Luring the grown-ups

By developing more `Mature' titles that play up violence and raunch, video game companies are keeping adult male consumers hooked while reeling in profits

October 24, 2002|By Monty Phan | Monty Phan,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The top-selling video game of the past year was rated "Mature."

You could say that about the entire video-game industry, too.

It's an industry whose life span has reached young adulthood. The average gamer is a twentysomething male. And, not coincidentally, more games these days have adult themes - from the over-the-top violence that has become almost commonplace to a new game from Acclaim Entertainment that will have actual video of topless dancers.

Revenues from video games rival those of Hollywood box-office receipts. And like movies, blockbusters are built around franchises with multimillion-dollar budgets.

It's way past child's play.

Many entertainment software companies' fiscal performance rides on how well their games sell during the holiday season. About 65 percent of the industry's revenue - which the tracking firm NPD Group estimated was $9.4 billion last year, including hardware, software and accessories - comes from sales during the last three months of the year. That's why, like the film industry, game companies save big releases for the time when people are in the mood to spend.

The biggest of them all may be Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, the sequel to the best-selling game of the past year, Grand Theft Auto 3, for the Sony PlayStation 2 and PCs.

For proof of what can happen when a company produces a hit title, look no further than Take-Two Interactive, the Manhattan-based publisher of the Grand Theft Auto series. Released a year ago, Grand Theft Auto 3 remained among the top three best-selling non-PC games for nine months.

As a result, the PlayStation2 and PC versions of Grand Theft Auto 3 have sold a combined 7 million units through August, according to Take-Two, and preorders of Vice City, to be released next week, could reach a staggering 4 million, according to an estimate from US Bancorp Piper Jaffray. In the year since Grand Theft Auto 3 was released, Take-Two's stock price has doubled, despite the cloud of a continuing Securities and Exchange Commission investigation.

"What GTA did was it struck a chord in the marketplace," said Paul Eibeler, Take-Two president. "That game just took off. It was a blockbuster game for the PS2."

Franchise value

Part of the maturation of the video-game industry can be attributed to a lesson learned from Hollywood: the value of a franchise. Look at the number of movie sequels, from a fifth Star Wars installment to the third of Austin Powers and Men in Black II.

Take-Two improved its Grand Theft Auto series until it hit gold on the third try, while two months ago, Electronic Arts shipped Madden NFL 2003, the 13th version of that series, which has sold more than 25 million copies.

The trend also is being driven further by the film industry, which has employed video games as one more medium in which to promote movies, says P.J. McNealy of the research firm GartnerG2.

Because the cost of developing a game can range from $1 million to more than $10 million, media companies will help absorb some of that financial risk if it means further promotion of its film properties, according to the GartnerG2 report.

Some companies, though, don't have the support of a Sony to promote all things Spider-Man, or are launching a game with hopes of it becoming a lucrative franchise. So the game industry also is experimenting with marketing tactics of its own.

Publicity stunts

Grand Theft Auto 3 benefited from the old adage that there's no such thing as bad publicity; despite critics lamenting the game's over-the-top violence, the title kept selling.

To emphasize the game's plot line - a low-level thug tries to rise among the ranks of the criminal underworld by performing illegal tasks for various mob bosses - Take-Two also advertised the game with TV commercials resembling movie trailers, another common tactic.

But while some companies stick to traditional means of marketing, others take a more atypical approach. Acclaim, for example, promoted its September release, Turok: Evolution, by offering a $10,000 savings bond to the family of the first child born the day of the game's launch whose legal first name, for at least one year, is Turok.

Earlier this month, Edison, N.J.-based game company Majesco announced a contest awarding a "guided vampire tour" in Louisiana with a Playboy Playmate to promote the Halloween release of BloodRayne, starring a Playmate-esque half-vampire heroine.

"There are 250 games being released between now and the end of the year, and you maybe have five of them," says Gregory Fischbach, Acclaim co-chairman and chief executive. "How do you give them exposure? How do you kind of separate the stuff from the clutter? That's what it's all about."

Whatever the outcome, some in the industry bristle at such promotional tactics, saying the strength of the game, not the marketing plan, should be the deciding factor of how well the title does.

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