2020 Redux

2020 Redux
Lifegame 2.0

Allen Varney | 11 Jul 2006 12:03
2020 Redux - RSS 2.0

The least controversial article I ever wrote - that anyone noticed, anyway - was "Lifegame 2020" in The Escapist issue 5.

That piece, a blog entry from the future, imagines megacorporate online "shopgames" - Wal-Mart World, TargetView, DisneyLife - that combine aspects of MMOGs with real-world consumer loyalty programs. You could buy 10 lattes at Starbucks to gain extra experience points for your character, or complete quests in the game to earn discounts at brick-and-mortar stores across the corporation's sprawling empire. All your real-life credit-card purchases would earn advancement in your chosen shopgame. Quoting: "By setting up virtual game kingdoms to match their real-world equivalents, and tying together performance in both, the conglomerates secured total customer loyalty. They built the new millennium's version of the old-fashioned company town - an online simulation, widely distributed across meatspace but densely linked in virtual reality."

Did readers scoff at this consumerist fancy? Hah! It was like boldly asserting that tomorrow the sun will rise in the east. Many readers expressed distaste or despair or outright horror at the shopgame idea, but not one of them, not a single one, doubted such games will become a reality. On the spot, everyone who heard the notion flatly believed it.

None of them liked it, but they all believed.

It turns out they were right - and these shopgames will arrive a lot sooner than the year 2020. But for those who don't welcome our new megacorporate online overlords, there is hope.

Avatar-Targeted Marketing
A hundred million Americans, many in highly desired demographics, play videogames. Media group IGA Partners offers "Gaming 101" seminars for ad agencies eager to infest the new medium. Many firms, like Massive (acquired by Microsoft in May for between $200 and $400 million) and Double Fusion, are building infrastructure for in-game ad delivery. Early customers will probably include tobacco companies, which target young people but are prohibited from advertising on TV.

Will these efforts evolve into shopgames? Not likely. Though it's a busy time for in-game product placement, actual revenue is ramping slowly. According to GameDaily Biz, "research firm Parks Associates forecasts that PC in-game advertising will top $400 million by 2009." There's slightly more money in advergaming - those wretched little branded Flash/Shockwave games knocked out in five days as movie tie-ins or promos, as well as branded pseudo-MMOGs like Coke Studios and Disney's Virtual Magic Kingdom. Advergaming revenue is expected to grow from $200 million in 2004 to $1 billion in 2008.

Four hundred million? A billion? A pittance. In 2005, internet advertising as a whole grossed $12.5 billion; broadcast TV ad revenue was three times more. Game ads, as we have conventionally understood them, won't bring comparable returns for years, and aren't likely to propel the evolution of shopgames.

A likelier path: In-game shopping. Everyone knows you could, in early 2005, type "/pizza" to order a real-world Pizza Hut delivery from inside the EverQuest II client. (Now, the command sends you to a Collector's Edition order page.) Inevitably, that idea will spread to other games and other merchandise. In July 2005, science fiction writer Cory Doctorow held an in-game book signing in Second Life; wouldn't it have been nice if you could have clicked on him to order the book from Amazon?

Advertisers are slowly growing aware of MMOGs. Paul Hemp's June 2006 Harvard Business Review article, "Avatar-Based Marketing," is, by HBR standards, vague and anecdotal. But Hemp proposes a novel angle: Advertising in 3-D MMOGs that targets, not players as such, but their avatars. "Advertising has always targeted a powerful consumer alter ego: that hip, attractive, incredibly popular person just waiting to emerge (with the help of the advertised product) from an all-too-normal self. ... [I]n the mall of a virtual world, an avatar could try on - and try out in front of virtual friends - real-world clothing brands or styles her creator typically couldn't afford or wouldn't dare to wear. If she got rave reviews from her pals and became (along with her creator) comfortable with the idea of wearing a particular outfit, a purchase in the real world might follow."

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