As the DRM wars heat up, and the rise of peer-to-peer sharing shows little sign of stopping (despite ineffective and draconian litigation against children and people who don’t even own computers), the smarter computer games companies are looking at new ways to monetise their products.
Developing a computer game these days takes a big load of money – curiously, that means they all turn out to be very similar with respect to actual gameplay, but my cynicism is irrelevent at this point. Once a game is released ‘into the wild’, trying to stop it being redistributed is virtually impossible, although some developers have found that by pricing them more reasonably and providing extra features can encourage people to buy the real thing rather than download a crack.
But the problem reaches further than just games; the films industry is in a sweat about peer-to-peer as well. But then, they were already on the product placement bandwagon long ago – remember that ‘certain-brand-of-soft-drink-can’ scene in Independence Day? TV has been doing it too, although in the UK we have regulations to (supposedly) ensure it isn’t overdone.
Basically, product placement in the ‘main body’ of any media is the only way to make sure that every consumer, paying customer or not, sees the ads that have been paid for. Which is no doubt why there has been a big convention of games developers discussing how to move ahead into the products-in-games arena.
This market has already started moving, of course. I’m not a big gamer, but a number of my friends are, and they have noticed it already. Most often they actually concur with the developers, in the belief that product placement actually makes the games more realistic – provided the products are relevent, of course. It’ll be a tricky business at first; if the advertising is overdone, or irrelevent and overbearing, people will walk away from the games.
But how effective will these ads actually be? The efficacy of ads in any medium must be fairly hard to quantify at the best of times (the lines of cause and effect being a little tricky to study), so it will be a hard thing for them to research thoroughly. But more importantly, aren’t a large portion of the main gaming market (12-35s) quite resistant to advertising already? We’re bombarded with ads all the time, on TV, online, in the street, on the radio. Unless it’s something pretty imaginative, most people, I think, can tune a lot of them out without even trying; hence the interest in ‘viral’ ads, which have the reverse effect by being ‘content’ in their own right, to the extent that people not only choose to consume them but will spread the word around as well.
And what will happen once ads become commonplace in games? Advertising is an aspect of consumer-capitalism that draws a lot of fire from activists of various stripes. I think it more than possible that there will emerge ‘crews’ of hackers and rogue coders who develop patches for games that either subvert, deface, replace or remove the ads entirely (the digital equivalent of Adbusters and other ‘culture-jammer’ groups); the ubiquity of the internet means these will be easily spread, and may well have ‘viral’ properties in themselves (humourous or politically satirical defacements, for example), which will disseminate them faster via word-of-web recommendations.
Furthermore, the rise of software that works like the wonderful Firefox plugin Adblock Plus, by blocking pieces of content the user is uninterested in seeing, is another given, especially if the open-source movement keeps growing in strength.
Unless there is a serious paradigm shift in the way media content is made, distributed and consumed, there will probably be a continuation of this cat-and-mouse game between the content licencers and the consumer; a constant battle by the labels and studios to cling onto business models that died as soon as broadband became economically viable for the average Western consumer. It is my hope that this will eventually undermine the power of the media industries, freeing artists and creatives to find their own way of making a living from their art without using fat-cat business types as intermediaries. And there’s another place this here intarwebs thing might just come in handy, eh? It’s already starting to happen at the bottom of the pile. In twenty years, the art, film, music and literature industries may be almost rhizomatic in structure.
Fingers crossed, eh? 😉