Escaping the Walled Garden
What feels like 1 million years ago I was given a design problem by a game studio that I was working with as part of a bigger publishing network. This was 2004 and product placement in games was not commonplace at all, though it had been successfully explored by a number of smaller game studios globally who were looking to develop interests and partnerships beyond the traditional.
The problem was really simple, and in today’s appetite for innovation could have been developed quickly and without fuss; the business model was in place at the time of the pitch and tested to death successfully within my focus group. The problem was, how do we place a world famous firearms brand into an ESRB Mature game? On the design side, it was not difficult for me to place a well-known firearms brand into a shooter game, however, what was more difficult was speaking to the firearms brand to introduce the concept of product placement within video games. Naturally, I had to start with explaining the importance of video games to a hierarchy of management and board with an average age of 68. Oh, and also I’m a woman so therefore a lot of the questions I received was mainly about what business it is of a woman to try and place our male-focused brand in a video game. But that’s an entirely different article! Nevertheless we were unsuccessful, not because of the game but because of the level of understanding of the power of games in everything we do, in all our lives. However, this time the problem isn’t on the brand owner or creator. It’s on the developer. What a strange turn of events?
16 years since I had those excruciatingly cringeworthy conversations about product placement in video games; we find ourselves having moved perhaps one step closer to where we want to be. I’m a passionate game developer but I’m also hyper-excited about this post-COVID climate of life moving from the physical to the online, “the requirement for customer experience synchronicity is vital to success” and yet we’ve got a long way to go. In a recent interview with Amanda Cosco at Electric Runway, I talked about the fashionself (her words, not mine, I’m just stealing them!) and I believe that there is also a gameself as established in a variety of MMOs and virtual worlds like Second Life. In these places we can live, we can feed ourselves, dress ourselves (and one another) and experience friendships, and even lifestyles that we can’t have in the physical. This idea that somehow these two things of the physical and the virtual are separated by psychology are outdated and unwelcome in this new design for life.
So what is product placement in 2020? How does it fit into our design or desire for the physical/virtual me? Badly. Where it does exist there are plenty of companies that are hugely successful at driving the message and focus on how it looks, either as 2D or now as 3D constructs within virtual/experiences. When you understand the importance of product placement in games, you know that you have to make way and make waves in this area to truly beat it. It is in and of itself a game too, so if Coke can crush their competitors in Pepsi Invaders in 1983, we can do it in 2020 with whatever we choose.
It’s actually the experience part of the dilemma that I find myself researching in speaking at present. We can’t use the dry dough of “traditional mediums such as social media and television” anymore because they “may no longer be the preferred channels for these […] groups”, therefore we need a clear approach for how this will work. It’s all about economy, right?
In building a virtual economy across the board and as an omnichannel experience rather than a game- or retail-focused platform, we are faced with all of the nightmarish scenarios that I talked about in an article I wrote about Products as a Service. I think this is a still a winnable war, and it revolves maybe more around relationship engineering than design which could lure every studio, developer and publisher out of their traditional walled gardens, and move towards a method which is all-encompassing and dare I say it.. friendlier. To do that we’ve got to look at our good old friends in blockchain technology. These guys are warriors of the modern age; battling for many years for mass adoption in currencies, authentication, you name it. Unfortunately it’s the sins of this particular industry which we associate as being bad deals or dodgy experiences, when it has more to do with the decision makers than the end users. In cryptocurrencies especially, there’s been a disparity between what the currency provides currency-by-currency and the jurisdiction of acceptance. Decisions about video games at this level are board decisions, and despite the pleas of the consumers, the fans, the stans and the community, this lack of democratization follows every studio and publisher around like a bad smell. This world of walled gardens in video games credits, currencies and coins is awful: PlayStation, Microsoft, and now Apple, Google and Epic are looking at ways that they can monetize experiences through video games without giving any credence to their consumer. Sad. Is it still 2004? Someone wake me up when it’s 2020.
A potential solution could be to break down these walls, but that seems so idealistic. The problem is not about “can’t we all just get along?” it’s more to do with the things we don’t talk about. We’re a secretive bunch. If we have a technology software or something that we don’t want to share with the developers, we won’t. Ever. Because games are built on a first-past-the-post methodology and that’s so important in video game development and IP. You have to be first and the best. Others will follow but this is a competitive space. How on earth could we all get along? So what’s the point in trying to democratise virtual goods and product placements when you don’t care about your end user? Your consumers are not your board and they don’t care about your political agenda with EA or wranklings with your developer community at large. It’s because of this that I find myself moving further away from video game development and looking towards assets, economies and elements as a full-stack commodity. One object, one line of code, a universal use case.
I’m working with luxury brands at the moment and one of those so big questions always starts with “yes we’d love to have our items featured in video games, but each time we want to have a conversation we have to go through a laborious process of speaking to each studio individually, or each publisher separately, why?” Why indeed. Where there is no centralized (or should that be decentralized) process for being able to serve all virtual outlets at once so if we are talking about placing virtual goods into an AltSpace versus Amazon versus Lineage III (other obscure but well-loved IPs are available): how do owners of virtual objects make this happen seamlessly?
We are back to the walled garden situation. Though the whole conversation about Fortnite versus Apple is big in the news right now it was actually only two years ago that Epic and Sony were having the same arguments about the same stuff so and again to rely upon previous memories of 2004 we’re not doing anything new here, why aren’t we trying to do something new? As a developer and an activist I’m just trying to find a place of understanding for the consumers and the creators to come together. There is no conducive mechanism for that to happen right now. I’m really energised by companies like Scuti who put themselves out there and are creating opportunities for product placement. These guys don’t follow the pack, they are the pack. Everyone in the world knows I’ve always been a huge fan of Avakin Life who have been instrumental in bringing luxury brands to consumers, as well as placing world famous artists into their world in an era going back almost 10 years? Did you know? Well, these guys are still very much in vogue and doing incredible stuff in this landscape long before Fortnite was developed. However, the more that we limit opportunities for luxury, non-luxury, consumer goods and apparel into the virtual the more opportunities design houses and creators themselves will find spaces platforms and experiences to take your videogame consumers and end-users away. Robert Triefus of Gucci recently lauded the marriage of these things in the various online and digital use cases that Gucci will continue to reveal “as technology continues to develop, fashion and luxury brands need to evolve as well. Our brand narrative and the communities we engage with are powered by digital and we want to connect with the level of self-expression that avatars provide in this day and age.”
So to be truly relevant in a virtual world it requires that we stop being money-driven, license-hungry, and rigid to the needs of our clients; regardless of whether they are luxury- or micro-creators. This means that there has to be an understanding of how goods will be adopted into a variety of platforms and experiences be that console, VR or mobile. As a game developer I am confidently aware that there is a lack of limitation in creating art assets for video games so it is always completely beyond me when wanting to place virtual objects in games are made so difficult to instigate and this has to change. There is no magic to asset creation, there is no magic associated in what is created: the nuts and bolts of development are the same whether one is developing for Fortnite or Final Fantasy XV. Whether a developer is constructing assets for Louis Vuitton or Target, provided there is a digital maturity, and even if there isn’t I am bamboozled by this barrier to entry which I can only assume comes from a place of ego.
Fashion, consumer, and object creators are often on the back foot when trying to share or cross promote the items and articles. The development of video games as a constant companion in people’s lives really circle back to the basic needs of the end user and if we can’t find something in your game that we can buy, then we will wait for the object creator to develop a game where we will find the objects we want. This feels almost counterintuitive to all of the hard work we have done in video games over the past 30–40 years. I can’t help but feel that this is an inevitable conclusion and a lost opportunity for such a strong medium.
There is, however, one gigantic outlier. And these guys figured out early on that the only way to keep their brand relevant was to invite other brands to support and lift them. I refer, of course, to esports. Whether drinking from an energy drink cup, proposing to your gf/bf at midnight in an online arena to a fanfare and the precipitation of rose petals: these events are the interstitials in our life that esports figured out early on could be made virtual, and therefore even more relevant to the end user. Naturally, the competition between esports titles and tournaments remain but those that serve these experiences from a commercial perspective are the true winners. “In 2020, $822.4 million in revenues — or three-quarters of the total market — will come from media rights and sponsorship.” And we can learn a lot from them.
In 2004 when I was trying to place a firearm’s brand into a video game with full product placement I came away feeling perplexed, but that it just wasn’t our time yet. Today, in game development and with the advent of the Apple versus Fortnite argument raging on and the inability of game developers to come together and look for solutions in the space, and by space I mean the monumental chasm between game studios and consumers, I’m trying to understand as a consumer and a developer whether we’ve actually come very far at all. What do you think?