Summary: Needless to say that some forms of advertisement is a downright annoyance, especially in our precious games. But what if it's done right? Is there such a case? Can you imagine the hero, Gordon Freeman, in HL2 wearing Nikes or drinking Diet Pepsi? Our own Tom Chick takes a closer look at this phenomenon.
Tom Chick on The Firing Line
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Everyone says they hate advertising, but what they mean is that they hate advertising done wrong. You hate those friggin' twenty minutes of commercials before a movie, especially the one where the guy lassos the car. You even hate the clever Nike and Sprint commercials because they're before a movie. On TV, where you can always TiVo them away, they'd be fine. You might even appreciate them for being clever. But you hate them for being in front of a movie.
However, you don't mind trailers. Everyone loves trailers. Yet they're advertising just like those commercials. Put them up as an interstitial before you can move on to the next page of this column and you'd hate them again. But before a movie, they're fine.
So I'm not ready to say I hate advertising in games. I don't. In fact, in many games, I kind of dig it. I remember being pleasantly surprised back in 1996 to see Mountain Dew and Butterfinger billboards in Jet Moto, a sci-fi racing game for the Playstation. That same year there were Red Bull logos featured in Wipeout (this was before Red Bull was hip enough for people to notice).
Sometimes, I even miss advertising in a game. In Midnight Club II, I'd rather drive a Dodge Viper than that Jersey XS, which we all know is supposed to be a Dodge Viper. In Flight Simulator Version Whatever Whatever, I wouldn't mind real world Wal-Marts, Safeways, and Burger Kings in the high detail areas. I might never actually see my own house in a Flight Simulator game, but maybe one day I can see the Best Buy I bought it from. And in Half-Life, how I wish there were actual Coca Cola machines in the Black Mesa Research Facility (based on the phenomenal success of Half-Life, I wouldn't be surprised if the Coca Cola Company felt the same way).
Then there are borderline cases. In The Sims Online, there are McDonalds burger stands. In principle, fine. In terms of actual execution, weak. Basically, they put a McDonald's logo on a buffet table. If you're going to get McDonalds in The Sims, take advantage of it. Make it a career path. Let my Sim start as a burger flipper and work his way up through manager to VP of marketing and all the way to Ray Crock's job, or whoever runs McDonald's these days. In fact, when my Sim goes shopping, get some Ikea furniture in there. Let me buy some Amana appliances for my kitchen, maybe a Krups coffeemaker. How about my choice of a Sony, Panasonic, or Sanyo TV? Whore it up, EA! The Sims is all about consumerism. What better place for advertising?
SIDEBAR: An 8.3oz can of Red Bull contains 80 milligrams of caffeine, which is comparable to the content in a typical cup of coffee, which ranges from 60 to 120 milligrams.
Then there are the bits of advertising in games that are so overboard, they're memorable. Sort of. Remember the Skittles game? I don't either. But it was the most innovative way to shill candy since a young Henry Thomas laid out a trail of Reese's Pieces for E.T. And I seem to recall reviews pointing out that it wasn't as bad as you'd expect a Skittles game to be. I can think of no higher praise for so blatant a marketing gimmick.
But now we're getting into the tricky dynamics of licensing deals, which are a whole other can of advertising worms. The direction the money flows determines the difference between licensing and advertising. In the case of a Dodge Viper in Midnight Club II, I imagine the developers at Rock Star would have to pay Dodge to include a likeness of their car. Not that it matters. As a guy seeing a real world product a game, the impact is the same for me.
For instance, when the makers of the Aliens total conversion for Doom were Foxxed (i.e. shut down by Twentieth Century Fox for copyright infringement), they should have claimed they were offering free advertising. I don't know if that would wash, but we'd probably end up with something better than the latest movie-inspired mod, itself an instance of bad advertising: Neil Manke's Underworld tie-in, a multiplayer Half-Life mod called Bloodline.
The mod pits vampires against, umm, lycans (pronounced just like 'lichens' but, as far as I can tell, no relation to lichens, mosses, algae, or fungi). All I know from the mod is that vampires can move fast and lycans -- sheesh, can we just call them werewolves or does someone have a trademark on that now? -- can jump high. Both sides have the same basic guns and can't really be bothered with traditional stuff like fangs, claws, sucking blood, and turning into bats. It's the vampire and werewolf myths stripped to their bare essentials, which look remarkably like Counter-Strike. Manke's unique contribution seems to be slapping up some Underworld movie posters in the two levels he made for the mod.
Manke has done great work in the past, some of it advertising every bit as blatant as Bloodline. The They Hunger series, contracted by PC Gamer, featured some of the most graceful product placement this side of Wayne's World. Still, it was a great advertisement for the magazine, which demonstrated that it cared enough about gamers to fund these superlative single player mods marred by only a couple of groan-inducing plugs.
Because They Hunger was great, it was not an example of advertising done wrong. Bloodlines, on the other hand, is not great (there's a pun about vampires, bloodlines, and sucking somewhere in here, and I'd be happy to develop it for any paying sponsors). Instead, it's a multiplayer mod with no servers, no players, and therefore, no reason to bother downloading unless you want a look at what's destined to be a footnote in the Annals of Weird Advertising Strategies Done Wrong. Quick, someone hire Manke to wash this taste out of our mouths.
SIDEBAR: Both Reese's and M&Ms put in a bid to appear in E.T. The Reese's bid was higher. [ Or maybe ET preferred peanuts - Ed ]
Brett's worried about photorealistic games turning into murder simulators, desensitizing future generations with realistic violence and provoking Congress to intervene. Which leads me to wonder where he's been since Columbine. Because from where I'm sitting, it looks like this is exactly what's already happened.
To be fair, Brett's point seems to be that the situation will get worse as technology improves and violence gets more realistic. But I think Brett, like so many other people, misunderstands the situation. No one's trying to censor games or ban violence. The issue is, and has been all along, protecting minors from inappropriate content. There's a ratings system that determines what's appropriate for unsupervised minors, but retailers are ignoring it. Enter Congress with the Federal Trade Commission. This is, after all, their job.
If there's any 'censoring' going on, it's on the part of powerful retailers that might elect not to carry controversial games (the often cited urban legend that Wal-Mart doesn't carry M-rated games is easily debunked by browsing their website). But guess what? They don't have to carry any game they don't want to. You might be worried that this will discourage developers from creating mature content, which is a valid concern. But blame market forces, not government. Rail against Wal-Mart, not Joseph Lieberman. Then go exercise your freedom and flex your power as a consumer by buying a dozen copies each of Postal 2, Soldier of Fortune II, and Night Trap.
SIDEBAR: It is 5:30am; Hence it is too early or too late, depending on how you see it, to be making up random facts.
The new expansion for Age of Wonders 2 is called Shadow Magic. It's pretty cliched to say this, but it takes a good game and makes it great.
So I'm trying the Syrons, using Air magic, in a skirmish game against AI Nomads on a random map. It's pretty easy to get a head start down in the shadow world, where you move around faster. Once I emerge into the surface world, I neatly roll up the Nomad cities, razing them to the ground so I don't have to split my army off into occupation forces. By turn 40, the enemy wizard is hunkered down in his capital city, Kham. Since I've shut down almost all his sources of income, I can see his armies start to desert him as he runs out of money to pay their upkeep; they turn neutral and wander off. He's frantically trying to fill his dwindling ranks with summoned Zephyr Birds, but they're a poor substitute for actual troops. I'm taking my time, amassing a force of summoned Ice Dragons.
With four Ice Dragons leading the way, I finally descend on his walled city. The Dragons shut down his Horse Archers and Spearman, my Frost Cannons deal with anyone foolish enough to sally forth, and my Giant Warriors beat down his gates. Helms Deep has nothing on the Siege of Kham. It was one of those endgames where I knew the computer was beat and I was just enjoying the overkill.
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