Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Product placement

Product placement.

We all know what that it. At it’s most subtle, TV mom pulls a can out of the fridge and sets it on the table, and if you’re quick and observant enough, you can just make out that it’s a can of Pepsi.

At it’s most blatant, TV mom says “Damn, I need a PEPSI! I love PEPSI! PEPSI is great!” Opens the can, making sure her fingers don’t block the logo, takes a good long drink and says: “Ahhhhhhhh! PEPSI!”

Now, I don’t know the deal in America, but in England, there’s laws against this kind of thing. I don’t mean British TV is completely product-placement free, but anything too blatant, and the show producers get fined.

I can forgive product placement on TV. Ads pay for the shows. In simplest terms, the only reason they have any entertainment on TV is to encourage us to watch the ads.

However, I’ve noticed a slightly disturbing trend for product placement in video games.

Take Splinter Cell : Chaos Theory for example.

In the opening cut scene, Sam Fisher, riding in his helicopter pulls out a pack of gum. You clearly see the ‘Airwaves’ logo. Later in the game, we see a Chinese skyline, and what’s that slap bang on one of the lit-up billboards? Why, an advertisement for Airwaves chewing gum!

Again, I can forgive product placement to this level (although pointlessly showing Sam obviously enjoying a nice piece of airwaves gum is pushing it).

Basically, showing a location such as Times Square in a game is going to show a lot of billboards. Rather than make up fictional companies, charging a few real life companies to have their real ads in games, it doesn’t detract from the experience.

However, Splinter Cell takes things far too far.

About three quarters of the computers in the game (the ones you have to hack), have pictures of Nokia hardware (complete with the Nokia hardware) on the screen. Why? Why would a fictional in-game mercenary organization choose to have nokia advertisements as their screensavers?

I’d like to point out that this is fine when the advertisement is for a company directly involved or at least relating to the production of the game. For example, ‘The Matrix: Path of Neo’, was designed and tested on Nvidia graphics hardware. Neo is supposed to be working for a software development company at the beginning of the movie, so the few “Nvidia : The way it’s meant to be played” posters scattered around the first level are forgivable.

In other words, when a company like AMD says to Ubisoft: “Hey, we’ll give you a few PC’s with the latest AMD 64bit processors to help you develop this game…in return, just slap a few AMD posters on in-game walls.” That’s fine. When a company like Airwaves chewing gum realizes that Sam Fisher is a popular gaming icon a gives Ubisoft a large wad of cash to show Sam Fisher eating their gum in game…for absolutely no in-game reason…it’s annoying as hell.

However, I’ve saved the worst for last.

I was playing a mission where I was infiltrating a shady ‘security’ company’s corporate offices. Now, as you sneak around, you often overhear snippets of conversation that give you clues as to what’s going on and where to go next. Usually, it goes something like:

“Have the security cameras on the third floor been fixed yet?”

“Yeah, they’ve been upgraded with infra-red lamps so they can see in the dark.”

Great, now I know that taking out the lights on the third floor isn’t going to blind the cameras, meaning I still have to avoid them.

However, I was hiding in the shadows and I overheard the following:

“Hey, where’s Steve?”

“Oh, he’s locked in his office, you know what he’s like for those computer games.”

“He’ll never be as good as me! Hey, have you played the new ‘Prince of Persia’ game yet?”

“No, but I’ve heard it’s good.”

“Good? It’s absolutely awesome. Game of the year, I guarantee it!”

Prince of Persia…another Ubisoft game.

Now, you may wonder why this bothers me so much.

Two reasons: One, obvious ‘real-world’ advertising takes you out of the moment and can really ruin a good experience.

Two, and this is the big one…I’ve just paid $40 for a video game. Why should I have to put up with advertisements every few seconds? Feel free to put a ‘New from Ubisoft’ selection of videos and links on the game’s DVD…just keep it out of the game.

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