I consider myself very liberal when it comes to advertising.
Be it product placement or in-game billboard ads, I think advertising revenues are largely an intelligent and ultimately harmless way of developers and publishers alike offsetting some of the financial burden that comes from making a game. Coca-Cola pays a couple million for an ad in a recreation of New York under siege – why not? Hell, throw in a vending machine as well, why don’t you. This of course does need to be done with some common sense – seeing Link bust open a can of Mountain Dew would just be grossly out of context and fairly blatant, but done intelligently there is no reason why advertising cannot work in games.
So along comes Microsoft, announcing NUads. This is a marketing delivery system that will display ads on X-Box Live and in certain Kinect games, and are designed to allow those who want to see more of a product and information about it by saying “X-Box More”. The idea is to stream content and promotions directly to X-Box users via this system. You may argue this is a small price to pay.
Except… we already pay £45 a year for X-Box Live.
X-Box Live is a premium service. And Kinect is a very expensive bolt-on gadget for the system. The first year alone this is £150 out of your pocket. For that, you have certain expectations – you expect it to be stable, for their to be content, for it to work as intended and for advertising to be minimal to non-existent. Seriously. We’ve paid a lot of money for this – not to mention more for the sodding games as well – and we’re being asked to accept what is an intrusive marketing ploy into our living rooms. And whilst they’ve been trying to inch this in – it’s never been quite as blatant and in-your-face as this.
Truth is, Microsoft hope that we’ll accept this. I sincerely hope we don’t. For example, here in the UK we pay £145.50 a year for a TV Licence, which goes to pay for the BBC to keep it ad-free. If the BBC were to start showing ads, we’d be livid – for all the millions of households in the UK paying that price, that’s billions every year. Not to mention what they get from licencing out the likes of Doctor Who, Strictly Come Dancing (Dancing With The Stars for my US readers). Any hint of product placement and advertising would be cause for flat-out revolution.
And the case is fairly similar for Microsoft. Costs from licencing games, to X-Box Live and clearly taking a cut from anything bought on X-Box Live Marketplace must provide them with more than enough money. They clearly get a sum of money from Sky as well to host the Sky Player (which continues to be the biggest pile of crap going until they actually show EVERYTHING on those channels, and not 40% of the content. Some people don’t mind paying £15 a month for the base package if it means we can watch The Simpsons but nooooooo, we can’t watch that can we?) as well as making money delivering music and movies, as well as a lot of games going for slightly above RRP on Games on Demand. I think you can see where I am going here – there is, by and large, a lot of ways for Microsoft to make money. That’s before we take into consideration the X-Box Live subscription itself. And buying Microsoft Points – a good idea, but you can bet that they make money on that too.
So why is NU-ads considered remotely necessary? I mean, I can understand if X-Box Live was a free service, much like PSN – but even PSN has a paid service now. And Nintendo, quite likely, will also have a paid service for their Wii-U. For the millions of users, this is a substantial revenue stream. And we’re supposed to just accept adverts popping up every half hour? No. If I want to see ads I have this wonderful invention called a TELEVISION. And quite frankly, most of those are crap.
I still do believe that advertising revenue can be beneficial if done in a progressive, sincere and intelligent manner. What NU-ads is proposing is simply ad-breaks in the middle of games you pay for, and whilst browsing X-Box Live – a service you pay for. And I’m not okay with that. It’s why I use BT Vision instead of Sky – I pay £15 a month for access to a library of free movies and TV shows, sans ads, and can rent recent releases cheaply for two days if I want to do that. Saves going out to Blockbuster. And the rest of it – Freeview et al – comes free. If I was to endure ads in the middle of the TV shows, or the movies, I would – quite rightly – tell BT exactly where to stick their subscription package. I’d even draw them a map to tell them how to get there and how far to go when they get there. Maybe even a diagram to show them what to do when they arrive.
I think advertising is something that, rightly, shouldn’t be thrust down our throats. And any service that proposes we swallow is likely not going to last very long. Especially when there are rivals very eager to take marketshare away from you. My gag reflex is sorely tested on this one.
I don’t want that every time I go to play a game. And I think many others are like me – our tastes and library too wide and too diverse to track. So what we’re going to get is, essentially, random ads. Not even targeted ads. As the system tries desperately to work out why we like Dead or Alive and Bayonetta and yet also have Spyro and Banjo-Kazooie in our library as well. As well as having Gears of War, Resident Evil 5 and WET alongside Tales of Vesperia, Psychonauts and Sonic 4. How do you make sense of that lot? They range in content, quality, price and tone as well as genre. Not to mention I have a little issue with bipolar disorder – so some days I don’t even know what I like. That can vary from day to day, hour to hour. If there are people who can’t be predictive, how can you target their individual tastes? Truth – you can’t. Your system will always be doomed to only ever randomly show a certain amount of ads for each game, each genre, each price point that you’ve got in your library. And no matter how intelligently they try to streamline this, the odds of getting it right are miniscule at best.
Nowhere is this more evident in my life than Amazon. I’ve ordered much from Amazon over the past few years – and their “Recommended For You” system is woefully misplaced. I buy Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia and it recommends me Cooking Mama. I buy an X-Box PC Controller and suddenly it’s showing me £100 keyboards. I buy an Amanda Palmer single and suddenly I’m supposed to like Lady Gaga (I do, but not to the extent I want it displayed on the Recommended page! Seriously, guilty pleasures should REMAIN PRIVATE!). It never seems to get it right – never seems to be adequately predictive of my tastes. To the point I have largely stopped paying attention to it – I think “Hmm. I need a new phone… just use the search box.” A few days later, I’m supposedly interested in MORE phones – seriously. I just bought one. I’m pretty much set for a phone now. Don’t need to see more of them thanks.
And okay, YES I can customise it – but seriously, should I need to? I buy one item and I want more of it? I think some systems are woefully broken in that regard. Just because I like Dead Space, it doesn’t mean I like Dead Space 2 (I really didn’t). That’s not a predictive system that adapts to what you buy – I mean, okay, I redecorated. I got a new phone. Maybe it could have realised that and shown me a new lamp, or some tasteful floral wallpaper or maybe a printer or like for the office. But not more phones. How many phones does one need?! Saying “Oh, but you can log in and just say “don’t use this for future reference” is a cheap cop-out to hide a system that is, by and large, desperately broken and not at all intelligent or adaptive. It just gives you more of the same – and often, of worse quality than you actually bought. I’ve given up trying to sort it out. It’s a hopeless system that isn’t reflective of me or what I want.
Why would I want this on X-Box Live? I’m sorry, but I’d rather say to the new voice command system, “X-Box, Go Fuck Yourself.” Mind you, I’d try that anyway… does that make me a bad person?
Anyway. Long winded rant over. NU-ads is a service that Microsoft hopes to dress up. But try as they may – sprinkle it with glitter, put lacy doilies around it and snuggle a teady bear next to it – a turd is a turd, and they need to very carefully consider if provoking the ire of the majority of their quite intelligent gamer userbase is worth a few extra million in the bank…
I suppose that will only be known when those users kick them in the Go-nads and unsubscribe. Let’s just hope Microsoft see sense, because this has ‘Fail’ written all over it…