Massively Overthinking: Contemplating in-game advertising


Last week, EA announced that it would finally be removing all the in-game ads from UFC4 after a few days of intense complaining from fans. Not only were the ads fundamentally annoying, but this was a $60 title, and the studio turned on full commercials in-game a few weeks after the launch, after all the good reviews had settled. In short, it definitely deserved the flaming on the “AssholeDesign” subreddit, where one complaint thread currently has almost 100k upvotes.

Ads in games are not new. MMO vets will remember back in the day when Funcom actually put real-world ads on billboards inside of Anarchy Online to fund one of the first extended-trial/proto-free-to-play systems in the genre. And that was 15 years ago! Not to mention most MMOs with a cash shop or a launch are drowning you in ads one way or another while you’re trying to log in or play. But full-on commercials in between? That’s generally been limited to esports – and the most obnoxious mobile titles.

Are we looking at a new trend? Or is the backlash for EA’s sneaky attempt this time enough to scare away other companies? Let’s talk about it for this week’s Massively Overthinking. Do you want to see more ads in games? What do you need to be getting in return for the annoyance to feel fair? Where’s your line in the sand when it comes to in-game advertising?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): I know I’ve made a lot of complaints about ads in games, especially “free-to-play” titles that ask you to watch ads to grant in-game bonuses/items. It not only feels cheap but breaks immersion in the most jarring way possible. In short, I hate it.

That being said, I do think there are “right” ways of including ads. Forcing people to watch them as part of the game’s “content” is not one of them, though. For example, if The Secret World had billboards for real companies, that would make sense to me. It’s a real-world, modern times era-inspired game, so having modern ads passively available in-game could actually increase immersion, as it helps solidify the setting and could be used to help ensure it doesn’t feel dated. Heck, programmers could have TV screens that run mini-ads in certain areas, as long as it’s once again a passive, environmental inclusion.

I never played Anarchy Online, but the billboard thing with real-world ads seems over the line. Unless, of course, you’re going through town ruins or looking at old newspapers or data or something, but even that might be a bit of a stretch.

Again, I don’t like being forced to watch ads, but for some games, if done correctly, they can actually increase immersion in my opinion, and if they also increase the game’s revenue so lockbox and store shenanigans are non-existent/minimal, more power to them. They just clearly have limited application.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I feel kinda bad picking on advertising, and I realize that doing so will probably provoke a couple of “I am very intelligent” folks, but eh. If you’re reading this, you’re reading a partly ad-funded website, and if you love us, you probably even have us whitelisted, so you get how ads work. So obviously I don’t think the idea of advertising is all bad, not when it’s a big part of why this site and many others like ours exists. On top of that, I don’t even mind being advertised to sometimes when it’s timely and relevant. I’ve learned about new games through ads on our site before. And let’s be real, if you watch YouTube or hang out on Instagram or are following any influencer or brand at all, you’re already participating in picking and choosing your ads.

But this specific incident was not remotely OK. It’s one more example of EA’s shameless marketing team trying to see how much it could get away with before the pushback was too great and it had to back down. These people just waltz right up to the decency line every chance they get and cross it, just to stretch our tolerance another few steps for the next time, whether it’s lockboxes or this. Gross.

As for ads in MMOs? Annoying, yes. I would rather not, since usually it’s going to break immersion. But I honestly think it’s a relatively reasonable and fair way to monetize free-to-play users. I’d rather deal with ads than a lot of other awful monetization tricks. For pay-to-play folks, though, no way. Please don’t try it, devs.

Carlo Lacsina (@UltraMudkipEX), YouTube): Games that need real world advertisements are probably not for me. If the game is large enough to warrant Gatorade ads, it’s probably too mainstream for my blood. The whole cup-noodles-and-Coleman product placement in FFXV was a real eyeroller, and I hope they don’t do that again.

EA’s ads were dumb, and good on the players for shooting the idea down. I can dig it when it’s an ad on the octagon; at least you can make a authenticity argument. But that ad for The Boys in the middle of a replay just looks like poor implementation that made the devs, the game, and the show look bad.

I do feel like I can rest easy knowing that the games I do play usually 1) do some form of neat crossover as their way of advertisement or 2) aren’t mainstream enough to warrant this kind of advertisement practice.

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): Boy do I sure hope that backlash worked because the last thing I need is this kind of cross-media synergy. I’m not too keen on seeing full-blown advertisements in my games, especially ones for completely different products or shows, For me this is pretty much zero sum; there’s no incentivization that can make me OK with sitting through advertisements in my gaming.

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): I mean, I remember when I could watch YouTube without the service suggesting that I purchase my next RV at a local retailer despite the fact that my plan for purchasing an RV has always been “don’t,” so…

Really, I can’t say that in-game advertising inherently bothers me as a concept, especially when video games have always had a dicey relationship with advertising; a certain amount of cross-branding is inevitable. (How many games have been based on advertising mascots, and how many characters from games went on to become mascots?) Slapping billboards in-game to sell you things is not the worst idea I’ve ever heard. It’s just an unappealing one, and it always seems to be one associated with titles I don’t want to buy in the first place, usually highly annual titles where I think the expectation is that if you’re going to buy a new version of this game with minimal changes anyway, why not sell some ads too?

The only real problem with the idea is that it is also predatory and crappy to get a bunch of ads shoved in your face after you’ve paid full price for a retail title, whereas the idea has slightly more traction if my buy-in for the game were nothing at all. Which is why it seems to be associated mostly with games that are already annualized full-price releases on the basis of already holding a dicey connection with the concept of value.

I don’t really fear this for F2P games so much as I see this as something that has way more of a drawback than an upside. While I’m sure a lot of companies would like the extra revenue if it could be earned, generally speaking, the backlash and lost sales balance out whatever pittance the advertisement carries. Then again, Fortnite hosted a pretty big ad for a movie under the pretense of it being an exclusive premiere format, and that seems to have gone fine for Epic, didn’t it?

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): Another historical example that comes to mind was NCsoft’s Dungeon Runners, which put a persistent ad on the top bar of your game screen if you were a free player. That was probably the most garish and intrusive ad design I’ve seen in traditional MMOs to date.

Obviously, I don’t want to be seeing more ads in games, although I understand that they may be necessary to help supplement revenue streams for otherwise free players. So I’m cool with, for example, watching an ad or two before logging into a game if I’m playing it for free — but I don’t want ads anywhere in the game space itself or disrupting my gameplay.

Mia DeSanzo (@neschria): I am going to keep this short and possibly a little sour: I usually play fantasy games, so real-world advertising is just about as immersion-breaking as it gets. I guess the “/pizza” in EverQuest II was mostly funny and not too annoying, but if I walked into an in-game tavern and the barkeep offered me a popular real-world soft drink or snack food, I would be unhappy. I’d probably lose my mind in feedback to the company.

Black Desert Online recently had a crossover with Cursed, a Netflix original series. It didn’t make a lot of sense, but it was a quest that it was easy enough to ignore if you wanted to. I guess I don’t mind in-genre crossovers, but I don’t want to encourage the practice either.

Sam Kash (@thesamkash): I think the real burn was that this was a full-purchase-price game. Our expectation as customers is that we have done our part in the circle of a game’s life after we’ve purchased the game. If a game wants to push this kind of ad system, then there should be a reasonable offset for the customers. Make the game free-to-play, then show ads. Give players an option: turn on ads for 1000 free premium currency a month or no ads for no currency.

However, I definitely do not need or want ads in any of my games. I barely want them in my normal life. So rise up with me against oppressive big ad. When you buy a soda, tear off that label before you consume. Do you carry around hand sanitizer? Well, peel that puppy off before you stow it. Brand-new car? Get a rubber-tipped wedge and pop all those name plates off! We’ll show them. No free advertisement on our backs!

Every week, join the Massively OP staff for Massively Overthinking column, a multi-writer roundtable in which we discuss the MMO industry topics du jour – and then invite you to join the fray in the comments. Overthinking it is literally the whole point. Your turn!
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