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What does brand advertising mean for the MMO? Part 1

Pop law abounds in The Lawbringer, your weekly dose of WoW, the law, video games and the MMO genre. Mathew McCurley takes you through the world running parallel to the games we love and enjoy, full of rules, regulations, and esoteroic topics that slip through the cracks.

Brand advertising has already been done in the MMO sphere. Anarchy Online's Free Play program has been showing users in-game advertisements for real-world products on in-game billboards since World of Warcraft launched in 2004. MMOs have survived since. Case closed.

Oh, you wanted more discussion. I see. It's been done before! Finally, we have some real precedent to talk about. Oh FunCom, you've finally managed to not disappoint me. Advertising models were one of the first types of campaigns to be applied to free-to-play versions of massively multiplayers that didn't hit perfection under a subscription model. In 2004, there were a tremendous number of MMOs to play, and people usually just stayed loyal to one. The fight for your subscription dollars was on.

Anarchy Online's Free Play program debuted in December 2004, just after the launch of the unknown but best-selling indie hit World of Warcraft, giving players a chance to play the game and its first expansion pack free of charge. Players subscribed to the Free Play game client would see advertisments in cities, towns, and other highly populated places in game for real-life goods, services, and companies. Advertising dollars paid for the game, as well as subscribers' choosing to pay and see fictional ads instead.

FunCom witnessed a rise in subscriptions and revenue from Anarchy Online after the Free Play program hooked players who thought the $14.99/month price tag was asking too much. Since 2008, at least 2 million subscribers were playing the game, and it was running fairly strong. Remember, for these types of games to be profitable, depending on development cost, you're gunning for around 500,000 to 750,000 dedicated users. In a free-to-play world with advertising, that number can mean many different things.

Why would Blizzard want in-game advertising?

In-game advertising is but one revenue stream that can support a massively multiplayer like Titan. Revenue streams are a crucial part of a game that aims to continue to exist into perpetuity, as you need money to fuel further development and support. At the outset of game development, the publishers and developers sit down and make decisions on how the game will pay for itself. For instance, Diablo III will be paying for itself through a small fee associated with the real money auction house, a brand new, genre-defining feature.

World of Warcraft generates its revenue through a subscription model, something many consider to be the way of the past. At World of Warcraft's size and popularity, I believe the rules of the freemium world do not apply. WoW will do what WoW wants to do despite what the industry says, and we will all just deal with it. With Titan, however, there is the potential to create a new revenue model from the ground up that brings in more players and more revenue dollars than subscriptions could ever dream of.

In-game ads fuel a free next-gen MMO?

Here is a comprehensive list of the facts that we absolutely know are true about Project Titan:
  • Titan is a next-gen MMO.
  • Blizzard is hiring a franchise development producer for it, among others.
Many people have surmised that the notion of a franchise development producer in an MMO like Titan can open the door to secrets about the project itself. What time period or setting does Titan take place in? Advertisements in game, as well as promotional materials and tie-ins, would have to reflect in some way the natural world. Billboards are on buildings and near roadways and exist in a modern world. You could put advertising in World of Warcraft and place Domino's Pizza banners all over the gates of Orgrimmar, but it just wouldn't look right.

We are assuming that the in-game advertising that the franchise development producer oversees is billboard in nature. The form the advertising will take is unknown at this time. I forget when I said it, but I made a remark that was something to the effect that if Titan is not plastered on every Coca-Cola bottle, TV set, website, etc., when it launches, then someone at Blizzard didn't do their job correctly. Big-appeal games get big-appeal advertising. Promotions, giveaways, tie-ins, and other advertisements are not necessarily billboard in nature.

Nonetheless, could in-game ads be what fuels a tiered subscription-based MMO from Blizzard Entertainment? Could Project Titan be Blizzard's answer to freemium? When most smaller indie game companies come out with a new feature, they find simple game mechanics that work in wonderful new ways. When Blizzard comes out with a new feature, it's an industry phenomenon.

Imagine the possibilities

The World of Warcraft playerbase is, essentially, an audience. This audience is a very niche audience that trusts certain brands, wears certain clothes, and is temperamental about, shall we say, the little things. This audience is incredibly valuable to advertisers and companies because of its focus on a very specific type of gaming. What company would not want to have a message targeted so efficiently at that type of audience?

Titan could very well mark the first MMO where the community is treated like an audience and a community rather than players in a game world, a world accessible for free with advertisements to foot the bill. A couple of bucks a month, and you get no ads with some added benefits thrown in. Start throwing in content updates with a store, some real money transaction cosmetic items, and you have what looks like a radical departure from the subscription system. What if content could be sponsored so that you get it for free? Instead of paying 30 bucks for Titan's first expansion, you get Titan's first expansion presented by Coca-Cola for free with the same amount of content as otherwise delivered. It works only because of how massive Blizzard is and Titan will be.

It's pretty much the Anarchy Online way of things plus a little bit of Planetside thrown in. Interesting, isn't it? All of these post-apocalyptic settings, with their futures and buildings and advertisements and billboards ...

But why?

Why would you ever want this, right? Advertising is awful and stupid, pulls you out of the game, and makes you angry at The Man that you've uprooted your life to camp out in People's Park. Wrong sir, wrong. Now go home to your wife and children -- they miss you dearly.

Free is fantastic. We like free. With world economies in shambles and money tighter than ever, the products we consume are consumed with much more scrutiny. Our entertainment dollars are worth more because of their scarcity. Free is the best kind of entertainment dollar because you're guaranteed eyes. When you do something free on Blizzard's scale, you get to start playing with the rules.

Expansions could be free. Updates could be free. The game itself could be free, all because Blizzard is big enough to put Titan on a cup sold at 7-11, sponsored by Coca-Cola, which paid for this expansion in full. Sure, your character at one point has to give five thirsty refugees cans of Coke, but the experience reward was nice, and I really needed that new pair of gloves ... and frankly, it's a refreshing beverage, so I don't see what the problem is.

"Good" ads done good

So what does it mean for Titan? Many think that the advertising in game is a dead giveaway for the setting. I wouldn't be so sure. Do I think Titan takes place in a more sci-fi-inspired universe? Oh, you bet that I do. Rather than run around screaming about the end times and advertising, I'd like to look at this with an open mind and an open heart, especially to the great people at The Coca-Cola Company.

Advertising in games can be a great thing if used correctly. How many times have you been ripped out of the moment in a movie or television show when someone starts their phone number with 555 or drinks from a generic COLA can? It's jarring and weird. Put the real stuff in, and it gives your world a sense of belonging or reality. When Jim Raynor hits the jukebox, he gets a cover of Sweet Home Alabama, not a fake song soundalike designed to mimic the (almost) real thing, and it feels right.

I think I have more thoughts for next week, where we will talk advertising and its potential problems in the MMOsphere.

This column is for entertainment only; if you need legal advice, contact a lawyer. For comments or general questions about law or for The Lawbringer, contact Mat at mat@wowinsider.com.

Filed under: Analysis / Opinion, The Lawbringer

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