IQ News: Analysis – What’s in a Game?

Players are no longer male, pale and frail.
They used to have a word for computer gamers: boys. But online gaming, an arena formerly dominated by so-called “hardcore” games such as Quake and Doom, is broadening its horizons. The genre now includes digital versions of classics such as hearts, poker and Hasbro’s Scrabble, as well as born-on-the-Web games. Thus, when the game industry meets at the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo–known as E3–in Los Angeles this week, the demographic that they are, or should be, targeting is everyone.
Advertisers are learning that in the broadened gamer market, to play is human, to game online, divine. The gaming industry hasn’t caught up, en masse, but they likely will–as some sites have already discovered, gamers create an ever-renewing supply of impressions that can be sold for cold hard cash, and are great places to use unusual, attention-grabbing ad forms. Excite, the portal now owned by Redwood City, Calif. next-door neighbor Home, reports that its games area is the third fastest-growing source of new registrations on its site, with most of them congregating around virtual card tables playing virtual cards.
“This traditionally was a guy’s industry,” explains Christian Svensson, editor in chief of MCV: The Market for Home Computing and Videogames, of the industry’s sometimes slow response. “[Creating] games is sexy for these guys. What the industry has learned in the last five years is, we can’t continue to make games for ourselves if we want to be on the scale of the movie or recording industries.”
Game developers are starting to break ranks, moving mainstream and even using their technology and skills in the service of marketing. San Francisco’s Total Entertainment Network, formerly a hardcore shooter site, brought its company from what many call near-death to economic vitality by providing what it terms family games to 12 portals, including Netscape and Excite. “We saw a sweet spot between the family or recreational games and the hardcore,” says Erik Lundberg, TEN’s vice president of sales. The company is expanding its ad model from selling product placements on the backs of playing cards and interstitials between games, to pushing customized games such as product-oriented crosswords.
Variations on the product placement ad model are popping up. Fox Interactive, maker of the 2 million-selling kids’ Sony PlayStation title Croc, has begun to offer such placements in its CD-ROM games, starting with Nokia cell phones ads embedded in its X-Files title. Fox Interactive’s latest offering, Croc 2, adds Nabisco LifeSavers to the landscape, replacing the game’s “jelly jumps” with the brand’s Gummi Savers, in a strictly cross-promotional effort. “I’m not sure who would pay whom,” admits Scott Marcus, vice president, worldwide promotions and strategic alliances at Fox. “They’re going to be in a game that will hopefully sell a couple more million, they’ll be in our advertising and we’ll be on approximately 6.5 million packages of their candy.”
A true game/ad hybrid is the Tundra Madness Tournament on the MSN Gaming Zone. As an awareness campaign for the new Toyota Tundra pickup truck, gamers are invited to buy the MSN CD-ROM game Monster Truck Madness 2, then go to the Zone and customize it into a Monster Tundra truck which can compete in races in a promotional version of the game. The top winner becomes “Duke of Dirt” and wins a real truck.
Adam Waalkes, product unit manager of the MSN Gaming Zone, said this is the site’s most elaborate such promotion since the Zone launched in 1996. “Broad audience games have been successful for us year after year,” he said.
Abject Modernity of Winnipeg, Canada, is one of a number of gaming companies that is also pursuing marketing consulting. Although it makes products calling for potential players to buy talismanic pendants at retail in order to enter its online gaming community, the company estimates that sales of its two games will be only 65 percent of its projected 1999 revenues of Canadian $7.5 million. The rest will come from marketing assignments. “We are working with some ridiculously large multinationals,” says Abject CEO Rod Bruinooge, “helping them to [re]create some of the concepts we’ve found to work.”
For example, the company might manufacture a bracelet to be given as a premium by a snack food company that could be used to provide clues in a game on the manufacturer’s site.
While the more old-fashioned games are addictive in their own right, what’s admittedly missing is the creativity, intrigue and immersiveness of hardcore games. Therefore, some companies are turning their hardcore game-making expertise into the business of providing tools that should position them well both now and in the broadband future.
One of those companies is Anark, of Boulder, Col., which, after successfully marketing the adventure game Galapagos in December of 1997, has taken some of its proprietary 3D technology and made Emotion 3D Web Edition, a tool for Web developers to create animations. A public beta version was released on April 22, with a May ship date. At the same time, the Anark Game Studios division was renamed Anark Interactive Media. “We were looking for more predictable opportunities than developing a game,” says marketing director Stephen Collins.
3D features are believed to be what make computer games so immersive, with rival companies touting the superiority of their “game engines,” the software that controls the action. Launch Media of Santa Monica, Calif., will use Eight Cylinder Studios’ game engine and scripting tools to build the next generation of its digital entertainment vehicles. Launch 3D, to be released next quarter, is designed for broadband, and will likely include unusual online ad forms.
Users will be able to wander through virtual worlds that combine audio, video and animation, so that, for example, you might stroll down a graphical city street illuminated by advertising billboards, then enter a bar where a video image of Chris Isaak sings on a stage.
But the experience of Eight Cylinder, Santa Monica, a former game developer for Microsoft’s entertainment business unit, demonstrates that even as publishers such as Launch jump into 3D games, they aren’t aiming for the shoot ’em up player of old. Says Launch CEO David Goldberg, “Many of the conventions of the game world, we didn’t want at all. They want to get people lost, because a game is supposed to be difficult. We want to make it easy for our users.”