And the brand played on...

Virtual billboards, product placement and suspect tracking technologies. Are PC games selling their souls?

Hot potato, anyone? News that BF2142 is infected with ad-tracking technology has sparked some of the choicest quotes on the PC ZONE forum since the Steam/Valve shit-storm: "This has to be stamped out"; "I won't be buying"; "Shady borderline spyware"; and "Bring on Quake Wars!" But of course, who's to say that come release, Quake Wars too won't be up to its neck in virtual advertising?

Fact is, courting advertisers has become an accepted part of the PC game production process, and if that means you have to bath in Red Bull for added energy, or wear Agent Provocateur undies while straddling a quad bike, so be it. "Publishers and advertisers have become over-zealous," reckons Damian Thompson of global research group Mediaedge:cia, and author of 'Playing With Brands', a report on in-game advertising.

"Brands are desperate to exploit this medium. They're falling over themselves to get involved."

Stroll past a billboard in Funcom's Anarchy Online, and you'll trigger an audio promotion for a movie, while SOE games such as The Matrix Online and PlanetSide shove images of carbonated drinks down your gullet. Meanwhile, Splinter Cell: Double Agent is smeared with Nivea For Men, making Sam Fisher the first metrosexual stealth assassin.

You can find Nivea skin creams in Double Agent's hotel rooms and ship cabins. There are billboards in NYC, New Orleans and Shanghai, and a boutique window in the game's cruise ship, revealing manly skin products and a Nivea poster. Skulk about in shadows garrotting hapless guards. Why? Because you're worth it, you smooth-skinned nutjob.

"We wanted to pursue innovative ways to capture more attention from the notoriously hard to reach 18-34-year-old male consumer," explains Joe Venezia, Nivea For Men marketing manager. "When we started researching videogame titles, Splinter Cell: Double Agent presented a successful top-tier title that offered a strong match with the Nivea For Men target demographic and a realistic environment that Nivea products and billboards could organically be placed into."

Marketing gurus might claim that in-game advertising is nothing new. Back in Neanderthal days, Kool-Aid Man gargled violently colourful liquid on the Atari 2600; space monkey E.T. gorged his way through Reeses Pieces; and Crazy Taxi dropped us off at KFC. But MMOGs illustrate how virtual advertising now means big bucks - Second Life features an island for US bank Wells Fargo, and even a Nissan car vending machine.

While the developer is building a game, an in-game ad broker (usually one of the big three companies: Massive Inc, IGA or Double Fusion) will liaise and work out the best locations for billboards and product placements. Middleware companies like Demonware provide tech that can harvest data, tracking 'playing habits and characteristics' - favourite teams, stages of the game, weapons and so on.

"Publishers want to know the most popular aspects of their games, and that information is later used to place ads," says Dylan Collins, Demonware CEO. Dynamically-updated billboards are all the rage in 2006: these are the source of contention in BF2142, but prove extremely effective for advertisers and publishers. When an ad is cemented into a game disc, it can't be changed or localised, and there's no way of telling how many times people looked at it. Online, billboards can be updated at a whim.

IGA's Ed Bartlett explains: "This form of advertising allows us to create time-sensitive campaigns, geo-targeting and a real sense of investment in terms of how many people have seen it. If the advertiser says, 'we want to reach an 18-24 male audience in Belgium', we can look at our network and say, 'these are the games that have that exact demographic'. That way, we don't end up showing French advertising to Americans."

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