Tucked away behind Battlefield 2142’s manual is a plain white, non-descript card. At first glance, it could be mistaken for some kind of registration card, user-license addendum or perhaps a seizure warning. Instead, it’s a strange disclaimer, stating that the user’s IP address and "other anonymous data" would be sent to a company called IGA Worldwide in order to deliver in-game advertisements.
The disclaimer also says users should not install or play the game on an Internet-connected system if they are not comfortable with having their information transmitted and collected by IGA. That’s all well and good until you consider that PC games are largely non-returnable, and Battlefield 2142 requires a Web connection and registration to work. So consumers get a choice — put up with sending the advertising data or live with wasting $50 on a game.
There’s many reasons EA wouldn’t include spyware in their games. Imagine if my little experiment had been successful. Not only would it have further earned a bad reputation for video games, but other games have been re-rated by the ESRB for far less. Also, publishers should have little interest in investing millions of dollars into developing a game only to undermine it with intrusive ads or subversive programs. Legally, all code that is technically "part of the game" is covered by the end-user license agreement (EULA), which all players must agree to before they can install a game. If a game has a bit of programming that is disagreeable, the only option is to avoid installing or playing the game, as EA suggests. EA wasn’t obligated to reveal anything about their marketing intentions, so the card that comes with Battlefield 2142 should be regarded as a courtesy rather than a warning. They could have easily omitted it, and only those who happened to notice the changing billboards would or dug into the game’s backend code the lines of would be the the wiser.
There’s no escaping advertising, however and yes, sometimes you need to pay for it. Buying a DVD that automatically plays movie trailers before the movie starts is pretty much the same thing as spending $15-20 on a product that includes five or more minutes worth of advertising. So, if in-game advertising on any level is upsetting, please take this time to get over it. The cost of developing an A-list game has risen steadily, but the number of potential consumers has not grown to match. So, developers who don’t seek out additional revenue streams must go with creating a mediocre game, outsourcing labor or selling their games at higher prices (not that ads necessarily stop it, but it helps). My guess is that if most gamers have to decide between paying more for games and putting up with a bunch of ads, most would choose the latter. When done well, ads should be invisible. In cases like sports games, billboards on stadium backgrounds add to the realism and become better when updated with a company’s latest ad campaign. However, like product placement on TV shows, there are handful of ways to do it right and a million ways to screw things up.
Funcom renewed its agreement to have advertising dollars support parts of Anarchy Online, making parts of the game available for free, as long as users don’t mind the billboards. Paid subscriptions remain advertisement free. NCsoft’s Auto Assault also includes in-game advertising, although there isn’t a subscription-free arrangement yet. That’s great for sci-fi themed games, but what about the 99% of fantasy massively-multiplayer online games (MMOG)? Will all of them need to resort to advertorial commands like in EverQuest II where typing /pizza brings up the Pizza Hut Web site, allowing players to place orders online? These types of solutions tread a fine line between balancing the experience and the need for additional revenue, since the command clearly brings the user out of the game. Simply representing the wrong advertising campaign is enough to ruin a game. Pizza Hut might be pushing the boundaries of tolerance right now, but I’d immediately drop any fantasy game that suddenly starts serving name-brand cola in their beer mugs. An unspoken code of ethics and the possible threat of litigation might prevent some developers from including some sort of spyware, but that kind of protection might not last. It might be a matter of time before someone thinks that it could be a good idea to collect more than IP information.
The biggest problems arise when the advertising takes priority over the game, so players end up spending money on long commercials. Sure, one could buy Burger King-themed games for kids for $4, but I can’t imagine too many people who would be willing to spend $50 on something like that. It might be a disturbing sign of the times to see the King show up as a special character in Fight Night Round 3, but that’s probably not a trend that’s likely to catch on. We can only hope.