Comparing Two Games That Sell Themselves

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.

- Nick Dinicola

Weekend Reader is Kotaku's look at the critical thinking in, and of video games. It appears Saturdays at noon. Please take the time to read the full article cited before getting involved in the debate here.


    I just wish that Rome was a primal part of Assassin's Creed II - I knew towards the end, there wasn't much left of the game, but i still thought Rome would be explore-able.

    I really hope that a DLC (other than the two missing memory blocks) is released that is Rome itself. That would be awesome!!

    Get to it Ubi!

      Ditto! Bit of a spoiler saying that you end up going to Rome but - when I arrived I was like "awesome, this would be really interesting to explore" then it hit me that I was only going to see a tiny portion of it.

    I didn't mind the Dragon Age one. At least it was an implementation of DLC that integrated with the game world instead of a new zone or new NPC appearing out of nowhere after you do something out of game, and it's an advertisement for more content relating specifically to that game, not a freaking pizza billboard or inviolable Coke machine...

    Dinicola asks "is this a bad way to advertise DLC?". I would say there's no good way to get screwed over.
    He's really presenting us with a false choice. He says you can have your DLC awkwardly bolted on or you can have your DLC integrated into the narrative. There's no option to have the total game experience without paying extra. These days DLC is developed and announced concurrently with the main game - so why isn't it part of the main game? I guess we all know the answer to that.

      This is a cynical response. DLC is typically considered as a separate project with its own budget and resources allocated to it.

      For example, take the DLC for Assassin's Creed II. Patrice Desilets has said that the two missions that comprise the DLC were originally intended to be part of the full game. But due to resource and time constraints, they had to be cut from the final retail release. Ubisoft was then able to allocate further development resources to finish these missions and release them as DLC.

      It's important to remember that this happens all the time in game development. Content gets cut from every single game prior to release. In the days before DLC, this cut content would never see the light of day. Or, if we were lucky, it would have been released in an expansion pack.

    I partly agree with that, but I don't think it's true across the board. When we see DLC announced while games are still in development, it has the appearance that DLC was never intended for inclusion in the retail game. eg. Rebellion in an interview about AVP said "But DLC, any big games have DLC integrated, making sure people hang onto the game rather than trading it back in." Such comments suggest a strategy to milk major titles rather than restoring content that was cut.

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