Paid downloadable content and in-game advertising are two touchy issues in gaming discussions, and two recent releases have in a way brought both together, one more artfully than the other.
Writing for Pop Matters, Nick Dinicola examines Assassin's Creed II and Dragon Age: Origins, both of which make a rather direct pitch to the player - within the story of the game - to buy downloadable content. There's a spoiler alert here, as the means by which Assassin's Creed II does it gives up a couple key details to a player's progression.
When gamers complain about in-game advertising, it's usually because it's so conspicuous, if not out-of-place with the narrative of the game. Increasingly, players desire immersive experiences and more often than not, ads break the fourth wall. But the Pandora's box of advertising - and DLC - was opened long ago, so it's with us, like it or not.
Downloadable Content as Product Placement [PopMatters, Jan. 8]
In Dragon Age players have a party camp that they can return to throughout the game. In this camp is a stranger who needs your help to restore his family's honour. If you talk to him he'll tell you his full story, and when he's finished one of the dialogue options, one of the options that the player can select to respond to him is (and I'm paraphrasing): "Buy DLC."
This is a far more direct advertisement then what's in Assassin's Creed 2, but the actual method of advertising is the same. This stranger is in your game whether your buy the DLC or not, he'll tell you his story whether you buy the DLC or not, and even if you don't buy the DLC, his quest still logs itself in your codex as an active quest. Whenever you return to the party camp, he'll be there with an arrow hovering over his head, indicating a quest objective. Whenever you look at your quest logs, you'll see it, a mission that's impossible to finish unless you buy the additional content. The game works to constantly remind us of what we don't have while giving us motivation to buy the DLC. Dragon Age just goes a step further than Assassin's Creed 2 by allowing players to actually make the purchase in game. It's not just advertising itself, it's also selling itself.
But is this a bad way to advertise DLC? The problem with the advertising in Mercenaries 2 is that it didn't fit within the game world: a pristine billboard in war-torn Venezuela, written in perfect English, advertising an American show makes no sense. But in Assassin's Creed 2, the missing memories are explained in such a way as to make them a natural part of the game's universe. Such explanation and integration of advertising is only really possible with DLC. The creative director of Assassin's Creed 2 has said that the DLC is content that was planned for the game from the beginning but that had to be cut due to time constraints with the deadline. By saving a spot for the DLC in the actual game, the developer ensures that the old content flows seamlessly into the new and that the DLC itself doesn't feel tacked on. It's quite ingenious really. Unfortunately the same can't be said for Dragon Age. Making an NPC a salesman is an inspired way of making the advertisement seem natural within the game world, but that illusion is broken when we're asked to pay real money. Making a real purchase can never feel natural in a game specifically because it's a real purchase; to make it feel natural, would require tricking the player into thinking that it wasn't real. But the fact that such a purchase is even possible is impressive from a technical standpoint, and the attempt made by both games to fit advertisements into their narratives points towards an interesting future for in-game advertising and downloadable content. Whether or not that's a preferable future is a different matter.
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