It’s so easy to forget. Not so long ago, driving a real car in a video game was unheard of. A virtual vehicle was a red or blue mix of pixels vaguely reminiscent of sedans and sports cars. And then, in 1994, a game called Need for Speed came around. It included a few real cars, along with real horsepower and top speeds. Everything changed.
Now, game studios are modeling hundreds of real cars for franchises like Forza and Gran Turismo. The models include everything from 1950s collectibles to unreleased concepts from the future, and details range from the physics of their suspension systems down to the finish of their dashboards. Digitizing automobiles is a meticulous process—reports say that Polyphony Digital spent six months of man hours for each of the premium cars in Gran Turismo 5. It a process that represents an unprecedented level of collaboration between the products sector and the entertainment sector.
So maybe it should be a little surprising that, at last week’s gaming mecca E3, Ford will be the only car manufacturer sitting alongside game publishers and developers to show off their cars. Because in a world that’s gone digital, video games are the car’s new showroom.
"Playing a game isn’t as intimidating as having to walk in a dealership, speak to a salesman and talk numbers," explains Brian McClary, Ford digital marketing manager. "It’s a great opportunity for us to talk to the public in an un-intimidating environment where they can do things on their own terms."
But designing that virtual showroom experience is more difficult than you might imagine. As much as Ford needs to be in the next Forza just to be competitive, there is a lot that can go wrong for the company. Games aren’t like movies: cars won’t always be shown from predefined perspectives pulling off preplanned death-defying stunts. In fact, hyperbole can create dangerous consumer expectations, especially when games are capable of so much—with a few keystrokes, a Focus could hit 500 mph in a game and corner on a dime—but that’s not what Ford wants.
"We want to make sure the user has the same experience in games as when they drive the vehicle in real life. The worst thing we could do is soup the car up in the game so when they drive it in real life, they don’t find the car up to snuff," McClary tells us, referencing the limitless depth of precise technical data that Ford will share with licensees to ensure accuracy.
"There are other things, too" adds Ford Licensing Manager Mark Bentley. "We don’t want to see the cars flipping over for unknown reasons. Catching fire—certain, we call then thermal events—we don’t want happening if there’s no reason. If you’re driving poorly in a game, and you do end up rolling the car as a result of driver error, that can be explained. But we would never appear in a Burnout game, a game where destruction is the point of a game." Hitting animals and pedestrians is also on Ford’s list of restrictions, which is surely one reason why one of the world’s most successful and violent franchises, Grand Theft Auto, actually contains "Stallions" rather than "Mustangs."
This give and take of licensing vs creativity makes for a somewhat odd relationship between the gaming industry and the auto industry. Ford, for instance, had to get permission from developers to share the screenshots of their own cars you see here. But sometimes, the car industry really does have have to put their foot down—like for a Ford placement in the Xbox 360 psychological thriller Alan Wake.
"The main character actually does get into an accident," McClary explains. "The cars all have airbags. We had to work closely with our safety and legal teams. When the scene first came back, it didn’t have the airbags deployed. And we said, you have to change that."
Complicating matters further, in most cases, developers are actually paying auto manufactures to include their cars in games. Ford confirmed game licensing actually generated revenue for the company. But if Ford really wanted a car in a game that wasn’t going to make the cut—Mustangs are no doubt a sexier sell than a Ford ST—the roles would reverse, and Ford would pay the developer to "subsidize" that placement.
Ford reports these in-game advertisements are extremely worthwhile to their brand. In research conducted by Interpret, they discovered that participants of an in-game Ford ad exposure saw:
36% increase in brand rating
28% increase in purchase consideration
39% increase in brand recommendation
45% more gamers agreed Ford Focus is fun to drive
30% more gamers agreed Ford Focus is good value for the money
Those numbers don’t just seem good, they seem a little too good when you realize that they might also apply to the same types of car placements that Ford currently gets paid to permit. In other words, it’s possible, likely even, that Ford sees as much tangible consumer benefit from licensed content as they do their own advertisements.
Which raises the question, when will all cars in video games appear with the same costly product placement fees we see in movies and TV? Probably as soon as game manufacturers can replicate the unlimited complex of ever-changing car designs without the help of manufacturers, or in other words, never.