Advertisers exploit secret codes in video games once solely the realm of techies


SAN FRANCISCO (AP) – Crouched in military fatigues, you peer through night-vision goggles and brandish a semiautomatic gun as you hunt down terrorists who’ve overtaken Las Vegas.

Incongruously, while patrolling a neon-decorated side street in the video game “Rainbow Six Vegas,” you spot a jar of body wash. You spray the container with bullets, and voila! A 60-second video of whimsical bloopers pops up, and billboard advertisements of scantily clad women hawk Unilever Corp.’s Axe shower gel: “Score with Axe.”

Welcome to the new world of video gaming, where software companies are becoming more imaginative in wringing money from gamers.

In-game advertising has been going on for years as marketers try to reach people who’ve largely stopped watching television.

But beyond running crass advertisements on billboards written into the gaming landscape, many game developers now accept product placements for milk, DVDs and other wares, embedding them deep into the game’s software codes. You’d need the type of secret tips and tricks long circulated for unlocking special powers and other bonuses.

Other companies are charging real-world dollars for the privilege of gaining magical powers and better equipment for virtual characters, leading to complaints the companies are exploiting gamers who already pay $60 or more for the most popular titles.

Veterans of the $7 billion U.S. video game market defend the corporate co-option of the techniques once solely the realm of techies: If Hollywood has been employing product placement and other unconventional marketing tricks for years, why not the game industry?

The standard advertisements aren’t waning. But gaming executives say the newer, unusual pitches are more effective: They can be funny and tap into many gamers’ desire to explore the darkest nooks and crannies of a game and discover tricks they can boast to friends.

“Purist gamers see this development as negative, and it can ruin the game for someone,” said Peer Schneider, vice president of content publishing at IGN Entertainment. “But our kids don’t see it as negative. They see it as an unexpected thing in the game.”

For more than two decades, programmers have tucked silly surprises into the recesses of computer games – from the 1980 Atari 2600 game “Adventure” to the current hit “Scarface: The World Is Yours.”

In many games, players who enter the top-secret “cheat code” could become invisible, get unlimited ammunition or play in an all-powerful God mode. Or they’d play for hours until discovering brightly decorated circles or balls – known as Easter eggs – that unlocked bonus points, monster-slaying swords, extra lives or infinite health.

Only recently have game companies found ways to profit from these quirks. Software developers are now coordinating with marketing executives – and with Madison Avenue advertising gurus – almost from the game’s conception.

“Developer teams have always said, ‘We have these codes if you want to use them,’ but only in the last two years did the marketing teams significantly incorporate them into our strategy,” said Jill Steinberg, director of promotions for San Francisco-based Ubisoft. “The goal of the promotions is to get buzz.”

But the buzz isn’t entirely positive.

Although many gamers viewed the Ubisoft-Axe promotion as quirky and unobtrusive, they criticized Redwood City-based Electronic Arts Inc. in October, when the world’s largest video game publisher began to sell downloadable tricks for the Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2007.

Gamers could redeem points worth $3.75 to buy a software “add-on” that unlocks pro shop gear to drive the ball farther. Another $3 gets Wood’s lucky red shirt (In real life, Woods wears a red shirt during a game’s final round because he says it intimidates competitors and symbolizes power).

Offended gamers wrote scathing online entries about EA. Other companies that try to sell add-ons would likely encounter similar hostility, said Greg Off, founder of Off Base Productions, a San Francisco-based consulting company specializing in video game advertising and marketing.

“They’re seen as looking for yet another revenue stream,” Off said. “Did they push it too far? Possibly.”

Although few companies sell cheats and other tricks outright, almost all are trying to exploit them subtly.

Some give away cheats when players register, subscribe to newsletters or pre-order titles. Others use cheats to revive sales weeks or months after their debut.

EA shipped “Superman Returns: The Videogame” to retailers on Nov. 20, and eight days later Time Warner Inc.’s Warner Home Video Inc. released the movie sequel on DVD, complete with a special cheat code for the game.

The DVD told players to enter a command sequence on their game consoles – Up, Right, Down, Right, Up, Left, Down, Right, Up – then fly to the top of a building to morph into Superman’s destructive clone, Bizarro. Playing as Bizarro lengthens a game that, without special content, is a relatively short six hours.

Steve Jenkins, who calls himself “cheat executive officer” of Maple Valley, Wash.-based, said few players realize how scripted and marketed cheat codes and other insider tricks have become.

“Sometimes my secret source fires off this stuff to me, but it’s usually the public relations person, publisher or developer who gives us the stuff,” said Jenkins, whose site publishes thousands of cheats. “They might give us five cheats and say, ‘Release this one now, this one a month later.”‘

Ben Borth, 30, a producer at Vivendi Universal Games Inc., helped incorporate cheats and “bonus content” in Eragon, a game about a boy who rides dragons. Players who find Easter eggs – in this case, dragon eggs – unlock interviews with game designers desiring to promote the brand and win customer loyalty.

“There are lots of different gamers out there – the guy who just wants to play through and the guy who wants to find every last thing,” Borth said. “We always keep that guy, the sort of obsessive-compulsive guy, in mind.”

Players are mixed on the corporate co-option of what once felt like special tricks reserved for gamers in the know.

Fans say cheats help when they’re frustrated and might otherwise quit. But critics point to scores of Web sites that sell or give away cheats and other tips, and eBay auctions that list cheat downloads for 99 cents.

Most cheats are free, and people who know the code can easily pass it along to friends. But some gamers pay for neatly organized cheat lists in magazines, on Web sites and even in booklets sold or endorsed by the game publishers.

Aubrey McMullen, 27, who’s been playing video games since he was 4, cheats in “Grand Theft Auto,” a game with more cheats than almost any other.

But the criminal justice major at Pasadena City College said the use of cheats and other tricks as marketing fodder has become so pervasive that virtually every gamer he knows uses them. He said the ubiquity of cheats has turned clever competitors into couch potatoes.

“It’s really dumbed-down gamers – it doesn’t make them think as much,” McMullen said. “People cheat because they can – because there’s an option that makes their lives easier.”