Lessons from the in-game ads that irritated players, from Alan Wake to UFC
As part of The Drum’s Gaming Advertising Deep Dive, we look at the times in-game ads got players all riled up.
Last month, it emerged that Sony and Microsoft were likely planning to implement ads into their free-to-play games by the end of the year. The monetization move may not come as a surprise to players, but how welcome the ads will be remains to be seen.
Alan Wake features Energizer billboards and power-ups
Maybe there’s a reason premium games aren’t already filled with ads, be it product placements, unskippable videos on replays or sponsored costumes/skins, all of which have sometimes been meeting with player ire.
Here, we relive four controversial in-game campaigns.
Action-adventure game Alan Wake was released for the Xbox 360 back in 2010 and featured a heavy dose of advertising that didn’t sit well with many players.
As well as displaying billboard ads for the likes of Verizon, supernatural cult classic also forced players to use branded Energizer batteries to replenish Alan’s flashlight. Players spent much of the game time switching out batteries to power their torch (a weapon in the game used to keep away horrific monsters). Not exactly long-life batteries...
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Sports games frequently display ads for fast-food chains or beverage companies, adding to the ’real-world’ element. But for many Alan Wake fans, these particular ads felt abrupt and out of place.
The developers decided to ditch the product ads completely from the recent remake due to an expired license, replacing them with fictional brands. Perhaps that's for the best.
Last year, EA Sports received a torrent of backlash from fans of UFC 4. In previous editions of the mixed martial arts game, ads were found on some main menu tiles or on the Octogon logo. For the fourth installment of the franchise, however, we saw ad placements pop up during game replays – patched into the experience with a post-release update.
Players took to social media to air their grievances with developers at EA Vancouver due to the ads going live around two weeks after UFC 4 came out, which many pointed out meant they weren’t picked up by reviewers.
Responding to the backlash, an EA spokesperson posted on the Reddit thread: “It is abundantly clear from your feedback that integrating ads into the Replay and overlay experience is not welcome. The advertisements have been disabled by the team and we apologize for any disruption to gameplay that players may have experienced. We realize that this should have been communicated with players ahead of time and that’s on us.“
Street Fighter 5
Street Fighter 5: Arcade Edition was released in 2016 and featured two types of ads that many players felt were tacky – ’stamp ads’ on characters’ costumes and ad placements during different stages of the game and on loading screens. The purpose of the ads was to promote the sale of downloadable content and also the company’s professional gaming tournament.
To the delight of many, players were actually able to turn off these ads, but as an incentive to keep them on gamers were rewarded with in-game currency.
Unskippable ads are annoying, there’s no doubt about it, therefore it was surprising to many gamers that NBA 2K21 implemented this tactic in its PC, PS4 and Xbox One versions.
Released in 2020, the game is the 22nd installment of the franchise and features Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers on the cover. Fans of the popular game took to Reddit to discuss their disappointment about the unskippable videos and the games publishers eventually took notice.
Posting on Twitter, it said: “As many are aware, in recent years ads have been integrated into 2KTV segments. Yesterday’s 2KTV ad placement impacted our players’ experience in a way we didn’t intend, as these ads are not meant to run as part of the pre-game introduction. This will be fixed in future episodes. Thanks for your continued feedback.“
For more on all the different ways brands can advertise in gaming, from virtual billboards to product placements, social lenses and even games of their own, check out The Drum’s Gaming Advertising Deep Dive.