Normally when someone suggests adding advertising to something good, I make a sour face. But the news that both Microsoft and Sony are considering making it easy to put ads into free-to-play games on Xbox Series S, Xbox Series X and PS5 could actually be a positive step – provided they do it right. Because if they don't then it's time to worry.
If like me you have a child under ten, you're probably very familiar with Fortnite – or rather, the sound of your kid playing it, asking to play it, or offering to do chores so they can earn money to spend on in-game V-bucks for when they're playing it. Those V-bucks are used to buy emotes and skins, and they're basically kiddie heroin: I have absolutely no doubt that if there were enough V-bucks in it, my kid would happily murder me.
I often moan about the high price of games, but my kid has spent more on Fortnite V-bucks than I've ever spent on a PS5 exclusive.
This isn't unique to Fortnite. Free to play (F2P) games are big business because the only thing that's free is the core game. All the fun stuff costs. So if that could be ad-funded rather than me-funded, I'm all for it.
But there's a big downside to ads in games, and I hope both Microsoft and Sony are taking that into consideration.
The kids aren't all right
Depending on where you live, Fortnite has an age rating of 12 or 13 years. And in practice, that's probably the upper age limit of the players: I think everybody in my child's primary school class, average age eight, is on it. And with careful application of parental controls and low-tech techniques such as me sitting next to them on the sofa when they play, I don't think Fortnite is inappropriate or unsuitable for younger players.
And again, that doesn't just apply to Fortnite. Many great arcade and puzzle games on iOS/iPad OS are rated much higher than they should be; there's often an assumption that if there's any violence at all, no matter how cartoony or slapstick, it's not suitable for kids. I think like many parents I see age ratings in games and movies as guidance rather than hard limits, because context matters: I think the bunny slaughter of Watership Down (certificate U in the UK) is much more disturbing than the shooting in Die Hard (certificate 15).
And that's the problem I have with ads, because all too often they don't have the same context as the games they're in. Again and again my kid will be playing a fairly gentle, age-appropriate game and it'll be interrupted with full-motion video for Zombie Gorefest Intestine Splatter III, footage that's too scary for me let alone an under-10 – and mostly those ads are appearing in games whose certificate is much younger than the one for the game they're promoting. It's rather like taking your kid to see Buzz Lightyear in the cinema and seeing trailers for the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Hostel and Driller Killer.
So I'm in two minds about ad-funded games on my Xbox or PS5. Of course developers need to make money, and if that money can come from ads rather than my purse that sounds good to me. But I hope the platform holders make sure that advertising doesn't use the same deceptive dark patterns as so many mobile games do, and that the advertising is appropriate not for the official ESRB or PEGI rating but for the age of the players actually playing the game. Do that and you'll make a lot of parents happy, and slightly richer too.