Counting Eyeballs: Striking A Balance Regarding In-Game Advertising

A funny thing occurred while I was playing my copy of Death Jr. on the PSP the other day. As I plowed through a movie theatre level, wielding my awesome and mighty magneto gun, I decided to check out the title of the flick that would have been playing at this cinema had the horde of evil demons I was sent to liquidate not taken over the place. "The Legend of Bluehawk" the marquee said. A plausible, yet clearly fictitious title, I concluded.

Later on in the level, I found myself in an arcade filled with gaming cabinets and vending machines. The name of the soda offered at said amusement centre was called "Aww, Yeah!" cola. The funny thing was that the font used on the machines made it look as if the name of the beverage sold was actually "Filulu Yefih." I assumed it was an inside Japanese joke.

Anyway, after my fragging session, I got to thinking about why I was a bit disappointed that actual brand name items were not featured in logically appropriate areas of the game. It reminded me of the incredulity I experienced playing Mario Kart 64 and seeing bland "faux" billboards reading "Luigi's" or "Shot! Shot! Shot!" while racing along Mario Speedway (though the "Koopa Air" poster was funny and made sense). I started to ponder the question of what level of in-game advertising is not only acceptable but actually desirable to the video game consumer.

An issue of cost

I think if you took an informal poll among friends asking whether or not they would tolerate a certain level of product promotion in a game if it meant a lower price for the title, probably you would get quite a few affirmatives. But what if the game price stayed the same? Or what if the cost of a marketing licence actually made the game title even more expensive to purchase?

Research suggests that most players don't believe that in-game trademark plugging will reduce the price of software offerings, and I think most of us would tend to agree with that statement. Nevertheless, the massive success of licenced racing games such as Gran Turismo would suggest that for many virtual racers, the price of admission is worth being able to handle real-world vehicles in an albeit fantasy environment.

It would seem then that it is relatively easy to read the minds of end users regarding the issue of in-game advertising: product placements are not only tolerated but attractive when these offerings are, in the mind of the consumer, "cool." By that I mean gamers figuratively want to drive Ford Mustangs in an auto sim, wear Fox brand racing apparel in a motocross game, and play Gibson guitars in rhythm action titles.

And what about the advertisers? Their intentions can be summed by the following word: "metrics."

 

Logistics of advertising

For the purposes of this article, in-game marketing basically falls into two categories: product placement and advergaming.

In essence, advergames are basically interactive commercials usually available on corporate websites. Advergaming allows advertisers to make players aware of their products by entertaining would-be consumers with games that usually feature the company logo prominently. A notable example of this genre is Kewlbox.com's Bang the Drum sim which not only draws attention to the band INXS, but also to the instrument manufacturer Sabian.

Advergaming is especially attractive because it allows promoters an easier time of tracking how many hits the site is receiving and how often particular players are accessing the game. In industry jargon, this is referred to rather unromantically as "counting eyeballs."

Things get a little tricky when companies market products in games that are stocked in a retail outlet, purchased, and then played at the consumer's home. How are advertisers to know how effective their product plugs are if they can't tell how long gamers have been playing the title and how many times they've accessed the level in which the company logo is displayed noticeably? How are marketers even to know if consumers have demonstrated the necessary skill even to unlock said level, let alone seen the advertisement even once?

One might be tempted to argue that bald statistics like sales figures would be a huge indicator as to how much of an "impression" any given product placement ad would have on the consumer. Marketers are, however, looking for figures much more specific than that. Industry analysts go even so far as to suggest that estimations of how much of an "impression" corporate name-dropping has on the game's audience are notoriously rough. "It's been like the wild wild West up until this point," concedes Jay Cohen, a vice president at Ubisoft.


 

"Massive" technology

One company, Massive, Inc. (www.MassiveIncorporated.com), has promised to provide advertisers with accurate, specific figures on how long players are exposed to product placements showcasing given items in a game.

On one level, Massive's technology is amazing in that it will allow ads to be delivered to the player via an online connection, enabling these banners to change from day to day, even from city to city. This is to say that players may see a billboard in a game announcing the latest action movie one day and an ad for cola the next.

Such a phenomenon is already occurring in the popular science fiction offering Anarchy Online. Players who choose to access Funcom's celebrated MMORPG without paying a user fee will be forced to view ads from such companies as Panasonic, while subscribers will have the opportunity to opt out of having such commercials be a part of their gameplay experience.

For me, it gets tricky when a third-party company's tracking service is permitted to record how long I've been exposed to a product endorsement, presumably by keeping tabs on how much time I've spent on a level, or if I've even managed to unlock that particular phase of the game in the first place. Along that line, I imagine I reflect most gamers' sentiments when I state that when, where, and how long I'm logged on to any given level in a game is my own business. Privacy isn't a matter of not having something to hide - it's an issue of not becoming the victim of actual or virtual voyeurism.

Advertisers would argue that tracking consumer behaviour in games is no different than the infamous Nielsen ratings used to gauge how popular a television show is. Using the information gleaned by a third-party company, television station executives can calculate how much an advertising spot will cost businesses for any given television show on the network's program line-up. Similarly, software developers contend that such "metrics" are necessary so as to charge would-be sponsors fair prices for endorsement opportunities in video game offerings.

Of course marketers would love to know how much time we players invest in gaming and thus viewing product placements; but on the consumer end, should companies have the right to access such specific information about the very minutiae of our leisure habits? For me, television commercials are different from in-game advertising in that television viewers do not usually pay for one specific program to watch (with the exception of pay-per-view options). Couch potatoes turn on the tube, channel surf a little, watch a show, maybe get up and go to the bathroom when a commercial comes on: no tracking device in this instance could assess accurately whether television advertisements are actually being watched by the viewer or simply ignored.

Regarding video games, surely the number of units sold is a very telling indicator of how much of an impression a product placement will have on the consumer. Couple that information with statistics about how many hours per week, etc. the average gamer plays, and I think such data yields relevant assessments about how effective in-game trademark promotion will be.

Will such numbers about gaming habits be as specific as those offered by a third-party tracking service? No, clearly not. But I think such statistics are what companies who want to showcase their wares in our video games are going to have to settle for and what even the most gracious players are willing to share. We gamers, I think, have been comparatively receptive and accepting of corporate hype in games we have actually paid good money for, as opposed to consumers of the mostly free forms of entertainment found on the radio and television. The least businesses can do is to respect our right to minimal privacy as we engage in our leisure pursuits.

Conclusion

It's been said that 70% of males between the ages of 18 and 34 and more women than ever are playing video games. It doesn't surprise me much that marketers would want to get in touch with consumers whose "eyeballs" have been seduced from such traditional media for advertising as print and television to electronic entertainment formats.

I also believe that there is room for endorsements within video games as long as such brand-touting isn't excessive or obnoxious. As I've said earlier, gamers want product placements not only to be "cool" but subtle - nobody likes the hard sell.

I do however draw the line at third-party companies recording my game-playing habits. When I'm online playing advergames, I realize that these puzzles are tracked, but I also acknowledge that they're free. I don't want to pay a high price for a game masked as simply another opportunity for corporations to profit off of yet another invasion of my privacy.