In-Game Advertising: Yet Another Insult To Consumers
By Jim Bray
Is it a nifty way to add reality to the gaming experience, or just another way for evil capitalists to make obscene profits off the backs of the downtrodden masses?
I refer to the trend toward selling ad space embedded in the video games on which millions of people spend their hard-earned money. It's a method by which the creators and/or marketers can generate some extra coin, which being an avowed capitalist I'm all for. But what bugs me is that once again consumers are being played for suckers, treated like walking wallets to be exploited at will.
Call me silly or naïve, or maybe just old-fashioned, but I thought commercials were a way for us to get content for free, as in "free TV" and "free radio." I've always considered that to be an acceptable trade-off: if I don't want commercials I can opt for premium services such as pay TV or satellite radio and if I'm too cheap or "fiscally challenged" to shell out for such stuff then I should just shut up and go to the bathroom when the ads come on.
That isn't enough anymore, apparently. The Industry (which consists of Hollywood and other content providers, movie theater owners, broadcasters – and the consumer electronics manufacturers who kowtow to them) has been giving us creeping commercial content for years, throwing that old "free" and "pay" model out the window.
An early example of this is the commercials played in movie theaters before the feature begins – one of the many reasons I rarely attend the local Cineplex any more. I'm sure theater operators would justify this as a way to fight back against the profits lost to the home entertainment industry, but isn't that a bit like McDonald's dumping one of the "all beef patties" from a Big Mac, jacking up the price, and justifying it as a way to combat competition from the frozen hamburgers sold in grocery stores?
In my fantasy world, theater owners would compete by offering consumers a better deal than they can get at home, such as lower ticket and food prices, a bright screen that isn't out of focus, sound that isn't shrill or boomy, a floor your feet don't stick to, ushers who throw people out if they ruin the experience for others…
Another example of the shabby way consumers are treated is the HDMI interface that can be such a great convenience when hooking up your home theater. HDMI is a single cable solution to audio/video connecting (as opposed to using several different audio and video cables) and when it works it's terrific, offering the best audio and video fidelity.
But because The Industry thinks every human being is a brigand, they insisted on a sophisticated copy protection scheme that means HDMI-equipped components must "handshake" with each other to ensure The Industry's pound of flesh is insured. Alas, sometimes the components refuse to shake hands, which means your expensive new equipment may not work properly with some of your other expensive new equipment, and you may not be able to watch that gorgeous high definition programming in HD at all. Or it may cut in and out, or it may take on strange coloring, or maybe there'll be no audio...
If all does work well, you'll be able to bask in the glory of insulting FBI warnings you can't skip past, usually, warnings that imply you're a crook and deserve jail time and a huge fine.
It's the same situation with most of the downloads some wags think are the next big thing in content distribution. Most of these also contain digital rights management technology that can wreak havoc on your ability to enjoy the product you've purchased legitimately, hoping to enjoy it without hassle.
What happened to the rights of consumers? And what happened to the concept of treating your customers with respect? The Industry bitches about how much income they lose from pirating, but why should consumers give a damn about them when every time they turn around they're treated like criminals, or boobs, or they're finding less and less value – and/or more and more annoyance – in their purchase?
Which brings me back to commercials embedded in games. Here's an excerpt from the June 4 press release I received on the topic:
""The PS3 platform is primed to leverage the high growth potential of the in-game advertising market," said Phil Rosenberg, Senior Vice President, (Sony Computer Entertainment America). "Ads that are organic to the environment not only benefit developers and advertisers, but also create a richer experience for gamers."
I'm not sure how many consumer who shell out for a game only to discover ads in it (whether real ads that show up on a virtual billboard in a game landscape's background or however else they decide to embed them) will consider that a richer experience. The game/hardware makers are undoubtedly hoping it makes them richer, though.
The release goes on to say:
"PLAYSTATION 3 is undoubtedly the prime opportunity for the in-game advertising industry," said Justin Townsend, CEO, IGA Worldwide. "…IGA can provide advertisers with a large and valuable global user base of 16-35 year old consumers with disposable income. With our standardized awareness-building advertising formats being delivered directly into people's living rooms while they play, there are great opportunities for advertisers looking to engage through an entertainment medium outside of the traditional TV spot."
So it's also a way for advertisers to combat the dwindling benefits of commercial TV, an industry that has been chasing away viewers for years. Now The Industry can start chasing people away from video games too!
I imagine The Industry is planning to pass a portion of those extra profits along to the people whose games and consoles they're exploiting, via lower prices for the hardware and/or software. Okay, I'm being sarcastic.
I have nothing against profits. Far from it! I ain't writing this merely for my health! But I believe in value. So maybe, taking the old "premium content" concept that seems threatened these days, The Industry should offer two versions of their stuff: one version with ads they can sell cheaper, and one without ads that costs more.
Or they could just lower their prices and go for the extra profits that would come from exploiting economies of scale. After all, it costs little to crank out extra copies once the master has been made; that's one of the beautiful things about digital technology.
So why not use that law of business economics to their advantage? It could increase their profits, give them great PR (if they publicize their strategy), and maybe even make consumers feel valued for a change.
Never happen. It makes too much sense.
Copyright 2008 Jim Bray
Jim Bray's columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.
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