Grand Theft Auto 5 is slowly taking on the characteristics of a billboard. Right now, it is a very exclusive billboard that is hard to get onto, but it is steadily traveling down a path towards becoming an advertising platform.
So far, only Rockstar and entities in close collaboration with Rockstar have made use of the game's immense mainstream popularity to gain publicity, and we don't expect it would be Rockstar themselves who branch out in terms of in-game advertisements. And yet, when musicians debut new songs in GTA Online on the in-game radio, the implications multiply.
First, let's take a step back and look at in-game advertising as a whole.
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This is far from a new concept, as free-to-play games often survive by way of in-game ads. The practice is particularly predominant in mobile and social media games, but have appeared elsewhere.
Paid games very rarely include advertising - right now only one example comes to mind off-hand, which would be the overall forgettable and unpopular Battle L.A. licensed movie tie-in FPS that had adverts. But in that case the companies advertised in the game were the same ones sponsoring the film, and these ads appeared as in-universe props, meaning actual billboards present in the game maps.
Rockstar has used GTA Online to spread awareness of Red Dead Redemption 2 several times - once with an unavoidable loading-screen prompt, and through a pair of cross promotions with gameplay content as well as linked pre-order bonuses. These are far from problematic instances, as game companies cross-promote their titles frequently. It's an interesting and engaging way to bridge communities and includes fun cross-over items or quests that service fans of both IP.
Recently, this practice expanded. With the After Hours DLC featuring real-life DJs and their actual music, a unique opportunity arose.
Tale of Us, one of the artists attached to After Hours, included some of their songs from a then-unreleased album on the new in-game radio channel, Los Santos Underground, as an exclusive preview. Essentially, the music of a famous and prominent artist debuted in GTA Online.
Ivan Pavlovich, director of music at Rockstar Games recently talked with Rolling Stone specifically about After Hours and the importance of music in GTA and in all of Rockstar's titles. He talked about how powerful a tool for music discovery GTA 5 is, as it introduces a vast amount of people to new and interesting music through its wide selection of licensed tracks and huge player base.
Pavlovich, and everyone at Rockstar according to the interview, is passionate about music. Using the game's reach to broaden the artistic palate of countless people is a genuinely noble goal and one at which Rockstar has undoubtedly excelled. After all, players have listened to over 75 billion minutes of music in GTA 5 and Online according to Pavlovich.
However, good intentions aside, the game essentially became a marketing vehicle due to this.
Consumers are used to seeing ads within media. Product placement in TV and film is common place, even if it isn't in games. Musical artists often attach themselves to projects with specifically developed collaboration music in the hopes of broadening both their and the project's audience, and games have been no strangers to this.
However, in these cases the music is generally inherently linked to the game, while in the case of Tale of Us, the artists collaborated with Rockstar and they used that collaboration to give a playerbase of millions upon millions of people worldwide an exclusive preview of an upcoming album.
Don't get us wrong, there isn't anything wrong with doing that, nor are we accusing any related party of greed.
Yet, a precedent is set. We are unaccustomed to seeing what amounts to advertising in a paid AAA game, but then we were also unaccustomed to the deluge of advertising various online services are moving towards.
Netflix is exploring the addition of adverts mid-stream (like TV, and like the exact thing many users pay to avoid). Mid-video ads have been present of YouTube for a while now. Scrolling through your newsfeed on Facebook will bring you across countless ads and some even cut into videos posted by pages you've liked.
In an industry as huge as video games - it's been generating more revenue than film, TV and music for years now - the prospect of including in-game advertisements isn't far removed from the whole "games as a service" direction taken on by multiple AAA publishers.
If Rockstar puts music ads into its flagship title, certain other less restrained companies will look at that, and go one (or more) steps further. Players listening to over 75 billion minutes of music is an interesting stat for us, but it smells like opportunity to others.
Grand Theft Auto 5, by virtue of its popularity and success, is a trendsetter in the industry, meaning if it becomes an advertising platform, the industry will follow suit - and the only people who will be hurt by this are the players.