Enjoying a free-to-play game on your mobile phone can be short-lived when, a few minutes into your adventure, you’re forced to watch a 30-second advert before you can continue. Indeed, advertisements in video games are less than ideal – but they don’t have to be.
Product placement isn’t anything new; it’s saturated TV and movies for decades. And while it has been in video games, it’s nowhere near as pervasive as it is on the big screen. But why? With the video game industry set to change as subscription services become more widespread, there’s never been a better time for developers to explore other fields of revenue.
Forget typical advertising methods. None of us are going to settle for a scenario where we play half an hour of Assassin’s Creed before a pop-up blocks our screen and tells us, “before enjoying this Animus sequence, please enjoy these messages from our sponsors”. (Okay, that does sound a little like something Abstergo would do, but I digress.) Product placement doesn’t have to be all about evil corporations taking over everything we love. It’s a form of advertising that can seamlessly blend into a video game or property. In fact, when it’s done right, there’s a lot to be said about what product placement can bring to the franchises we love.
Subtlety is key
I’m not talking about the horrendously in-your-face way that the America’s Got Talent judges have their Dunkin’ Donuts drinking cups placed strategically so that the logo is always facing the camera. Effective product placement can be much more surreptitious. In TV, it’s seeing Monica from Friends flicking through a familiar magazine, or it’s seeing the side of a bottle of Coca Cola in the background somewhere. In movies, it’s Elliot feeding E.T. Reese’s Pieces, or maybe it’s your favourite character logging onto their Dell PC or typing out a text on their iPhone.
Sometimes it’s noticeable, but often, we don’t see it as blatant advertising. It feeds into the world that’s been created by the film or TV programme. That world may be entirely fictional, but seeing familiar brands helps us associate better with what we see on screen. It makes those worlds feel more real and believable. There’s no reason that more games cannot adopt that philosophy, too.
Examples in video games
As noted above, product placement in video games isn’t a new concept, but it’s one that’s been underutilised. Back in the 90s, more obvious types of product placement were pretty common in games – remember Zool’s Chupa Chups-laden world, or Cool Spot and his love for 7 Up? The difference is both of those games were developed directly with the advertisers. The games themselves were adverts; Cool Spot was the brand mascot for 7 Up long before he made his way to videogames. A more recent equivalent would be something like Doritos Crash Course on Xbox 360, a byproduct of Microsoft’s long-running joint advertising campaign with Doritos. (It was still a hell of a lot of fun, though!)
There have been more subtle, ingrained examples in franchises, too. An article on The Guardian points out that a promotion for Uncharted 3’s multiplayer mode saw Nathan Drake munching on a Subway sandwich, and skateboarding games have long allowed you to don your characters in official skate brand clothing.
Remedy Entertainment has utilised product placement as a revenue stream in a number of its games; in Alan Wake, his phone carrier was Verizon and you used Energizer batteries to keep your torch powered up, and Quantum Break had a deluge of Microsoft-branded tablets and laptops. Konami, too, has had plenty of product placement in its games. In Metal Gear Solid 4, Otacon is a big Apple fan, having an iMac, MacBook Pro and an iPhone. The same game also has an issue of Playboy magazine, and The Phantom Pain famously has Big Boss wearing a 1980s Seiko watch – although since Konami and Seiko then collaborated to recreate a purchasable special edition of the watch as a tie-in with the game, I’m not sure it entirely counts.
TV Tropes has a very extensive list of dozens of examples of product placement in video games, if you want to see some more. On the face of it, it looks like a hell of a lot. But when you consider all the games that exist, compared to how often TV and movies use product placement, you do have to wonder why more games companies aren’t jumping on board.
Bringing games into our world
In the same way that having real car brands brings the likes of Forza and Gran Turismo to life, and how having real football teams in Fifa sets it a league above PES, seeing familiar objects and brands in other genres of video games can give them an entirely new level of realism. Films and TV programmes don’t need as much help with feeling realistic; the characters are played by real actors, and they’re often filmed in real-world locations. Seeing a movie set in the familiar streets of London and New York instantly gives us something to connect to – especially if we’ve been to those places.
Since video games are, by and large, digitally made (excusing, of course, FMV games and the video sections of Quantum Break), there’s an extra barrier standing between them and reality. Granted, as technology advances and graphics become more realistic, that barrier is getting smaller – think how realistic the likes of Watch Dogs 2 and Uncharted 4 look – but there’s still an element of the uncanny valley. Pushing in items that we’re familiar with in the real world can elevate a game’s sense of realism to the next level. Walking down a city street and seeing a billboard for McDonald’s is fairly standard in real life, so why not bring that into video games?
Finding a balance
Of course, I’m not talking about stuffing every square inch of a video game property with real-life products and brand names. It’s about finding an ideal balance between making a world feel more realistic and being too brazen with an advertiser’s message. In real life, we see branding everywhere. In front of me right now, I’ve got Samsung on my phone, LG on my monitor and Fitbit on my wrist, among with dozens of others I can glace at around the room. We’re used to seeing familiar brands and objects, and, used at balance, taking that to video games can take a somewhat flat world and bring it to life.
But that balance is important. As journalist and resident games expert on Dave’s Go 8 Bit Ellie Gibson was quoted in an article for the Evening Standard back in 2016, “the key to it working is walking the line between unacceptable product placement and making the virtual world seem as realistic as possible. We are surrounded by branding everywhere we go in the real world and while it can be integrated into gaming, they shouldn’t become so inundated with adverts that it becomes ridiculous.”
Equally important is avoiding an advertising monopoly. In the real world, we see a constant deluge of different brands from different companies. But occasionally, exclusive product placement means characters live in a world where only one brand operates. A world where everyone only drinks Coca-Cola? Not very believable – well, not unless the setting is a near-future dystopia where commercialism has taken over the world. Quantum Break almost pushed this boundary a little too far with their overzealous use of Microsoft products. Come on, there would have been a few Android and iPhone devices dotted around, even supposing that Monarch Solutions – the game’s own Evil Corporation – had offered its employees some kind of Microsoft-sponsored perk.
It’s all about money
Let’s not forget that video games companies exist to make money. Making nice games that we enjoy playing may be a byproduct of that company’s practices, but they don’t bother to do that unless there’s a good chance it’s going to make them money. As the industry looks to shift into a new era dominated by streaming, on-demand services and subscriptions, it means traditional sales of games are likely to decrease. If a developer is only going to see a miniscule cut of someone’s £8 a month subscription fee instead of a full retail price, it means it’s time to diversity revenue streams.
There are a lot of arguments to be made about some of the other options laid out on the table – DLC and microtransactions to name but two – but to me, a well-managed product placement campaign seems like a no-brainer.
Does having a can of Irn Bru in your lead character’s hand during a cutscene really affect the integrity of your game? As long as the placement of those real-world objects is tactful and balanced against generic items (or other brands), then I’d say it can even have a positive affect. Earning revenue while also making a game seem more realistic? It’s a win-win for everybody.