In an interview with GamesIndustry.biz, Bernie Stolar made the following claims about the future of in-game advertising:
So game publishers are very, very interested in this. We’re talking with every major publisher, and there’s a lot of excitement here. This will be a billion dollar industry by the year 2010. That’s big.
And it’s casual games. The whole casual game category has opened up in a huge way for this. I would say 80 percent of games [will have] advertising in them by 2010.
If you’re like most gamers, you’re screaming in horror at this point. The last thing we need is to have Sam Fisher turn to the camera and tell us that when he’s out on top secret missions, he only chews Double Mint gum. A sizable proportion of you are also probably very dubious of this analyst and his prediction. You have every right to doubt, and the only reason I’m using up blog space to talk about him is this: he is the videogame ad guy for Google. And if there’s a company that understands advertising, it’s Google.
Not to say that his prediction must necessarily become true, of course. We might only have 70% of games having in-game advertising by 2010. Or even lower. Besides, as the videogame ad guy for Google, Bernie Stolar has an interest in trying to tell us that his industry of choice is going to be huge. But with those caveats, let’s take him at his word and think about this for a second. What is it going to be like to have advertising in 80% of games?
If you’re a gamer like me, your actual experience won’t be very different. My preferred genres are RPGs, platformers and adventure games, usually fantasy-themed and usually what you might consider hardcore (or at least non-casual) games. I play almost no sports videogames at all. And as a Wii owner, a very large chunk of my games are developed by Nintendo themselves.
Most videogames in a fantasy setting will not have much opportunity for in-game ads for obvious reasons. And that goes double for Nintendo’s character-based games. Nintendo is famously protective of their properties, and it’s hard to see any circumstances under which they would allow any kind of advertising into their games, even if it made sense. Besides, Nintendo makes so much money off the sales of Mario, Zelda and Pokemon that there’s really no benefit to allowing corporations to advertise in their games.
Their other games are a different matter. Wave Race 64 was sponsored by Kawasaki Industries and had their logos prominently displayed on the jetskis (these have been removed for the Virtual Console release because the deal has since expired). And I don’t think Nintendo will be above putting ads in the next iteration of Wii Sports (after all, real tennis courts have ads all over the stands). I’m not even convinced that Mario Kart will be totally ad-free for the perpetual future.
So if 80% of games will have ads in them and not even Nintendo will be totally against putting ads in some of their games, why do I think it’s not going to make much difference to us? Well, because I think the 80% of games that have ads in them will be the 80% of games that tend not to sell very well and which I won’t be playing. Think of the mega-hit franchises we have and consider whether in-game advertising is feasible for them. Metar Gear Solid: possible but improbable. Final Fantasy: likely not. God of War: surely not. Halo: very unlikely. Half-Life: nope. Resident Evil: possible, but given the game’s anti-corporate themes, it would be very tongue in cheek if anything. On and on, as I think through the list of titles that get hearts racing in the chests of videogame aficionados, I find that it’s going to be a very difficult task to get any kind of advertising into them except in a very marginal sense. And that’s very important because these titles make up a humongous chunk of the games sold. The famous franchises may only be a tiny portion of all the games produced out there, but they make up almost a majority of software actually sold and played by an end user. That’s probably going to change in the future with the rise of casual gaming, but even then, there will always be a place for the complicated games that your grandmother can’t be bothered to learn. And as long as you stick to games like those, I can’t imagine that in-game ads will have much opportunity to bother you.
It would be nice, incidentally, if publishers would pass on the profits of in-game advertising in the form of lower prices, but sadly, I don’t see it happening.