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Anarchy Online explores a new digital frontier

Remember back in the mid-'90s, before the Internet had advertisements? Boy, was it bleak to surf the web without pop-ups, blinking banners, and unshuttable Flash ads. So we’ve got news for you: video games have entered a new era of advertising – and the people behind it promise they won’t annoy you.

Ads have already crept into gaming, from the logos and banners that fill sports and racing games to the branded cellphones and other products that serve as realistic plot devices. But this month, Funcom’s Anarchy Online will debut a new, dynamic ad network as part of an advertising-supported subscription model: gamers who accept the ads – which will remain passively in the background, on billboards in the game landscape – can play for free, while the people who shell out the monthly subscription fee will see fictional, game-themed ads.

Funcom just announced a partnership with the firm Massive Incorporated, making Anarchy Online the first game to go public with the Massive Advertising Network, which hosts and serves timed ad campaigns. (You’ll also see the technology later this month in Ubisoft’s Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell Chaos Theory.) Working with Massive (or with competing firms like InGameSupport) allows the advertiser to skip the six-month-plus lead-time required by old-fashioned hard-coded ads. Richard Skeen, Massive’s VP of Advertising Sales, details the possibilities: "Dunkin Donuts, for example, can run their pumpkin-flavored coffee in the fall and their lattes in the summer. A Taco Bell can literally run a ‘we’re open late’ campaign starting at 10 o’clock at night." And movie ads can launch the week or even the day that the film opens.

The Massive team, with over 30 employees in three offices around the country, acts as the middleman between ad agencies and game publishers. In addition to licensing the technology, they can generate creative when needed, consult on a game’s ad-friendliness if asked, and mediate between ad agencies and game publishers. Massive has also partnered with Nielsen to track and report a campaign’s effectiveness.

Done right, ads make games more realistic. Of course, advertophobes will say that we expect ads because they saturate society – if you have a painful rash in real life, should your video games give you a rash as well? – but that doesn’t mean they won’t fit on soda machines, race cars, or along city streets. Depending on the campaign, you might see the same ads in a video-game subway as on the train you ride to work.

Online product manager Terri Perkins at Funcom explains, "We’ve had fictitious billboards in [Anarchy Online] for almost four years, and then a while back when we came out with Alien Invasion, I talked to Alienware and said, ‘You know, I think this would be really cool to put Alienware in it, because it blends so well.’ And so we put that in it, and no one complained. Everyone said, ‘Oh yeah, that’s kind of cool,’ and we even had people say, 'You know, I wish you could make it change more often!’ "

The integration with Massive took about a week of development, says Perkins, and the service should launch this month. The reaction to this new deal on Internet message boards ranges from tolerant or cautious, to outraged. "If it meant paying half or so of the subscription fee or more stable servers I would tolerate the ads," says one poster on a web forum, while another declares, "Ads in video games will ruin Video Games. I play these games to leave reality behind for a few hours a week. I bought cable and [TiVo] so [I wouldn't] have to suffer commercials, and now they will invade my last haven."

Funcom promises to use ads that won’t detract from the gameplay. "We have complete control," says Perkins. "We can refuse ads based on general categories and then each specific ad actually has to be accepted to go in. And we have a lot of rules: it has to be in theme, it has to be futuristic, it has to blend in the game. It couldn’t detract from the immersion."

Weaving modern brands into a sci-fi games takes creativity, but many sci-fi movies have used product placement, sometimes to hilarious effect. And where there’s a will – and a profit – there’s a way. You’d think that fantasy games like EverQuest would be verboten to advertisers; however, EverQuest neatly solved the problem with the new "/pizza" command that lets you order a pie from Pizza Hut without interrupting play. Once they add "/beer" and "/clean underwear," they’ll actually make the game more immersive by keeping you in your bedroom for weeks at a time.

If gamers are wary, this is even stranger territory for ad agencies. Recalls Skeen, "When I started here about a year ago, advertisers would say, ‘Gaming, what? What is that again?’ Boy, now the presidents of the agencies definitely understand." Massive lists their demographic right on their site: 18-34 year-old men. That's a perfect fit for Anarchy Online, which draws a median player age of 29 and a whopping 89 percent male-customer base.

Of course, that demographic also likes to kill hookers. "If you don’t want to have any violence around your advertising, then video games probably aren’t your medium," says Skeen. "The reason I believe a lot of advertisers are not in Grand Theft Auto is because you kill policemen in that game, and that is morally repugnant for a lot of folks. … Not that I’m a proponent of violence, or that [violence] makes it better or worse. But video games reflect the tastes of the users, and if you’re after those gamers, then welcome to the medium."

Although the ads in Anarchy Online will start on the billboards, game designers will find new ways to weave branding into the gameplay. "In the multiplayer mode in Splinter Cell, you can shoot at one of the posters, it crumbles all up, the glass breaks, but the ad is still there – in a different form," says Skeen. "They’re going to be shooting that poster every time they can because it’s cool to watch." Perkins adds, "I would love to see movies within [Anarchy Online], streaming content, music videos in the clubs." But you can imagine more cynical examples of brand conditioning: imagine if you have the choice between two first-aid kits, and the one that’s branded by Tylenol has more kick than the generic. And what’s a private chat group without Viagra?

If you don’t mind that commercials are, well, commercial, ads can be creative and entertaining. But no matter how gracefully Funcom pulls it off, some game is bound to blow it, and each new step will come with detractors. If, in a couple of years, Wal-Mart has driven out the mom-and-pop gun stores and you’re staring at University of Phoenix ads during your load times, you may wonder what kind of an escape you’re getting.

Issue Date: March 4 - 10, 2005
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