Video game industry tries to broaden its appeal

February 4, 2009 6:05:44 PM PST
A tough little blob must splash color over a town wallowing in gray. Bug-eyed rabbits do a dance routine. And then there's the "perfect equine farm" of wild horses for little girls to tame and train. These video games don't sound like anything that would grab a teenage boy's attention, and that's the point. They are part of an important expansion of the video game industry as it works to pull in women, girls and other demographics and cement its place as mainstream entertainment.

A year ago at the E3 Media and Business Summit here in Los Angeles, Nintendo Co. declared that anyone can be a gamer, and that the company would break down the divide between hardcore players and those just beginning to dabble in interactive entertainment. While the divide still exists, games for people who don't fit into the stalwart category of 18-to-34-year-old men are a fast-growing segment of the $18 billion U.S. video game market.

Analyst Michael Pachter of Wedbush Morgan estimates that five years ago, up to 90 percent of gamers were the core audience of young men. Today, it's more like 60 to 70 percent.

To be sure, much of the focus in the video game industry is still on games like the upcoming "Fallout 3," set in a post-apocalyptic Washington, D.C., where players can kill the enemy in "ridiculously violent ways," as its executive producer, Todd Howard of Bethesda Softworks, put it.

But big companies like Nintendo, Microsoft Corp., Electronic Arts Inc. and Ubisoft Entertainment SA have realized the enormous growth potential of mass-market games. A quarter of Ubisoft's worldwide sales of $1.5 billion came from its "casual games" business in the most recent fiscal year - casual games often being the industry's extremely broad term for everything other than what the young male demographic wants. This was the first year the company measured casual games as a separate division, said Tony Key, senior vice president of sales and marketing.

To try to reach more girls, Ubisoft offers its "Imagine" series, which lets 6- to 14-year-old girls play fashion designer, rock star or figure skater. Ubisoft also has "Horse Riders," in which players can create a farm of wild horses.

It's unlikely to get any love from gaming blogs and reviewers, but if Ubisoft's past games for girls are any indication, it will at least make the company some money.

Game companies that have long been selling to teenage boys now want to rope in not only their sisters but also their kid brothers and parents. No company has been as successful in this as Nintendo, which has sold more than 10 million of its $250 Wii consoles in the U.S. since its late 2006 launch, despite widespread supply constraints.

Nintendo's president, Satoru Iwata, says he hopes to eventually blur the lines between games and other forms of entertainment. "We should expand the (games) business to music and movies," he said through an interpreter.

As an example, Nintendo has "Wii Music." The game turns the Wii's wireless controller and "Nunchuk" attachment into more than 60 musical instruments. Players mimic the way musicians play those instruments - and that's it, they are making music even if they don't know a thing about pitch or rhythm. It's a long way from involved games like "Halo 3," where a novice would be hard-pressed to survive more than a few minutes.

Over the past few years, Pachter said, console makers have alienated gamers as they got older. With jobs and families and new responsibilities, people who grew up with video games in the 1980s now have less time to immerse themselves in complicated first-person shooters and adventures.

"Nintendo is bringing those people back," he said.

But the trick is to figure out which specific demographics to aim for.

"To succeed you need to target your product in a more focused way," said Kathy Vrabeck, the head of EA's Casual Entertainment division, which was formed a year ago as the company realized there was gold in accessible, mass-market games. "It's a rare, rare product that appeals to any gender, demographic, age."

The exceptions might be the music simulations, including "Wii Music," Activision Inc.'s "Guitar Hero" and EA's "Rock Band." And then there's EA's "Spore."

Designed by "Sims" creator Will Wright, "Spore" gives players simple tools to design creatures of their own imagination, with no rules other than that they have a mouth.

People have uploaded 1.9 million thorny monsters, lumpy hobbits, psychedelic bugs and walking household objects that they designed to the game's Sporepedia Web site since June 17. This, Wright pointed out, is more than the known number of existing species on Earth.

The full version of "Spore," which will feature the characters that players are making now, goes on sale in September. EA hopes it will become a franchise at least as successful as the "Sims."

With "De Blob," designed by a group of college students, THQ Inc. wants to offer a game that "succeeds in a mix of accessibility and challenge" and attract both a casual and core gamer audience, said Brad Carraway, vice president of global brand management.

Anyone can pick up a Wii controller and play the game, in which the main blob character has to give a town some color. But the further you go, the more challenging it is. As players advance through levels, they have to fulfill missions such as painting buildings specific colors (which they must mix themselves) and fighting the evil I.N.K.T. Corp. honchos who have rid the town of its hues.

Attracting both novice and experienced gamers with the same title is "not an easy thing to do," said Randy Shoemaker, director of global brand management at THQ. "But we feel we nailed it with `De Blob."'