Thursday, June 10, 2010

Back After These Messages

Last night a 15-second Verizon Wireless ad left me speechless.

Not because it was funny, or offensive, or noteworthy in any particular way. Because it was in my damn video game.

One of the things I love about Alan Wake is its structure. Like a mini-series, the game is broken up into discrete episodes, each comprising 1-2 hours of play time. The Stephen King/Twin Peaks-inspired atmosphere and story lend themselves perfectly to a TV show format. There are episodes of a Twilight Zone-like TV show in the game for the player to watch. All very meta and very cool.

So I guess it's only natural that there'd be an actual video advertisement in the game. I mean, this was Episode 4. I'd been collecting Energizer™ batteries for six hours already.

Still: an actual commercial? Picking up conveniently-branded batteries for my flashlight I could understand. But this was like interrupting a David Lynch film for a brief word from our sponsor.

Also, I'm pretty sure I got an achievement for watching the ad.

I could complain about the product placement breaking the immersion of the game, but come on. We've grown so inured to product placement in all our media that even at its most egregious, it's a mere annoyance. If aliens ever visited Earth, they'd have no way to understand our speech and behavior and thought patterns without first learning the language of advertising.

In-game advertising is certainly nothing new. In 2008, the future President Obama placed campaign ads on billboards in Burnout Paradise, perhaps the most high-profile in-game ad in recent years. Any given sports title will feature logos from sportswear companies and television networks. MMO players have long been familiar with in-game ads, and have seen the trend grow firsthand lately with the rise of free-to-play models. And it seems to work. According to Microsoft, it's working pretty darn well.

This is a market that's poised for growth, and with development costs continuing to rise and new game sales getting undercut by the secondary market and piracy, this is the future. Like it or not.

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