How much product placement is too much?
For many gamers, the answer came the moment the Burger King mascot stepped into the ring of a boxing title on the Xbox 360.
But according to recent studies, gamers are more receptive to in-game advertising than ever before.
Earlier this year, the Neilsen ratings company began a system of measuring the effectiveness of in-game promotion. According to a recent Business Week article, ad spending for brand placement in games is predicted to leap from $75 million a year to $1 billion by 2010.
And the gears are turning. At Montreal's Ubisoft, which makes espionage and stealth games likes Splinter Cell and Rainbow Six, promoter Jeffrey Dickstein's entire job is soliciting advertisers for product placements.
As in James Bond movies, this is often a chance to show off the latest cell-phone or luxury SUV and then blow it up. If the figures from Neilsen are right, there'll be a hell of a lot more explosions.
But developers still have to walk a tightrope if they want to put products in games without pissing off their core fans.
"The earlier the brand is involved in the development process, the better," says Dickstein. "We usually work with brands on concepts 15 months before a game releases, and we usually try to wrap things up six to nine months before launch. This ensures that the integration is organically placed within the game in a seamless fashion, that it is not only subtle but makes sense, too.
"One example of how we put brands into our games was using Visa's fraud protection service in CSI: 3 Dimensions Of Murder. In the game, Visa contacts one of the witnesses to let her know her credit card has been stolen. The witness, when prompted with the correct questions, divulges this information and allows the player to put a timeline to the crime and solve the case."
Other marketing stats say many gamers are already well versed in virtual product placements. According to the numbers, gamers are easier targets than your average television audience, who are desensitized by repeated exposure.
What's more, the really hardcore gamers polled actually respond more favourably to products found within games. Max Lederman, a specialist in youth marketing, writes about these trends on his website (www.experiencethemessage.com). He thinks games are the new frontier, as long as advertisers don't blow it.
According to Lederman, gamers are more open to ads "strictly because of the sheer novelty of it. Serious gamers totally realize that with added revenue going into game development, they're going to get better games. And that could temper their revolt against the bad integration. They're giving the practice a chance."
But it goes beyond that. Gamers crave verisimilitude. The desire for realism is part of what's fuelled the advances in the industry that mean we now have the power to explore true-to-life virtual cities.
It's why early games actually included fake ads and products to make them more believable. Pop machines in games like Half-Life and Duke Nukem spit out generic colas. Fake billboards lined the tracks of early racing games. The funny thing about this quest for realism is that marketers are now catching up to the possibilities, inserting ads to make the games more "real."
"It is often a choice made to add credibility to a game," says Sarah McIlroy, the director of in-game advertising for Midway games. "Developers typically create fake advertisements as well as generic functional products like cellphones in a game. If done correctly, adding a relevant brand will add authenticity to a game and reach the target audience in a meaningful, engaging way."
Of course, when it's done badly, gamers are quick to let the industry know through forums, flame-mail and not buying the offending titles.
On another level, some games are completely bonded with a brand or product from the start, like the And1 Streetball game, based on a basketball tournament sponsored by the And1 shoe company.
Then there's hiphop clothier Mark Ecko's Get Up, in which, in an ironic twist, players take the role of a street-level graffiti writer striking back at a corporate world. This kind of hubris suggests that the old Burger King-headed dude isn't the last splash of crassness you'll see on your console.
"Here's the paradox of good brand integration," said Lederman. "If it's truly good you won't even notice it. But advertisers want the opposite. For them, if an ad doesn't get noticed it's a failure.
"That's why they usually do too much... and fail anyway."