Growing the gaming audience: Geometry Wars vs. Nintendogs and Brain Training

There’s a lot of talk in the video game industry now about how to grow the audience for games. There are questions of whether to chase after hardcore gamers, lapsed gamers, or nongamers; whether tapping into the old-school arcade spirit will bring people back to gaming; whether it’s even possible to bring in new gamers given that “play” is an embarrassing word for adults in this country. There are several posts and articles up on the Interweb today that expand on this discussion.

Microsoft’s strategy for reaching new gamers is to offer casual games via its Xbox Live Arcade service. Joystiq has a long interview up with Chris Early, studio manager for Microsoft Casual Games Group. Early doesn’t say anything new, but he speaks about the issue in more depth than we usually get from marketing folks. He briefly talks about XLA’s opportunity for game experiments — “for several hundred thousand dollars you can now experiment as a developer and have a channel to bring what can be very innovative and fresh content” — but it’s clear through the interview that the push is toward simplicity and ease rather than innovation. I appreciate this impulse, but I still have my reservations about how interested non- or casual gamers will be in souped-up versions of old arcade games (Geometry Wars and Mutant Storm: Reloaded are essentially updates of Asteroids), or if they’ll care about the badges and scoring leaderboards and everything that harkens back to the high-score days of the 80s.

Over at CNN/Money, Chris Morris writes about the ignored 50-and-older gaming demographic, which makes up 19 percent of the gaming audience, according to the Entertainment Software Association. Although a couple of people he mentions are Grand Theft Auto enthusiasts, these people — and others outside the 18-to-35 target demographic — aren’t going to be attracted to most of what’s out there. I’m not certain XLA will attract them either.

To me, this comes down to a question not so much of innovation as simply doing the unexpected. Trauma Center, Phoenix Wright, and Guitar Hero aren’t exactly innovative, since surgery, Encyclopedia Brown, and guitars exist in the real world. But they break the mold of what we expect video games to be. People have in their minds a certain idea of what video games are, and either they like that or they don’t. Many more people than will admit it would give these games a chance if given the opportunity. But even more people would try out video games if they saw what games are capable of beyond WWII shooters and racing games.

No company is trying harder than Nintendo to do this. Reggie Fils-Aime, Nintendo’s ubiquitous VP of sales and marketing, gave an interesting talk that touches on all of this at the Dice Summit in Las Vegas yesterday. He says the company advertised Nintendogs in unexpected places like Seventeen and Teen People magazine. He directly addresses the age issue:

“Two weeks ago, Time Magazine was talking about the importance of training your brain, speaking mainly to later baby boomers. Now, imagine a gaming company talking about appealing to that demographic, people approaching 50 to 60. That’s what we’re doing. What we’ve been able to do, in Japan, is to draw appeal of video gaming into a whole new segment that typically wouldn’t pick up a video game.”

“The marketing for these titles in critical. You won’t see ads on MTV. We’ll be marketing by going on daytime TV, partnering with Oprah, Ellen…totally unheard of for video games, but fundamentally what needs to be done to reach new audience.”

This is far different from the Xbox Arcade strategy, and I think this is ultimately the better way to grow the audience. Even if Microsoft advertised XLA in Seventeen and on Oprah, it wouldn’t work. Nintendo can target those because the games are truly different. I can see Oprah getting into Nintendogs and Brain Age, but she wouldn’t care about Geometry Wars — like the other XLA games, to nongamers it’s still just some old video game.

Ultimately, of course, there needs to be a balance of tweaking, repeating, and innovating. As a half-dozen Nintendo DS experiments show, innovation doesn’t automatically equal fun. But as far as growing the audience is concerned, I think Nintendo’s strategy is the smartest.

Xbox Live is pretty much an “If you build it, they will come” strategy. Microsoft isn’t going out trying to convince casual gamers to buy a 360 because of the simple games; the idea is that a father, girlfriend, uncle of a 360 buyer who doesn’t normally play games will see that there’s something for them, too, and they might try out the system when the real gamer is at school or at work. Nintendo, on the other hand, is trying to actively create a new audience. The Revolution is positioned in every way to do this — the low price, the controller, the very public statements about the “blue ocean” strategy — and the DS is laying the groundwork for it.

We’ll see over the next couple of years which approach is best, but I’m putting my money on Nintendo. As the comics world has seen, you can’t build an audience by simply proclaiming how great your medium is; offering the same thing or revamped versions of the thing that outsiders weren’t buying in the first place; and hoping people will somehow be attracted. You have to go out and convince them why they should be playing and show them there are games outside their vision of what video games are. Here’s hoping Nintendo succeeds and others follow its lead.

— February 10, 2006

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