Wednesday, December 2, 2009

A look at in-game advertising

It used to be that an ad on television would be seen by nearly everyone in a household, but with the emerging popularity of video games, less people are seeing these commercials. Advertisers need to reach their target audience in new ways, and one of these ways is via in-game advertising. By cleverly inserting products and logos into the in-game world, companies can reach a whole new demographic, perhaps even subconsciously. Of course, that is if it's done properly...

As with product placement in television and movies, if done well, I actually like it. It adds more authenticity to the world. I'd rather see a can of Coca-Cola on-screen than a can of "Crazy Cola". There's also brand-name parody (Nuka Cola in the Fallout series, for example), but that's a different story. The point is, if done properly, product placement can increase the believability of a fictional world. If done improperly, though, it just gets annoying.

Two games in my collection stand out most when I think of in-game advertising: Need for Speed: Most Wanted and Far Cry 2. I love both of these games, but I can't deny that the product placement within is a little ridiculous. To start we'll take a look at Most Wanted, which is, in my opinion, the best game so far in the Need for Speed Series.

Infamous among players of Need for Speed: Underground 2 was the Burger King. There was only one, but you were forced to drive by it repeatedly. Just about every race in that part of the city had a stretch of track driving by it, force-fed advertising made even worse if the race had multiple laps. I was relieved to read in an EGM that we could expect "way fewer Burger Kings" in Most Wanted, and I couldn't wait to go out and-

...uh, as I was saying, I cou-


...well, they said we could "expect" fewer Burger Kings... We can also expect to win the lottery. Now, to the game's credit, it's not as if Burger King is dominating the city. There are other products and services advertised in-game (Axe body spray, AutoZone, Cingular, and a few other brands), keeping things somewhat in balance. Burger King does seem to be a little more visible than the other brands, but perhaps I just notice it more due to past experience with Underground 2.

In the end, I suppose it isn't too unrealistic. Companies advertise, stores are built, and products are visible, all in places where they should be. Nothing is pushed in your face, and it feels fairly organic. Of course, there's more brand variety in real life, but Electronic Arts couldn't very well get rights to every product on Earth. I'd say Most Wanted is a moderately-good example of how product placement should be implemented in a game. A bit more subtlety and it'd be perfect.

Next up is Far Cry 2, and this time around the brand in question is Jeep. Randomly spawned along with many other generic-looking trucks and cars are two Jeep vehicles: The Liberty and the Wrangler.

I first saw the Wrangler about two or three hours into the game, and I thought it was pretty neat. Eventually, as a bit of a personal joke, I took to driving the Wrangler exclusively, only driving a different model of car between one Wrangler breaking down and finding another (Yeah, I'm a little weird). It's inclusion made sense to me. It's a rugged vehicle, well-suited to the rough terrain of the nameless African country in which the game takes place. Its abundance was a little questionable, considering the country is also ear-deep in a civil war with little or no planes (And thus, car shipments) landing on local soil. Maybe there's a factory hidden somewhere, and I haven't just found it yet. Probably tucked behind a zebra or something.

As for the Jeep Liberty, it's somewhat more scarce... In the first act of the game. Get into that second act and the associated new world map, though, and the place is freaking CRAWLING with them. One town has a Liberty on practically every corner, and every last one is in near-mint condition. The Liberty is also a more expensive and fancy vehicle than the Wrangler, and I doubt the warring factions care much about how plush the seats are when there's bullets and rocket-propelled grenades whizzing by. It doesn't really seem to fit.

Hey man, did you know this Jeep has a 3.8L V6 engine? Yeah, me either.

Remember towards the beginning of the article when I said that, if done properly, product placement could contribute to the realism of the fictional universe? This isn't an example of this. The Jeeps barely make any sense at all in this setting, and makes a big rift in the believability for me. What are the odds that mint-condition, current-model Jeeps would be so prevalent in a war-torn African country with naught but the most flimsy connections to the outside world? It just doesn't fit at all.

It's kind of funny, really. Ubisoft Montreal worked so hard to craft an incredibly realistic world. They succeeded in many ways, with realistic fire-spreading technology, destructible plant life, weapon degradation and truly impressive graphics. Then along came a sponsor... Yes, I understand, bills need to be paid, and sponsorship can help ease production costs, I just find it funny that they put all this effort into realism, then dump a cargo ship full of brand-new Jeeps into a poor, war-ravaged African country of no title. It also doesn't help that all the enemies are about as smart as a flat tire, but that's another article altogether.

I consider Far Cry 2 to be a poor example of effective and believable product placement. The Jeeps are entirely out of place, and ridiculously common in the second part of the game. Perhaps if they were a little rarer and banged-up it would feel more real, but hey, I don't know what kind of exposure Jeep paid for. In fact, I'm just helping further advertise the product by writing this article. You win this round, Jeep!

With developers focusing more and more on realism these days, it's disappointing to see such poor or non-existent examples of product placement in video games. If a game is to be truly realistic, real products must be present in believable locations and quantities. Without this, games will never truly achieve realism in my eyes. You can have your photo-realistic graphics and destructible environments, but the second that flawlessly-animated background character reaches for a Crazy Cola the whole things comes crashing down.

EDIT: Thanks to Kalava for reminding me of Pikmin 2's product placement, a perfect example of how to do in-game advertising right. The game takes place on Earth, and there are Earth brands in places they belong. Tonnes of them, in fact. Duracell, Carmex, 7UP, Vlasic, Skippy, Snapple, Nintendo and more are inserted into the game world. Some may have sales pitch-like names, such as "Quenching Emblem", but that's the case for all the items found in Pikmin 2, as the eventual intention is to sell them on Olimar's home planet.

There really is nothing wrong to be found in Pikmin 2's implementation of product placement. It's perfectly believable, and done in a way that isn't blatantly screaming "BUY THIS PRODUCT". There's also the likely-unintended humour factor that comes from seeing such things in a Nintendo game. No matter how hard I try, I just can't keep from cracking a smile every time my Pikmin dig up something with a real-world logo on it. It's just so out of the ordinary that it becomes funny somehow.

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