In 2000, the Interactive Digital Software Association, the body which represents the leisure software industry in America, proudly announced that, by its calculations, the entertainment software industry was at that time a bigger contributor to the US economy than Hollywood. Now, the IDSA expects US leisure software sales to reach US$10 billion within the next couple of years.
With that sort of growth, and with that sort of cash coming in, it is no surprise that over the past couple of years there has been a significant realignment within the industry. But significantly, attempts to introduce brand management techniques from the Fast Moving Consumer Goods industry have failed: despite the fact that (until recently, at least) the vast majority of computer games were sold in boxes through traditional retailers, the leisure software industry is far more like Hollywood and the film industry than the FMCG sector. Games are entertainment products, just like films. And, in the same way that film producers now look beyond the single box office hit to the multi-film "franchise," games manufacturers are looking for series products.
The software industry has now become Hollywood-ised in terms of the money it takes to develop products, too. While it is still possible – just – to do a "Blair Witch" in the computer games industry and write a bestseller in your bedroom, most of the games published today are the product of what you could call a "studio" system. Large software publishers, usually operating in more than one country, will buy in their games’ programming from independent development studios.
Today, a game that the industry classifies as "AAA" – big budget, with big expectations – will cost a minimum of US$2 million to develop. As a result, there has been a sad decline in creativity and excitement in the industry, with companies more and more falling back on safe options rather than exploring new territory.
The concept of the franchise (what the more cynical consumer might call 'sequel-itis') is now rampant in the computer games industry, just as it is in the film industry. In the UK, the last year’s charts have been topped by sequels. Best selling titles over the year have included Resident Evil 3: Nemesis, Final Fantasy VIII, Crash Bandicoot 2, Tekken 2, Delta Force 2, Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2 and Microsoft's Age of Empires II: Age of Kings. That’s without mentioning FIFA 2000, Championship Manager 99/00, WWF Wrestlemania 2000 and a whole host of other titles with the year in their name, which are all follow-ups to earlier games.
With some brands in the computer games industry, such an approach is understandable. Take Lara Croft, for example: having starred in three Tomb Raider games so far (with a fourth in the pipeline), she is a classic case of a well-managed brand, with an extensive licensing program which has seen her image used to endorse a wide range of other products, as well as the promise of a live-action Tomb Raider movie. She has, dare one say it, legs (as well as certain other attributes which legend says were the result of a misplaced decimal point by a programmer in the dim and distant past).
Some pundits suggest Lara can’t go on carrying the flag for Eidos for much longer: she is, they suggest, getting a bit past it, and will soon lose her allure for the hordes of young, predominantly teenage males who make up the mass of the computer games market. Certainly such a view has some truth to it. But it isn't entirely correct. Granted, most computer games players are young males: but if handled correctly, young males can be intensely loyal, and fashion-driven brands can have an extremely long lifecycle. In the toy industry, one only needs to look at Hasbro's Action Man or Mattel's Hot Wheels for evidence of the longevity of fashion-driven, youth-oriented brands (not to mention Mattel's greatest property, Barbie).
At the same time, the demographics of the computer games industry are changing rapidly, both in the UK and the US. While most games players may still be young males, the buyers of games are now predominantly women in their 30s and 40s - the mothers of our young male games players, in other words.
And, with the percentage of games sales being made over the Internet increasing, parents are likely to play an even stronger part in the games buying process, at least until someone perfects a credit card for kids. So marketers now have to be aware of the parental role as gatekeeper, and ensure that their products appeal to male children while simultaneously not disgusting parents too much.
Of course, not all games players are teenage boys. Many – particularly owners of the ‘new generation’ consoles – are males aged between 18 and 25, while a good proportion are males aged up to 45. Increasing numbers are women, buying for themselves. Yet computer games marketers have so far largely failed to recognise that they might have to change their marketing tactics to reach older males or females. It's understandable - the techniques used to reach teenage boys work with very little adaptation for 'lads' or 'blokes', but rather more effort is required to reach those markets who are less interested in frenetic action in short bursts than in longer-term entertainment.
The Holy Grail for computer games companies does now seem to be the female gamer: but all the evidence shows that few of them have any real understanding of what girls and women are looking for. Granted, up to a certain age products such as Riding School Barbie will appeal: but once girls hit their teens, dolls and ponies have somewhat less interest for them.
Some older women are relatively easy to target - the 'ladettes', who seek to ape their male peers in everything: getting drunk, flirting outrageously and hammering the games console when they get back from the pub or club. But while the ladettes may be favourites of the British tabloid press, they actually make up a very small section of the total female market. What most women are looking for are games that don't patronise them by assuming they want to spend their leisure time lost in simulations that reinforce outdated female stereotypes (whether those stereotypes are of the tied-to-the-kitchen-sink variety or the Lara Croft/big breasted Bond babe variety).
Having said that, the success amongst adult women of Electronic Arts’ The Sims – in which you influence the lives and loves of a family of little computer people in an electronic cross between an ant farm and a soap opera – shows that they are prepared to spend on some leisure software products (particularly ones that don’t involve big breasted women, ridiculously large guns and buckets of gore).
But the fragmentation of the target market that software publishers have to reach is not the only problem facing games marketers. They also have to deal with an industry that is highly technology driven, where today's leading edge hardware platform could easily be tomorrow's dustbin. Currently, the marketplace basically splits three ways: games consoles (computer systems that are dedicated solely to games playing) such as the Sony PlayStation 2, handheld games machines such as the Nintendo Game Boy, and PCs. But at the end of this year, all bets could be off, as Microsoft enters the fray with its super-console, the X-Box (and yes, Lara Croft is being groomed for an X-Box outing…).
Console games (whether handheld or not) emphasise reaction time and high-end graphics and also sociability (console players usually play in packs), so best-selling titles tend to be driving games, sports simulations and first person shoot 'em ups. PC games tend to be more cerebral and have in the past been more solitary activities -- for example, "God games" such as SimCity and Empire building games such as Sid Meier's Civilisation. Yet this distinction is now disappearing, as consoles get more memory and so can handle more puzzle-based games, and PCs go online, allowing their owners to link up and play with other gamers rather than with themselves. Marketers will soon no longer be able to use the hardware platform as a convenient shorthand for the type of game.
Finally, as with most industries these days, consolidation is having its effect. Increasingly, the market is being dominated by large software publishers (often owned by or linked with major entertainment groups with interests in books, films, music and so on). Smaller software publishers are either going bust, being bought by the big boys and turned into brands, or converting themselves into highly targeted niche publishers or reinventing themselves as development houses.
Ironically, the two companies which one would have thought would have the best take on the computer games market, Mattel and Hasbro, the world’s two biggest toy companies, have both retreated from the market after getting their fingers horribly burned. It seems that the skills needed to design, manufacture and market dolls and other toys just don’t cut the mustard when it comes to computer games. Mattel’s fall from grace was the most spectacular: having bought The Learning Company, the world’s biggest educational software publisher (and a major player in the computer games market) for US$3.8 billion only three years ago, Mattel was then forced to write the whole investment off and effectively pay someone to take Mattel Interactive off its hands last year. From now on, both Mattel and Hasbro will be limiting their exposure to the ups and downs of the leisure software by licensing their brands to appear in games, rather than manufacturing and distributing games themselves.
This adds yet another layer of confusion for the games marketer. Which name should be given most importance on the box? Should the publisher be stressed, or the company that developed the title, or the individual programmer most associated with the game, or the game name itself? Or should all be given equal billing? Just cruise the shelves of your local games emporium, and you’ll see all these approaches – and others, no doubt – adopted, sometimes within the same company’s product range.