaker. "We’re monitoring the gamer and asking ourselves, 'Can an ad add value to the gaming experience?'"
Enter Madison Avenue
EA’s ability to pick and choose advertisers comes after years of being practically ignored by potential advertisers. Slowly, Madison Avenue has come to realize the potential of video games, their decision buoyed in part by recent studies that found, among other things, a drop in prime-time viewing and a rise in game play among men ages 18 to 34.
That data, combined with a Sony report that video game consoles are present in 50 percent of American homes, has turned into a lot of "Ca-Ching!" for game publishers.
Electronic Arts, for example, brought in $7 million in revenue through in-game advertising last year, a 50 percent increase from the year before.
But with ad revenue comes pressure from Madison Avenue for better product placement.
Chad Stoller is director of communications solutions at the Arnell Group, an ad agency that made waves last year representing DaimlerChrysler’s in-game advertising debut. "We're in the third generation of advertising," he said. "First it was we need to have a brand in the game to make it realistic. Then it was: 'You have a drink to sell? We'll throw in a soda machine.' Now advertisers are asking, ‘How can we integrate our product into the game?’"
"So I tell my clients, go to the studio and challenge the developers. I don’t want players to just recognize the logo, I want them to understand the logo," he said.
"Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow" may be the most intuitive example of Stoller's mandate, although he did not work on this particular project. In the game from Ubisoft, two Sony Ericcson cell phones play a prominent role. If the gamer fails to master those devices, she can’t advance.
An increasingly popular role for some products, according to Stoller, is sponsored levels. "It doesn’t interfere with the flow of the game," said Stoller. "The publisher is saying, ‘OK, you have finished the game, now try this free level.’"
"Need for Speed Underground 2" by Electronic Arts made headlines for becoming the first video game to involve a bidding war between potential advertisers. A sponsored package by Chrysler included an unlockable race track laden with Chrysler advertising and an additional game storyline that involved a Dodge Viper.
Paying for play
Chrysler’s sponsorship of "Need for Speed" didn’t compromise game play, according to EA’s Shumaker. But what’s to stop a future advertiser from, for example, paying extra to insure that its product works better?
"We have to be careful. Advertisers have a lot of opportunities to say how their products look, but they don’t have input into storyline," she said.
Certain games in the Electronic Arts catalog, such as "The Lord of the Rings" and the "Harry Potter" series are completely off limits to advertising.
It’s a tricky dance. On the one-hand gaming’s Tivo-less immersiveness makes it a great medium for sneaking in advertisements. But those same qualities lend themselves to a discouraging experience should advertisements interrupt the flow of the game.
Representatives at publishers like Electronic Arts and Activision say there is no need to worry. If there's anyone aware of the "sanctity" of uninterrupted game play, it's the studios that make them.
If anything, said Shumaker, video gamers have expressed an interest for more advertisements, done correctly of course.
"Gamers are a very noisy group. We had focus groups for NCAA football and players were making requests for Pontiac Classics," she said.
EA added the feature, essentially a recreation of a Pontiac sponsored replay aired during major NCAA televised games, and made sure to sell the sponsorship to Pontiac.
There used to be a time, not too long ago, when an advertisement before a movie -- not a trailer, but an ad -- generated a chorus of boos from an audience who felt that paying for a ticket and overpriced concession absolved them from commercials.
But it’s been awfully silent at the local cinemas as of late.
"This is a demographic that has grown up with a marketing messages thrown at them since they were young," said Nielsen’s Dowling.
But even Madison Avenue agrees there are limits. "In games like Madden you welcome ads. But if you have an adventure game and you have advertising, it just wrecks the experience," said the Arnell Group's Stoller. "There’s only so many things you can do without upsetting gamers who pay $50."
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