The gradual rise of the in-game advertising market has been one of the more fascinating industry trends of the past half-decade. As with any emerging market - casual games, mobile games and serious games have all broken through in the same timescale - it has been the subject of many hugely optimistic or downright insane projections and predictions, while the real work of turning it into a viable business has gone on below the surface, with far less fanfare.
The latest pronouncement on advertising, however, deserves a little more attention than the somewhat nebulous predictions of market research firms. Bernie Stolar's career in the games industry is distinguished, if somewhat chequered, but his history in this sector is less important than the authority which now backs up his words - the belief and support of Google, the single most important company in the new advertising ecosystem.
Stolar believes that by 2010, in-game advertising will be a billion-dollar industry. More controversially, he claims that in the same year, 80 per cent of games will have advertising - of some form - built into them.
It's an ambitious target - not to mention a controversial one. In-game advertising is still something of a hot potato among game consumers, and even in development circles. While Stolar is careful to tread lightly around consumer desires on this front - "at the end of the day, we can't piss off the customer", he observes - that doesn't change the fact that the introduction of advertising to a game brings with it a huge risk.
Consumers and industry alike have been burned by some terrible, terrible decisions early in the life of in-game advertising. From Sam Fisher's overt product placement for Airwaves gum in Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory to the asinine and canon-breaking use of cases of Red Bull all over Rebellion's critically panned Judge Dredd title*, gamers are more likely to remember the times when product placement annoyed them than the times it simply passed them by (Dole-branded bananas in Super Monkey Ball, for instance).
The history of the advertising industry in other mediums tells us one thing for certain - there is no limit to the number of asinine decisions that can be made in the name of marketing. No matter how many senior execs swear that they're focused on respecting the product, keeping the consumer happy and so on, there will still be terrible decisions made which will, in fact, piss off the customer - and reflect badly both on the advertised brand, and the game in which it is advertised.
That's not to say that in-game advertising is a bad idea, in itself. It's just important to lay out the risks; it is a simple fact that in every other medium, advertisers have at some point managed to do something stupid, inappropriate or offensive, and they will do the same in videogames on occasion. Any headlong rush towards this new revenue stream needs to be tempered by that understanding.
There's another thing to consider here, too - and that's the very concept of a new revenue stream. While there is a general understanding that some videogames will be ad-supported, essentially moving the revenue stream away from consumers and onto brand owners (the same model used by broadcast TV and radio), all too many publishers seem to view in-game advertising as a supplemental revenue stream for existing games.
Up to a point, that works. Authentic items of label clothing in games that let you customise a character, say; or real cars in racing games. Even real advertising billboards and brands can make sense in some videogames, if they're handled exceptionally carefully and tastefully.
The second that advertising steps outside of the boundaries, however, it becomes a serious problem. At the moment when a customer becomes conscious that they are being advertised to, their immediate - and quite logical - reaction will be an angry one. This, after all, is a product for which they've paid a lot of money; more money than they're expected to for out for just about any other type of entertainment product. Now you're asking them to look at advertisements on top of that? Pull the other one.
The key thing which game publishers must not lose sight of as the in-game advertising market marches forward is this; videogames have survived 30 years of change, evolving to become one of the world's favourite and fastest-growing mediums, without advertising. Right now, the industry can keep going perfectly happily without letting advertisers into the playground - and aside from some concern over rising development costs, there's no real evidence that this is going to change materially in the coming years.
Advertisers, on the other hand, face serious shrinkage in their favourite medium - television - and a massive crisis in their ability to reach the 16-30 demographic which games tap so effectively.
In plain terms; advertisers need videogames a hell of a lot more than videogames need advertisers. That's a piece of reasoning which should underpin every negotiation between a videogames company and an advertising firm, and an understanding which should inform every decision on implementing advertising or product placement in a game. It's a mantra which cannot be forgotten as these two industries collide.
Jason Kingsley from Rebellion contacted GamesIndustry.biz to clarify this statement:
"...the innovative Red Bull product placement in question was at the beginning of level 1 only, (nowhere else in the game), and involved Dredd tracking down and stopping the illegal substance smugglers concerned (as he has done with sugar or coffee smugglers). Completely within the canon of the Dredd universe, and only in level 1. We did the placement precisely because it fitted in with the Dredd parody the modern world subtext."