Facebook didn't set out to be the No. 1 gaming platform on the Web, and Apple didn't plan on games driving the lion's share of its app revenue, but both have happened, bringing gaming out from the basement to the main attraction in entertainment.
Ask the commuters around you, or have the flight attendant ask your travelling companions if they are gamers. You likely will get a lot of noes. Ask the same group if they've rocked out to The Beatles: Rock Band on their Wii or played Boggle on their iPad, and you'll get resounding yeses.
Gaming used to be defined pretty narrowly: There was a highly passionate but niche audience predominantly of men under the age of 25 who played for hours in their bedrooms. Pundits predicted that when these players grew up they'd retire their consoles, along with their acne medicine or fraternity letters, as the last vestiges of youth.
But a funny thing happened. These guys grew up, got married, had kids and not only do they still play games, but the whole family is now involved.
Additionally, new platforms arrived and content broadened to appeal to all demographics and psychographics. In fact, today about 40 percent of gamers are women, and 67 percent of homes in America either own a console or PC used for interactive entertainment, according to the Entertainment Software Association's 2010 Essential Facts report. Additionally, the report notes, 42 percent of heads of households say they play games on wireless devices such as cell phones or PDAs, up from 20 percent in 2002.
Evolution is a funny thing for an industry: you either adapt or you die. We've seen both in the last decade. For gaming, the great news is that more people are playing than ever, more money is being spent and the industry has emerged from a network of small studios to an enormous sector in the entertainment industry that increasingly leads where consumers are going.
Today's console games are more complex than ever and are totally immersive experiences. Twenty years ago, two teenagers could make a game in their parents' garage for about $500. Today, a top game can cost $50-100 million and employ an army of engineers, technicians, artists, lighters, sound specialists and voiceover talent. The strategy and story lines are complex and the realism jaw dropping.
Take a game like Electronic Arts' FIFA Soccer. Last October, when FIFA Soccer 10 launched, it brought in more than $230 million in the first month alone, and its total revenue for 2009 would put it in the top 10 movies of 2009. The franchise has sold over 90 million units to date, and this year it will be played on nine platforms including the iPhone and on Facebook with FIFA Superstars. FIFA Soccer is the first billion-dollar franchise to arrive on Facebook. EA's vision for the industry is to focus on how consumers want to play, versus just what they want to play. And with a game like FIFA Soccer, it's not so much about the thing that you buy -- the physical disc -- but rather it's about the place that you go, a world where you are Landon Donovan. It's about the online communities, the social experiences, the exclusive downloadable content or the live, global competitions with your friends.
What does all this mean for brands? It only takes a minute to pull a research run and see the reach and engagement that interactive entertainment delivers. The proliferation of platforms and content has resulted in gaming companies diversifying their revenue streams, allowing marketers a chance to build affinity in the virtual worlds to which consumers escape. Gaming is not emerging media, it has emerged. Brands investing wisely, and extending or enhancing game play is emerging.
The case studies are abundant: Dr Pepper bringing reconnaissance tools to players in Mass Effect 2; Toyota allowing players of The Sims 3 to acquire a Prius and reduce their household bills; Doritos enabling consumers to choose the Madden NFL 11 cover athlete. They're all great examples of brands tapping relevant reach, engaged audiences and killer content to deliver amazing branded entertainment.
It's time for every brand to embrace gaming's role in entertainment and to invest wisely in social, mobile, console and PC gaming.
Elizabeth Harz is svp of global media sales at Electronic Arts.
See also: "Madden NFL 11: The Ad Game"