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Games for the rest of us

Times Staff Writer

At the video game industry’s largest event of the year, many of the A-list heroes were no-shows: Halo’s Master Chief. Legend of Zelda’s Zelda. Grand Theft Auto IV’s Niko Bellic.

Instead of relying on franchises sure to draw cheers from the crowd of predominantly young male gamers who attended the E3 Media & Business Summit in Los Angeles last week, publishers focused on games their grandmothers could play.

The industry has built its $40-billion empire on customers who think nothing of camping out overnight to buy a next-generation console or the latest installment of Halo. But that audience is getting tapped out -- the percentage of households that own a current-generation console has not changed much from the previous generation.

To inject the sales growth that investors now expect, companies are turning to a broader audience: people who have either never played or whose last game was Pong.

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At E3, the audience snickered when Ubisoft Entertainment’s head of marketing, Tony Key, showed a competitive dancing game. But the French developer could very well have the last laugh. Its Games for Everyone division, which made the dancing title, comprises roughly one-quarter of the company’s revenue this year, up from 20% last year and 15% the year before.

And because those titles are less expensive to make than the elaborately crafted games serious players have come to expect, they’re far more profitable.

“If you think about the number of people who own a console versus the number of people who go to see movies, there are still billions of people who we haven’t even touched yet,” said Graham Hopper, executive vice president of Walt Disney Co.'s games group. “As the game industry grows, it needs to reach out to a broader audience.”

To do that, companies are scrambling to find ways to make their games easier to take out of the box and play than titles such as Grand Theft Auto.

One of the biggest barriers has been the game controller, with its complex array of buttons that stymie novice players. As a result, many developers are designing games that require just one or two buttons to play.

Some ditch the controller entirely. Tom Clancy’s EndWar relies entirely on voice commands. Players assume the role of a general in the battlefield, issuing orders to troops. The game’s tag line: “Your voice is the ultimate weapon.”

“We’re trying to get people to talk to their TVs,” joked Laurent Detoc, president of Ubisoft North America, the game’s publisher.

Nintendo Co. deserves much of the credit for goosing game developers to think beyond the traditional controller. Its Wii console uses a wireless motion-sensing controller that’s about the size of a large candy bar. Holding the Wii remote, players swing their arms to hit a baseball or flick their wrists to volley a tennis ball. The innovation has led to a mini-explosion of nontraditional consumers flocking to the device.

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This year, the Japanese company began selling another gaming peripheral, the Wii Fit Balance Board. Players stand on the board, which has embedded pressure sensors to calculate which way players are leaning.

A number of games took advantage of the board, demonstrating snowboarding, cheerleading and sledding games at E3.

With Rayman Raving Rabbids TV Party, players sit on the board to take on the role of a demented rabbit sledding through a snow-covered alpine village. The controls are designed to be intuitive. Leaning to the right causes the rabbit to veer right. Made by Ubisoft, the title is set for release later this year.

Activision Blizzard’s Guitar Hero series also capitalizes on the movement toward games that follow Pong’s old dictum -- easy to play, impossible to master. The game uses a controller shaped like a guitar but with five buttons on the neck and a strum bar instead of strings. Players try to match the patterns created on the screen to simulate being in a rock band.

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Activision built the music game franchise into a billion-dollar business by capturing a broad audience of consumers as varied as baby boomers who rock with the Rolling Stones to young hipsters who listen to Weezer.

Much of Microsoft’s news conference at E3 was devoted to features aimed to draw in not gamers so much as their mothers, grandparents or little sisters.

Instead of talking about the next version of Halo, the company opted to highlight, among other things, a friendlier look for its Xbox Live online game service, which also allows players to create custom avatars -- a feature that some journalists whose audience consisted primarily of serious gamers felt was a bit too cutesy for Halo players.

The technology giant also demonstrated a new game concept for its Xbox 360 players called 1 vs. 100. At the appointed hour, players can log in to Xbox Live and compete for prizes in a trivia contest or game show against thousands of other players.

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In some ways, Microsoft is trying to catch up to Nintendo. Demand for Nintendo’s Wii console and Wii Fit games have been so high that the company has struggled to keep the products in stock.

Its hand-held DS console continues to enjoy double-digit sales growth, even though the device is 3 1/2 years old. Sales of the DS grew 12% in the first five months of this year compared with the same period in 2007. Sales of games for the device grew 30% in the same time frame.

The growth is fueled in part by females flocking to the DS, said Cammie Dunaway, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Nintendo’s U.S. operations. Nearly half of DS owners were female last year, compared with 30% in 2005.

As a result, Nintendo is seeing games such as Brain Age and Nintendogs sell well for several years, running counter to the industry norm of a sales spike that tapers off a few weeks after a game’s release.

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“We’ve reinvented the old paradigm of launch and move on,” Dunaway said. “Because of our customer base, we now have evergreens. Nintendo recognized several years ago that the way for this business to grow and remain vibrant was to bring new players into this industry.”

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alex.pham@latimes.com


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