Assassin's Creed 2 and Dragon Age have taken an interesting approach to in-game advertising by essentially advertising themselves.
Some months ago I started playing Mercenaries 2: World in Flames. One of the factions gave me an open-ended mission to destroy any billboards I found, so whenever I was in a tank, I made a conscious effort to keep my eyes out for any signs still standing. Throughout my hunt, two recurring billboards caught my attention: One was advertising the newest season of South Park complete with day and time, the other was advertising the recently released movie 9. It was jarring to see the real world infringing on the game world in such a blatant way. This is, of course, an inevitability of in-game advertising, but two recent games have taken a different approach to this idea. Assassin’s Creed 2 and Dragon Age advertise themselves, or more specifically, they advertise their future/current downloadable content.
In Assassin’s Creed 2 players use a machine to relive a character’s past memories. These memories are split into 14 “memory blocks,” but after completing block 11, the player is told that 12 and 13 are “corrupted,” so we skip ahead to the final memory. This jump forward in time works as a plot device. In block 11, the hero becomes an official Assassin but fails to kill the villain. Block 14 begins years later when he’s finally given a second chance. Since the hero failed in his first attempt, we can easily assume that he spent the intervening years honing his skills and planning revenge. Since this training and planning would make boring gameplay, the memories are skipped. The “corrupted” blocks therefore work as a montage would in a movie.
But with the announcement of DLC that will fill in those blanks, the corrupted memories take on an entirely different meaning. They’re no longer just a plot device to imply the passage of time. They’re missing chapters from a story. Any player that thoroughly enjoys the game will see these missing pieces and want to fill them. Their very existence is an advertisement, a constant reminder of what we don’t have.
This is a far more direct advertisement then what’s in Assassin’s Creed 2, but the actual method of advertising is the same. This stranger is in your game whether your buy the DLC or not, he’ll tell you his story whether you buy the DLC or not, and even if you don’t buy the DLC, his quest still logs itself in your codex as an active quest. Whenever you return to the party camp, he’ll be there with an arrow hovering over his head, indicating a quest objective. Whenever you look at your quest logs, you’ll see it, a mission that’s impossible to finish unless you buy the additional content. The game works to constantly remind us of what we don’t have while giving us motivation to buy the DLC. Dragon Age just goes a step further than Assassin’s Creed 2 by allowing players to actually make the purchase in game. It’s not just advertising itself, it’s also selling itself.
But is this a bad way to advertise DLC? The problem with the advertising in Mercenaries 2 is that it didn’t fit within the game world: a pristine billboard in war-torn Venezuela, written in perfect English, advertising an American show makes no sense. But in Assassin’s Creed 2, the missing memories are explained in such a way as to make them a natural part of the game’s universe. Such explanation and integration of advertising is only really possible with DLC. The creative director of Assassin’s Creed 2 has said that the DLC is content that was planned for the game from the beginning but that had to be cut due to time constraints with the deadline. By saving a spot for the DLC in the actual game, the developer ensures that the old content flows seamlessly into the new and that the DLC itself doesn’t feel tacked on. It’s quite ingenious really. Unfortunately the same can’t be said for Dragon Age. Making an NPC a salesman is an inspired way of making the advertisement seem natural within the game world, but that illusion is broken when we’re asked to pay real money. Making a real purchase can never feel natural in a game specifically because it’s a real purchase; to make it feel natural, would require tricking the player into thinking that it wasn’t real. But the fact that such a purchase is even possible is impressive from a technical standpoint, and the attempt made by both games to fit advertisements into their narratives points towards an interesting future for in-game advertising and downloadable content. Whether or not that’s a preferable future is a different matter.