I've reported both sides of the video game advertising issue. I've interviewed the ad people who want to put more billboards in games and the players who have mixed reactions to it. I've talked to true believers and skeptics, but I've encountered little in-game advertising myself. For a while, I could only guess my own reaction to tripping across a Coca-Cola promo in the middle of "World of Warcraft" or "EverQuest." My guess was that I wouldn't like it.
And then I heard game designer Dave Perry's wild theory, which boils down to this: Would I let Coke buy me a virtual sword? It's an offer I'm not sure I could refuse.
Perry is a longtime game designer and longtime provider of wild ideas. He's backing a game contest in which players vie for the top design job à la "American Idol." He supports the idea of games in which players get double the experience points when they allow advertisements into their game. Just last month, he told me at Game Developers Conference that a free video game revolution might be coming (see "Multiplayer: Dave Perry On 'Idol' Gaming, Dawn Of Free-Game Era"). He's a dreamer.
In the March issue of the British gaming magazine Edge, Perry suggested a new style of video game advertising. His concept, he promised, would make everyone happy. He calls his idea "just-in-time advertising" and asked his interviewer to picture it in play in a massively multiplayer fantasy-based game that has a particularly desirable selection of swords: "I'm sitting in the item store looking at the sword, going, 'That sword rocks, but it's 10 bucks — I'm not going to spend 10 bucks on it.' Then you play the game for another month and come back and go, 'God, I wish I had that sword, and there's no way to get it.' But what if the game then popped up a little box that said, 'Coca-Cola's just offered to buy the sword for you. Will you accept?' "
As soon as I read that, I thought I knew my answer. Of course I wouldn't accept a virtual sword from Coke. I let friends buy me things, members of my family buy me things. Just about everyone else wants something in exchange. Isn't that how the world works? Coca-Cola is no charity. They wouldn't offer me a sword if they didn't expect me to do something in return. And I can guess what that something is: buy Coke products. Plus, this ploy would be as transparent and hollow as an empty soda bottle. The offer itself is the ad. Even hearing them out means I'm letting an ad invade my gaming world, whether I accept the offer or not. Where's the choice in that?
Predicting this kind of response, Perry said there wouldn't be a Coke logo on the sword. There wouldn't be a way for your friends in the MMO to know you got the sword not through hard work but from a massive soft-drink conglomerate. This would be a gentle sell. He was so high on the idea, he told Edge, that he didn't even take a formal poll to test it. He's done polls on other in-game-ad ideas, but this one sounded so good to him he didn't think he needed to. That got me even more skeptical.
Then I thought about it and put myself in his scenario. I'd want the sword. I'd have been wanting that sword for a month. And I'd have considered a worse alternative than letting a soda company buy me a sword, and that is paying my own money for the fake thing or grinding through bad guys for 10 monotonous hours of gameplay to earn the fake gold to get it. To get around this, all I'd have to do was let Coke make the offer? And then — get this — I could actually not buy Coke products. That would be the — note the next word — game of it. Coke would be playing me. But I'd play Coke. I hope someone else would buy a can of Coke or two so Coke kept on offering free swords. Otherwise, I'd be set. Coke would be my hookup.
I doubt I could completely avoid paying Coke back. The next time I looked at a cooler in a convenience store, I'd probably view the Pepsi cans as a bunch of no-help do-nothings and the Coke cans as the product of my MMO Samaritans. I think I could pay that price.
As he told me last month, Perry's drive these days is to enable gamers to play games for free. He wants American MMOs, like the ones he's working on at Acclaim, to follow the successful model in Asia that lets players start a game for nothing and only pay up for any key item they'd like to add to their character's arsenal and inventory. This extra Coke twist could alleviate even those item costs.
I'm not saying I wouldn't accept Coke's offer for the sword, but I'm at a bit of a loss: In a free-to-play situation, why should I say no?
— Stephen Totilo