Advertising on console dashboards is a great idea - if it's handled with care
Sony's most recent update to the PlayStation 3 firmware, version 3.00, has brought with it a little more controversy than anyone had expected. Coming in the week when the console notched up the highest point in its sales since launch, it's unlikely that this unrest has caused too many sleepless nights at the firm, but it's interesting to consider the source of the complaints.
A few minor issues regarding user interface aside, the primary source of the backlash was, perhaps, somewhat predictable. Many users don't like the new "What's New" panel which appears when you switch the console on - accusing it of being a platform for advertising rather than a useful addition to the system.
Sony refutes that viewpoint, arguing that the panel also gets you into games more quickly by offering hotlinks to recently accessed games on the hard drive. However, there's no doubt that What's New is, for the most part, designed to serve as an advertising platform.
So, do consumers have a point when they complain that this update has polluted their dashboard with adverts, eroding the sleek, minimalist aesthetic and functionality of the XMB interface in favour of the steady encroachment of adland? From a design standpoint, possibly. From a functionality standpoint, however, the PS3's dash is long overdue an advertising mechanism.
Regardless of your personal views of the console war, there's no doubt that one of the big winners in this generation has been downloadable content - in the form of game add-ons and small games on services like Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Store. Whether it's providing more content for blockbuster games, such as song packs for Rock Band or new areas and missions for Fallout 3, or encouraging creativity and risk-taking in development by providing a channel for the distribution of low-cost games like Braid and Flower, these services have provided new breadth and depth to the gaming market.
However, they suffer from a huge problem - visibility, or rather, the lack of it. XBL and PSN titles are locked away behind an icon on the dashboard, often buried several levels deep in a store interface which few users will peruse on a regular basis. Consumers who regularly read the gaming press will know which titles they're hunting for in these stores, but the average user will probably either ignore the store entirely, or only skim through it on a very infrequent basis.
Rockstar went for the obvious solution to this problem when it released expansion content for Grand Theft Auto IV - the publisher invested in a major TV advertising campaign, the first of its kind for a piece of Xbox Live content. This avenue, however, is only open to major publishers with high profile content to push. Much of the point of XBL and PSN is the benefit it affords to smaller firms, for whom TV advertising is out of reach.
The obvious, logical solution to this is, of course, to create an affordable, tightly targeted advertising solution on the platform itself. Console dashboards need a way to put new releases and products of interest front and centre, where users will see them, rather than burying them in the store.
This is exactly what Sony has done with the new firmware update - and, of course, it's also exactly what Microsoft did with the release of the NXE dashboard update for the Xbox 360 many months ago. Both firms recognise the potential of on-dash advertising boxes - not only the potential, in fact, but the simple necessity of their existence.
Naturally, as with any advertising venture, there are a number of pitfalls which gape open as soon as you start down this path. It's possible, for example, to annoy users by poorly integrating your advertising space with the design of your dashboard - Microsoft avoided this by designing NXE from the ground up to be an advertising platform, but Sony has walked headlong into it by slapping a big ugly ad space over the top of its existing interface.
Even more annoying in the long term is the delivery of irrelevant advertising content to your users. Repeatedly telling players of Killzone 2 or Gears of War about the exciting launch of a new Hannah Montana game will result in users switching off and ignoring the irrelevant, annoying ad spaces. Modern consoles have individual user profiles which know perfectly well which games each user plays - this information can be used to create accurate targeting which changes adverts from being distracting to being useful and relevant.
The biggest pitfall of all, however, is also the most enticing - simple greed. Advertising space on console dashboards is justified if it's being used to promote features and content which are accessible through that dashboard - in that context, it's actually useful to users. What's vastly more questionable is the selling of that space to promote other products, treating it effectively as a standard ad format which is available to anyone with money to spend.
Microsoft, which has been keen to monetise everything to within an inch of its life in this console generation, has already started down this path with the advertising boxes on the Xbox 360. These spaces are pitched to advertising firms, and Microsoft clearly sees them as a new revenue stream - even though in many cases they're appearing on the dashboards of users paying for the Xbox Live Gold service, which seems a bit cheeky.
This is the tipping point at which many customers may begin to feel a little abused by on-dash advertising. Promoting new content on XBL or PSN, or highlighting new additions to the assorted video rental services, is something that actually makes the dashboard more useful and informative. Suggesting that you might like an ice-cold Pepsi or a trip to see Michael Bay's latest movie in the cinema, however, is just clutter, and platform holders will have to tread carefully here to work out where consumers' comfort zone ends.
For those complaining about the addition of advertising space to the PS3, however, there are no words of comfort. I'm surprised it's taken this long to arrive, in fact - and now that it's launched, you'd better get used to it. Love it or loathe it, on-dash advertising is becoming a core part of the console experience.