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02/04/2007 - 02/10/2007

In-Game Ads: An Alternate View

February 09, 2007

Today's Blog is sponsored by Trojans: The first name in protection. When I bring up the subject of in-game advertising to most gamers, I get an immediate negative reaction. And I don't blame 'em. It calls to mind the image of your daring sorcerer charging through the twisting streets of an ancient city, bathed in shadow, about to unload a fireball spell on a troupe of orcs when suddenly a life-size wall mural of the Burger King grabs your attention.

Of course, if you really start to talk it out, there are lots of cases where in-game advertising is something we can deal with. Most people don't have a problem with billboards of actual products in, say, a racing game.

Which brings us to Jay Cohen, Vice-President of U.S. publishing for Ubisoft. Speaking on Thursday at this week's DICE summit, he claimed that in-game advertising could make game publishers Rich! Famous! Even better at what they do! And he wasn't joking. Cohen goes so far as to see in-game advertising as a cure for some industry ailments. Seriously? It's worth hearing him out, at the very least to see how big-name publishers are looking at the topic.

Seriously Big Bucks

First up, Cohen took a look at the film industry. There, product placements and advertising deals generate $1.5 billion in revenue a year -- it's a pretty big slice of the pie. The James Bond property alone pulled in $70 million through advertising deals -- that's money the studio gets before the movie is even in theaters. Basically James Bond paid for itself before selling a single ticket. Cohen says it's about time games started moving into that action. "Out time has come," he says. "We're in vogue. Advertisers want in."

According to his numbers, last year in-game ads generated $56 million, and that's forecasted to double each year for the foreseeable future. His advice? "Take the money!" he cried out.

Rainbow Six: Vegas had some unusual product placement.

Not Just In-Game Billboards

Despite repeating "Take the money!" a couple of times, Cohen urged publishers in the audience to be smart about ad placements. He suggested that companies designate an owner to manage all the deals, and to think about them from the very beginning of the design process. Ad integration should be pitched during the pre-production.

He had a couple of examples to draw from. In the recent C.S.I. videogame, one of the clues was a wallet with a credit card that could be fingerprinted. Visa sponsored the game, and working their card into the gameplay was pretty simple -- it fit right into the experience and didn't distract gamers. It even added to the realism.

More recently, Axe Deodorant sponsored a hidden easter egg in Rainbow Six: Vegas. If players found a bottle of Axe sitting around the corner right off of Freemont Street and shot it, a little black-and-white video would start playing in the corner of their screen showing the Rainbow Six blooper reel. This got Ubisoft tons of press, Axe got some killer placement (everyone told their friends, "Go shoot the Axe bottle"), and gamers generally didn't complain. Cohen didn't say how much money the ad brought in ... but his tone implied that a truckload was involved.

The Axe example tied in with Cohen's next point: that in-game ads help make a game famous. The Axe cheat code got lots of free press. More importantly, ad sponsors want to back up their investment, so they'll help push your game -- a car company recently gave Ubisoft a couple of trucks to give away to gamers as part of a product placement deal, which helped get tons of press.

So Why Should You Care About These Guys Making Money?

Good question. Cohen suggests that in the long run this extra revenue can help the industry. Here's his reasoning: games are expensive to make, and with each generation the problem gets worse. That stifles creativity, because when games are so expensive, publishers like him don't want to take risks on unproven stuff. The result is store shelves full of sequels and gameplay re-hashes. But, the extra juice games can get from advertising will mitigate the costs. And assuming publishers channel that extra revenue into riskier titles or better game development (and don't just bonus it out to their executives), that means better games -- and more of a variety of games -- for everyone.

Personally I only half buy into that argument. More money into the games business is a good thing, sure. But when publishers start to depend on it they're going to steer toward greenlighting games that have more advertising potential, and away from really wild, fantastical, or counter-culture games. Right now people complain that Hollywood is too commercial; putting games into the same bucket is going to create the same problems. We can only hope that major game publishers are smart enough to spread their money around between projects that aren't so deal-friendly as well.

A Debate: Can In-Game Ads Actually Make Games Better?

Cohen's next point sounds far-fetched but it actually makes a lot of sense. Building dynamic advertising tracking software into games involves integrating a lot of technology that has side benefits. Developers will be able to track what people are seeing in the game, how fast they're completing it, what items they're using, etc. These statistics aren't just funneled back to advertisers to see how many views an ad got -- they can also be used by developers to improve the game.

Is everyone getting stuck on a boss fight? Maybe it's too hard, or maybe it just sucks. Is nobody playing a particular multiplayer level? Maybe it can be fixed and re-released as a download to see if the numbers pick up. Developers can use this data to improve your gaming experience.

Of course, this opened up a whole can of worms, at least between myself and Sluggo (GameSpy's PC editor.) Sluggo argued that people are going to freak if they hear that their gameplay stats are being piped back to some server somewhere, that companies can look at how people are playing the game. He doesn't think that hardcore gamers are going to stand for it.

But I don't think it's that big of a deal. It's happening all the time. For example, when I pick up a purple UberSword in Blizzard's World of Warcraft, I fully expect that somewhere Blizzard is tracking that. They know exactly how many people found the UberSword, what level they were, if they keep it or auction it, etc. That way they know if it's too powerful or too easy to get or worthless to players, and they can constantly tweak the game to balance it better. In fact, I'd go so far to say I don't just expect it -- I demand it! Blizzard would be stupid if they weren't looking at player use in order to tweak their game.

So the idea of developers of other games -- even single-player games that I'm playing with my Xbox Live connection on -- would look at and use this data doesn't bother me. In fact, I welcome it. You know, so long as they don't turn on the webcam to see what I'm wearing while I play. (For the record: Super Mario Boxer Shorts that say, 'I Scored with the Princess.' For reals.)

Your Turn: What do YOU think?

So now you got some insight into in-game advertising, at least how big publishers are looking at it. Do you feel any differently about it? Do you think developers should be able to look at your gameplay data? Do you think the industry is growing up or spiraling into a garish nightmare of NASCAR-like logo stickers, product placement, and commercial mediocrity? What do YOU think? Mail me your thoughts and I'll post some of the best here next week.


Today's Geek Stuff:
Mod News:
Hardware Links Courtesy of Voodoo Extreme:

Posted by at 9:16 AM PST
Edited on: February 09, 2007 9:19 AM PST

Update on Sony's New MMO

February 08, 2007

A quick update to my entry from earlier today: having talked to a few people informally in the hallways here, it sounds as though the product shown may have been Sony's unannounced collaboration with DC Comics for a DC Comics MMO. That makes complete sense to me -- I even said it looked more like a Superhero game than a spy thriller. That would also explain Landau's reluctance to name the product. I'm sure we'll her more about this soon!

Posted by at 1:51 PM PST

Sony Talks Convergence, Announces New MMO

February 08, 2007

My Pegleg needs batteries. The DICE convention kicked off yesterday (See yesterday's blog) and the first speaker was Yair Landau. He's not exactly a household name, but he's the dude you can thank for bringing the Spider-Man franchise to Sony and revitalizing it with some badass movies. He's the Vice Chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment and the President of Sony Pictures Digital. Sony Online Entertainment, the publishers of EverQuest and Vanguard, also falls within his domain.

Landau kicked off his keynote speech with a clip from the upcoming movie Ghost Rider. Good stuff: Ghost rider snaring a helicopter with a whip then driving down the side of a building leaving a trail of flame. His point? "We exist in a world where literally if you can conceive of it, we can make it real," he said.

My head's on fire
The gist of Landau's message was about convergence of mediums in the age of digital effects. Previously, "Convergence" was a buzzword that meant Hollywood making games that played like movies, and (in theory) vice versa. Landau isn't alone in disagreeing with that. He says that there's convergence is in the creative talent behind projects: artists and animators are crossing the line between Hollywood and games all the time now, and frequently sharing tools. And he asserts there's a convergence of ideas: movies and videogames can be released that simultaneously play with the same concepts, such as "What would it be like to be Spider-Man?" But that ultimately games and movies have to be developed in ways that take advantage of each medium.

Landau had plenty of examples of this in action, the most relevant being Saving Private Ryan. Spielberg took an old genre, the war movie, and reinvigorated it with modern film techniques and digital effects. He made it relevant for people. Then the games industry ran with the idea: games like Call of Duty, Medal of Honor, and more recently Company of Heroes all took similar ideas and in their own way made the subject relevant again.

Putting it to Practice with a New MMO:

Landau had another example of a topic made relevant with modern techniques: Spy Movies. He showed a clip of the most recent James Bond flick, Casino Royale. Then he declared that at Sony he wants to "take espionage entertainment to a new level," leveraging the online community expertise and MMO experience that Sony Online has been gathering for years.

The result is a project code-named Vista, "because we pushed it back a year," Landau quipped. It's a massively multiplayer Spy game, featuring an espionage-driven world and both co-operative and player-vs-player gameplay. He says he wanted to build a game where it's okay to wear a tux, and promised "lots of storylines and experiences that are player-driven."

Then he satisfied our curiosity by playing a clip of the game concept. It's still very early in development; the movie was obviously pre-rendered although it looked to me like they tried to use in-game art assets. The characters were thin and muscular, the men hard-jawed and the women lithe. Yes, there were tuxes; there were also catsuits and machine guns. And hot cars with missile launchers, peeling off down cluttered European city streets.

Although Landau implied James Bond was the inspiration, the combat from the demo reel looked more like a page from the notebook of City of Heroes: a pair of spies took down a small army of crazily-costumed street thugs in a lightning-fast hail of machine gun fire and kung-fu kicks. Then an oversized villain who looked straight out of a comic book (or a KISS concert) bashed through a fence to take on the heroes.

A massively multiplayer spy game sounds like a home-run to me; it's a world that everyone can relate to and it lends itself to lots of gadgets and locations all over the planet. That said, judging by the demo reel, Sony will have to find ways to differentiate the game from City of Heroes or Matrix Online. I expect it'll be a while before we see more of "Vista," but I dig the idea.


Today's Geek Stuff:
Mod News:
Hardware Links Courtesy of Voodoo Extreme:

Posted by at 10:27 AM PST
Edited on: February 08, 2007 1:50 PM PST

DICE Begins and the Industry Takes a Stand

February 07, 2007

My Pegleg needs batteries. I'm writing to you from sunny Las Vegas, Nevada, site of the 2007 D.I.C.E. Summit (DICE stands for Design, Innovate, Communicate, and Entertain). It's an exciting place to be, one of the annual highlights of game-related trade shows, with the only drawback being that I'm here instead of Playing the Supreme Commander Demo.

Every year DICE tackles big industry issues, from breaking games out of the mould to finding funding in an increasingly harsh business. And every year it seems there are new battles to fight.

For instance, inside my press kit I found a flier from VideoGameVoters.org. This project, sponsored by the Entertainment Software Association, is an effort to mobilize registered voters in order to fight increasing pressure from the government to regulate gaming. More and more in recent months, politicians are trying to score easy wins with uninformed voters by being "tough on violent games," often without evaluating the products in question or what their legislation would do to the industry as a whole. GamePolitics.com is a great resource for tracking all of that if you want to follow that scene.

There's some precedent here. Government pressure on the Comics industry in the 1950s (look up The Comics Code on Wikipedia) relegated that medium to brightly-colored kid fluff. While elsewhere comics thrived and became a major artistic and cultural force (I'm thinking of Japan in particular), American comics became a ghetto medium. Could it happen to games? "If video game sales to minors are regulated based upon their content, as some politicians propose, the end result could be diluted and duller storylines as many game publishers will not be able to take the same risks that lead to great, innovative movies, books, and music. This is not right!" says game designer Will Wright in an open letter on the Video Game Voters website.

Of course, there are other issues facing the industry, including the skyrocketing costs of making good games. But there are also bright spots: like more ways to download and buy content, or more mainstreaming thanks to fun products like Nintendo's Wii. And if you're trying to break into the industry, you're in luck -- it's growing faster than new talent can be found. Top-notch 3D artists and animators are being snapped up. Finding good people is actually the topic of one of the presentations at DICE that I'm looking forward to, from design genius (I don't throw that word around lightly) Will Wright.

That's what makes shows like DICE a lot of fun to cover. You never know what big issue or new technology will be the buzz around the hallways, or what people will be talking about when they gather next to the Red Bull vending stand. I'll fill you in on everything I learn right here, so stick around.


Today's Geek Stuff:
Mod News:
Hardware Links Courtesy of Voodoo Extreme:

Posted by at 12:20 PM PST
Edited on: February 08, 2007 8:44 AM PST

Pirates of the Burning Sea Interview

February 05, 2007

My Pegleg needs batteries. Here's some Internet piracy we can all get behind: Pirates of the Burning Sea (See GameSpy's Info and IGN's Info) is a pirate-themed massively multiplayer game from Flying Labs that'll be rolling out this Summer. Last month when I wrote about why so many MMOs stick to the fantasy genre, I briefly mentioned some of the challenges these guys will face by breaking the mold and making a pirate game. Producer John Tynes wrote me directly, and before long we were chatting about three of my favorite things: Pirates, colonial economies, and Johnny Depp.

Fargo: In my January 22nd editorial, I talked about why MMO designers keep gravitating back to the Fantasy genre. I called out how designers needed a variety in environments in order to keep people playing games for the long haul. Then I said: "I'm curious to see how Pirates of the Burning Sea solves these challenges: if you're fighting pirates, exploring jungle islands, and sailing ships in level 1, what are you doing at level 20? 40?" Since I've got you on the hook, how would you answer that question? What can we expect from Pirates of the Burning Sea?

Yarrrrr!John Tynes, Producer: Like most MMOs, we have a whole lot of content for you to play through. When you start the game and make your first character, you've got 1,000 missions to play through. This includes something we're calling the roleplaying storyline, an epic tale that continues from level 1 to level 50. You are the star of that story and you make meaningful choices as you go that change the course of events. That's one example of something that's going to keep you playing and finding new surprises throughout your career, but here are a few more treats:

1) Legendary Missions in which you play through a flashback to a historic sea battle to find out how well *you* would have done had you been there.

2) Supernatural Missions that slowly reveal the spooky secrets of the Burning Sea.

3) Lots of environments to explore: towns, Mayan ruins, ancient tombs, dense jungles, elaborate fortresses, grungy pirate dance halls, swanky mansions, and much more.

4) Ships, equipment, skills, and missions unlock as you level up. At level 40 you're still experiencing major changes in your gameplay and discovering new ways to play.

The biggest thing, though, is our strategic gameplay. Our RvR [Realm vs. Realm] system provides for player-created PvP zones used to conquer enemy ports, but you can also make major contributions to the RvR situation just by playing PvE missions and doing economic activity. Everything you do in the game feeds into the realm vs. realm system and has real consequences for all players in the game. We really believe the RvR system is something every player will interact with and that will involve them in strategic gameplay more and more as they level up.

EVE Online and WoW have both shown, in very different ways, that the most compelling content is other players. We're doing a lot with environments and mission content but we really do believe that long-term play requires a game that puts player interaction first. What we're bringing to this is the strategic element and a new way of integrating PvP into the main gameworld without it just being no-holds-barred ganking.

Fargo: How do you compel people to pick up and try a massively multiplayer game? What do you think it's got to have to spark that initial interest?

Tynes: You either need a brand/IP that players respond to or you need a concept that is attractive. WoW is an example of the former and City of Heroes, the latter. Both are great games and have succeeded on their respective terms.

One great thing WoW has done for the field is really promoting the idea that paying $15/month for an online multiplayer game is a reasonable idea. It's no longer a strange obsession of a small subculture -- it's the biggest game in the country. So we don't have to cross that hurdle anymore, which wasn't true four years ago when we started working on Pirates of the Burning Sea. In our case, our concept is clearly something different and we really believe it will get people to take a look.

But I'd hate to be launching a fantasy MMO this year.

Fargo: Once you've got people playing the game, how do you keep them there? What keeps the game novel for people one month later? Three months later? One year later?

Tynes: It's a tired statement but you have to focus on the fun. I really believe you can either go for the big laundry list of scattershot features and hope you win points for variety or you can focus and do a few things really well. (Or you can spend sixty million dollars and do both, I guess!) We've worked hard to make ship combat both tactically interesting and easy to learn. The result is a fun, challenging game system that we're really excited about. Our swashbuckling system is also a blast. We found some veteran animators at LucasArts and Sony and asked them to make the pirate swordfight of their dreams, and they really delivered. With their visuals and our fast gameplay the result is delicious cinematic delight.

We feel confident that we're going to release something great on the fun front. Looking longer term, it's the RvR system that should really keep you playing. We've tried to make it similar to sports -- there are the equivalents of seasons and Superbowls, with prizes for the winning side and compensation for the underdogs. We think the ongoing battle between England, France, and Spain will drive a lot of gameplay and keep things lively.

Dead Mean Tell No ... You Know.
Fargo: How do you balance out the need for the game to be accessible to casual players (read: Johnny Depp fans), yet complex enough to keep the hardcore players sailing away for weeks on end?

Tynes: We definitely aren't a casual MMO in the sense of Toontown or Pirates of the Caribbean Online, both of which are aimed at young or casual gamers. But it's not like there aren't Johnny Depp fans playing Counterstrike or Halo or World of Warcraft, for that matter -- everyone loves pirates! We think any gamer who wants to play a pirate MMO will have no problem with our game and if they stick with us, they'll find the gameplay deepens in significant ways as they level up.

Fargo: Judging from previews on both GameSpy and IGN, Pirates of the Burning Sea aims to have a robust economy with lots of niches for players to exploit. Can you talk about that, and what it offers above your typical online fare?

Tynes: We've got a fully player-driven economy. NPCs do not buy or sell anything. It's also what we call a 'production economy' rather than a 'crafting economy.' You aren't making a single cannonball. You're producing stuff by the ton, operating farms, mines, forges, shipyards, and other structures, and then stuffing your cargo ships full of goods and shipping them to the major auction houses for sale to other players.

The scale of the economy, in fact, is too big for one player to do everything. You can't start with a forest and end up with a ship. Players will find their specialties and niches within these enormous production chains, focusing on textiles or mining or building ship hulls or whatever. Because you have to move goods physically through the world, there can be players who literally just buy low and sell high, taking on the risk of cargo hauls through the pirate-infested Caribbean.

It's a very ambitious approach to economic gameplay, but it's true to the setting. This is the New World and everyone is here to get rich by buying and selling.

Of course, players who choose the Freetrader career will have advantages over others. They'll get access to skills that will help them navigate and move cargo around, as well as operate on a strategic scale.

Ports produce resources used by the economy. This means the RvR system of conquering ports is hugely important to the economy. When a port with a valuable resource is conquered by the enemy, merchant guilds will put pressure on navy guilds to take it back! And they'll pitch in themselves, smuggling goods to the conquered port to help generate unrest points there that will begin to shift the port's allegiance back to their side.

It's also a flat economy in terms of competition. Nothing in the economy requires that you be any higher than level 1. If you can raise the money and take the time, you can start producing meaningful stuff right away. There's no leveling up through making crappy daggers just to grind XP, and it means everyone can participate in the economy to whatever degree they're comfortable with. Even navy players who are focused on combat can still bring in a little extra cash by operating a rum distillery.

Hard to believe these are actual screenshots.
Fargo: Is Flying Lab still self-funded? What advice would you have for small companies trying to create a project as complicated as a massively multiplayer online game?

Tynes: Yep. We have financed this game 100% by ourselves. While we are talking with a variety of companies about retail box distribution, we don't need their money to ship the game we've been working towards for the last four years. That doesn't mean we'll be perfect or anything, but it does mean that we are wholly responsible for delivering on the vision that has driven us this far.

As regards advice, that's a tough one. If we were starting out now we would definitely be evaluating more MMO middleware to see how it is. It's a funny thing -- our graphics engine, Alchemy, is a solid engine for visuals but behind the scenes it has some architectural features that have turned out to be critically important in building a stable client-server architecture, something you'd never expect to get out of an engine built for console action games. But they had some great engineers developing the engine and it's paid off for us hugely. You can get a big benefit from good middleware and anyone starting out who wants to do everything themselves is probably going to waste a lot of valuable time.

MMOs are expensive to build and expensive to operate. Five guys can ship an Xbox Live Arcade title, but you need a lot more people to make a competitive MMO these days. I would advise starting with a smaller online game to build some expertise before jumping into a full-blown MMO.

Passion and vision are crucial. Yet they aren't enough. You need professional practices, skilled staff, and good leaders to inspire everyone. And, frankly, you need a lot of money.

Fargo: And finally... Will Pirates of the Burning Sea have monkeys?

Tynes: I think the ninjas killed them all.


Today's Geek Stuff:
Mod News:
Hardware Links Courtesy of Voodoo Extreme:

Posted by at 9:55 AM PST
Edited on: February 05, 2007 11:57 AM PST

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