An advertising platform named playerWON has announced it has signed deals with EA and Tencent’s Hi-Rez Studios to bring TV-like commercials in video games. PlayerWON is owned and operated by Simulmedia, which claims players will be able to watch ads in exchange for in-game perks.
The system has reportedly been in testing for a year and will work as follows: Developers can code ads into games and offer players the choice to watch either a 15-second or a 30-second ad. There is no mention of the player being allowed to watch no ads at all. Once Simulmedia receives a message that the ad has been watched in its entirety, the reward is unlocked for the player. Simulmedia claims, via Axios, that players are willing to watch up to 10 ads per day in order to unlock free perks.
I’d love to know which players they surveyed.
According to Simulmedia’s Executive Vice President, Dave Madden, gaming studios are trying to monetize more of the F2P ecosystem: “The acceleration of Free-to-play (F2P) games across Console and PC, like Fortnite, Apex Legends, Call of Duty Warzone and Roblox, means that audiences and playtime have seen explosive growth, yet the vast majority of players, over 90 percent, never spend money [in?] F2P games.”
Note: Axios’ original quote ends with “never spend money F2P games.”
Let’s examine Madden’s statement once we strip off the extraneous bits. “[A]udiences and playtime have seen explosive growth, yet the vast majority of players, over 90 percent, never spend money.”
That’s true. But it’s neither the fault of PC gamers nor a problem we are in any way responsible for fixing.
The companies that have embraced the modern free-to-play model have chosen to do so as a deliberate business strategy. Unlike mobile gaming, which largely blew up around the concept of F2P, PC gaming and software distribution had a perfectly viable, already-established distribution model. It incorporated the idea of allowing players to experience a game for free a decade and more before home broadband was widespread.
Shareware distribution, demos, and spawning a copy of a game on a friend’s PC so you could play multiplayer together were all methods of inviting players to sample a game. MMOs commonly offer(ed) free trial periods. Some games, including Final Fantasy XV, Forza Horizon 4, Resident Evil 7, and Shadow of the Tomb Raider still have downloadable demos today.
I want to stress that this wasn’t just a model embraced by single-player titles. Diablo, Diablo II, Warcraft, Warcraft II, Starcraft, Starcraft II, Age of Empires II, Total Annihilation, and Wolfenstein: Youngblood all offered or offer the option to spawn a multiplayer-enabled version of the game so you and your friends could play together without each of you having to buy the game.
The game developers that have pivoted to games-as-a-service adopted free-to-play as a means of creating larger player bases than they felt they could reach with the tactics I’ve just listed. One known facet of the F2P model is that the majority of the player base does not pay for the content. Game developers have found multiple ways to monetize the percentage of players who are willing to pay. One noteworthy advantage of F2P over other models is that the handful of players who pay often pay far more over a period of several years than they would have paid for the title in a single purchase. This is true for paying players generally, not just the so-called “whales” that spend hundreds to thousands of dollars in a given title.
Pick Your Feature: Short Load Times or Interstitial Ads?
Defenders of this practice will undoubtedly bring up the fact that interstitial advertising is common on mobile devices. That’s true. It’s also irrelevant. The PC and console gaming market is not the mobile market. PC and console gamers are not mobile gamers. One of the reasons I don’t play mobile games is because I detest in-game advertising, grinding for artificially restricted in-game resources that are available to buy with real money, and the long timers (unless you pay) that characterize many mobile games.
It’s almost a bad joke to see this idea floated now. More than a decade after SSDs began to show up in consumer devices, we’ve finally reached the point when game developers will start expecting players to have high-speed attached storage and will design to that expectation. Even a SATA-attached SSD offers seek times and maximum transfer rates far beyond any hard drive.
One of the greatest things about the Xbox Series X — one of the things that makes it feel like a PC — are its load times. It takes longer for the console to boot from cold start and connect to the Wi-Fi than it actually does to load a game. I can’t read the hints that flash up in Fallout: New Vegas because they aren’t on-screen long enough. Some Mass Effect and ME2 load screens scarcely flash before they’re gone. The elevator rides across the Citadel that once required entertaining news reports and character interactions to hide the load lag are now entirely optional.
Microsoft and Sony devoted an enormous amount of effort this generation to killing load times. Microsoft’s DirectStorage technology should enable the same advantage for PCs. Just as we’re on the cusp of eliminating one of the great annoyances of modern gaming, we’ve been offered an opportunity to put it back, on purpose, so that gaming companies that have made an absolute killing in the past 12 months can squeeze more money out of people. The justification for this behavior is that most free-to-play gamers don’t spend money.
No, they don’t. And if the game publishers embracing F2P don’t like that, they’re welcome to return to a financial model in which players paid a specific amount of money and received a specific block of content. This is just as hostile to gamers as Facebook’s plan to inject advertising into VR, and every bit as unwelcome. Tim Sweeney’s entire point back in 2020 was that the PS5 and Xbox Series S|X would eliminate the need for interstitial load screens, long elevator conversations, or narrow passages that your character clambers through to buy your hard drive a little more loading time. There aren’t supposed to be 15-30 second pauses where players have a convenient moment to be harassed by ads any longer. Right now, on the Xbox Series X, there aren’t. I think the longest load screen I’ve encountered was on the order of 15 seconds, in one game. It already feels like a lot in comparison to everything else.
The one piece of good news in this announcement is that EA has adopted this technology. If there’s one company we can count on to take an idea, dial it up to 11, and poison the concept across the entire industry, it’s EA. This is the company that thought it made sense to make game progression in Battlefront II entirely random, divorcing it from both character class and game mode, so that players would be forced to buy loot crates in order to progress. It then persisted with that plan in the face of massive criticism for weeks until Disney got involved directly. It capitulated only when forced to do so.
If Activision would force you to pay respects to watch 10 ads a day and Ubisoft would force you to play through sequences of an ad for an interminable product no one understands in between long segments of a more interesting story (cough), EA would demand the right to beam ads directly into your skull while insisting this was actually a “quite ethical” means of presenting you with “surprise visual stimuli,” as opposed to “forced hallucination.” This argument would only be a modest adaptation of the company’s actual, on-record characterization of its own loot box mechanics.
Over the last decade, streaming services and social media sites have both exploded with ads. Mobile games are frequently ad-supported. Microsoft now puts software ads directly in your desktop unless you prevent them from doing so. Sites operated directly by Microsoft and Google will sometimes cajole (or guilt) you into trying their products.
PC and console games are one of the few places where we are not currently advertised at 24/7. Consoles may have ads on their dashboards, but the actual in-game experience remains mostly pristine. This is a standard we, as a community, should not compromise on.
Ads do not improve gameplay. They do not improve the overall game experience. No skin or in-game currency they award is worth the price of admission. The idea of carving out 15-30 second advertising blocks is directly opposed to the goal of reducing PC and console load times and trading away the storage gains of the current generation so EA can make more money isn’t a trade I’m interested in making. In the old hard drive days, there might have been a bare argument of showing people ads instead of in-game scenes, but there is no excuse for wasting player time in this fashion any longer.
PC games had a flourishing distribution model long before F2P and GaaS grew to dominate the monetization conversation. The fact that the vast majority of gamers pay nothing to play a free-to-play title is not freeloading. Over the last 20 years, ads have been injected into the internet, into online apps, operating systems, and movies. It’s been seven years since Google told us it wanted to put ads on “fridges, car dashboards, thermostats, glasses, and watches.” The company has done a credible job of making good on that threat thus far.
Enough is enough. No PC or console gamer is begging companies to create interstitial advertising and the corporations that deploy ads this way do so at their own reputational peril. It will not be well received. Game developers and publishers are welcome to return to previous distribution models. Their refusal to do so is their problem, not ours.