SBJ/April 11-17, 2011/In Depth

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  • Motion video gaming creates opportunities

    The continued rise of motion video gaming has fueled a trend of nontraditional sports titles using licensed intellectual property.

    Nearly five years ago, Nintendo’s Wii first brought motion-based gaming to the masses, and the initial core title Wii Sports that was packaged with the console ranks among the top-selling video games of all time. But more recent advances in motion gaming, particularly the Microsoft Kinect peripheral for the Xbox 360 that allows users to play games without any controller, has opened significant new avenues for game developers.

    505 GAMES
    505 Games will soon release “Michael Phelps: Push the Limit.”
    505 Games in June will release “Michael Phelps: Push the Limit,” a swimming title exclusively for Kinect featuring the most decorated swimmer in Olympic history. A wave of fitness-oriented titles using licensed IP, such as EA Sports’ “NFL Training Camp” and THQ Inc.’s forthcoming “UFC Personal Trainer,” similarly seek to leverage the motion technology. And a series of coming tennis games, including Sega’s “Virtua Tennis 4,” will also incorporate Kinect and Sony’s competing PlayStation Move functionality.

    “We didn’t want this game to be like anything that’s been out before, and the Kinect has helped us do that,” said John Merchant, 505 Games global brand manager. “You can’t just stand in front of the [Kinect] and flail your arms. It involves actually learning the correct swimming strokes and using strategy. This is an amazing platform, one that opens up some great opportunities, and in the case of Michael, this definitely is not a one-off.”

    “UFC Personal Trainer,” meanwhile, will seek to capitalize on a fitness craze involving martial arts and kick boxing, as well as extend THQ’s video game partnership with the mixed martial arts property.

    “We thought right from the beginning there was a lot we could do with Kinect, particularly with giving users the ability to do a full-body workout without being encumbered by controllers,” said Arturo Castro, THQ Inc. brand manager. “What we’re looking to do is have an intense workout, an authentic fitness experience that really speaks to the core UFC male fan, but also is something directly accessible to women. The UFC brand helps give this credibility, sort of a seal of approval.”

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  • EA's "NBA Jam" hasn't met the company's expectations on sales for gaming consoles, but mobile versions for the iPhone and iPad have fared better.

    The list of top-selling video game titles for 2010 from retail industry tracker NPD Group did not carry much in the way of surprises or any new game franchises whatsoever. Mixed in with perennially popular first-person shooter titles such as "Call Of Duty" and "Halo" were similarly tried-and-true bellwethers of sports video gaming in their latest versions: "Madden NFL 11," "NBA 2K11," and "FIFA 11," each of them stalwarts for more than a decade.

    The striking sameness of the list, however, also highlighted an increasingly odd and troubling dynamic of the sports video game industry. As the overall gaming industry continues to grow, with global revenue forecasts for this year surpassing $48 billion, and gaming in general becoming more accessible in part through the steady rise of motion-based play (see story, Page 19), arcade and casually oriented titles using licensed sports intellectual property have still found choppy sales waters.

    The "Madden," "FIFA," "NBA 2K" and similar sports game franchises are all ultrarealistic, simulation-based products that seek to re-create everything that happens in those sports in real life. And each of them primarily targets the relatively narrow demographic of males ages 13-35.

    The arcade games, conversely, are designed to attract a much wider audience in terms of both age and gender because of their ease of play. But that segment of the business is littered with titles that debuted in recent years to high hopes and often splashy launch marketing, but quickly faded out of existence. "MLB: The Bigs," "NFL Tour," "NFL Blitz," "NHL Hitz," "Facebreaker," "Street" versions of EA Sports' NFL, NBA and FIFA franchises, and "MLB Power Pros" are just a few examples of arcade titles from the past decade that no longer are developed. Most of them had only one or two iterations.

    "Before, the only way you could play a sports game was in an arcade-style setting. But as technology has continued to improve, the realism has grown dramatically, and that's what consumers now want."

    Michael Pachter
    Analyst, Wedbush Morgan Securities

    Even more successful entries in this category have often been more complicated than most anything seen among simulation games. EA Sports' initially celebrated revival of "NBA Jam" went through several business strategy changes for its console versions of the game (see story, Page 18), and then did not draw strong initial sales, debuting to less than 50,000 unit sales for the Nintendo Wii in its first month.

    The company quickly killed any notion of roster updates for the Sony PlayStation 3 or Microsoft Xbox 360 versions, further signifying weak performance at retail. Mobile versions for Apple's iPhone and iPad, however, have performed much better, briefly ranking as one of the top-grossing applications on iTunes and still holding a top-60 slot for the iPhone as of last week. EA Sports has also supported these versions, costing just $5 each, with roster updates, such as allowing gamers to play with Carmelo Anthony as a New York Knick.

    In short, chasing the more casual gamer is one of the hardest things any developer does. Physical sales of sports video games last year in the U.S. declined 24 percent, according to NPD Group data, in part because of a marked retreat in the creation and appeal of casual, arcade-style titles.

    "Tastes in the market have simply changed," said Michael Pachter, video game analyst for Wedbush Morgan Securities. "Before, the only way you could play a sports game was in an arcade-style setting. But as technology has continued to improve, the realism has grown dramatically, and that's what consumers now want. And it's not just sports. You couldn't make a cartoony shooter game today and be really successful. And on TV, it's gritty realism, the 'CSI'-type shows, that dominate that market, too."

    It's not that game developers haven't seriously tried, though. EA Sports, in particular, several years ago sought to develop two subbrands as a means to create and market casual and arcade fare in a more concerted manner: a Nintendo Wii-based "All Play" moniker and a more general "EA Freestyle" brand. "Freestyle," in turn, was a new attempt at a similar, prior effort with the "EA Sports BIG" brand. None of these are used anymore.

    "The name 'EA Sports' we found has a great amount of elasticity in and of itself," said Andrew Wilson, EA Sports' senior vice president of worldwide development. "It's interesting. The whole casual-gamer-versus- hard-core-gamer distinction we make in the industry, it's an odd one gamers don't necessarily make themselves. Sport means a lot of things to a lot of people. In general, though, we need to stay very flexible and offer a wide range of quality gaming experiences to all our consumers."

    Resource allocation

    To some, the spotty track record for arcade sports games is rather simply explained: The titles are essentially throw-ins to the primary simulation game licenses, and do not get the lion's share of corporate resources with regard to game development or marketing.

    2K Sports' exclusive third-party console license with Major League Baseball is a case in point. The developer gained the license in 2005, soon after the NFL signed an exclusive deal with EA Sports for NFL games. The main simulation baseball title, "MLB 2K5," came out that spring and has been revived every year since. The first arcade-style title entry from that license, "MLB: The Bigs," came out two years later, and was created by a different studio, Blue Castle Games, not the Visual Concepts studio that produces all of 2K Sports' main simulation releases.

    The various other, now-extinct extensions of the MLB license, such as "MLB: Stickball," "MLB Power Pros," "MLB Front Office Manager," and "MLB Superstars," were similarly farmed out to other studios besides Visual Concepts.

    "There is so much money, effort and time invested in that core title, and it has to be good every year," said Scott Steinberg, chief executive of video game and technology consulting firm TechSavvy Global. "Those are the flagships of the product line. So the other titles are going to be inherently secondary. You're not going to find game makers investing primary dollars in what are essentially spin-offs of the core franchise."

    But therein lies the rub. Console-based sports arcade games in many instances still cost the same $35 to $60 a copy at retail that the deeper simulation games do. So a consumer faced with a choice in the store almost inevitably is going to select the game that will deliver more hours of play.

    "Fans are still choosy with how they spend their money," Steinberg said. "Many of these [arcade] games really need to be right-sized."

    Digital future

    The strong performance of "NBA Jam" on mobile shows there is still a pent-up demand for lighter, more escapist sports video games, but not necessarily on a gaming console and certainly not at simulation game pricing.

    As a result, future arcade and casual games will likely be focused more as downloadable- only, mobile or social network-oriented titles, such as "NHL 3-on-3 Arcade," a $10 game from two years ago; "NBA Jam"; and, more recently, EA's ever-expanding series of Facebook games, such as "World Series Superstars," "Madden NFL Superstars," and "PGA Tour Golf Challenge."

    Many of these and similar titles are free to play or cost just a few dollars. But user demands are not nearly as high, either, allowing for more streamlined business models. And primary game fees are often buttressed by in-game advertising and microtransactions. Game play varies widely from lighter versions of comparable simulation titles to entirely different mechanisms more akin to fantasy sports.

    EA has been expanding its games on Facebook such as "PGA Tour Golf Challenge."

    "You can make a really great Facebook game for $500,000," Pachter said. "That's a big difference from $10 million or $20 million that you would often need to make a game for Xbox 360 or PS3. So there is a much different market out there, and one that in theory could have an infinite lifespan through the updates and refreshes. There is a generation out there we call 'Nintendads' that grew up with the original Nintendo and now are in their 30s with kids. It's still a strong market, and they're still playing casual games."

    Liam Callahan, NPD Group senior category specialist, agreed.

    "While casual sports games might have smaller sales potential, they may still turn a profit because they cost less to produce," Callahan said.

    The challenge to creating successful games in these more social arenas, however, is being able to apply many of the same core development principles to these new platforms.

    "Facebook is definitely a big opportunity and social gaming is obviously a big buzzword now," Wilson said. "But you can't just throw something up on Facebook and expect success. And it goes well beyond Facebook. com, too. It's about really engaging consumers in many of the same kind of ways across all these various platforms that we did before just through the console."

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  • Play the Game

    NBA JAM, EA Sports (2010)

    This high-profile revival, updating a revered classic from the early 1990s, originally was to be released on the Nintendo Wii as a stand-alone product, and then embedded for free as part of the publisher’s NBA core simulation title, “NBA Elite 11” for the Sony PlayStation 3 and Microsoft Xbox 360. But when “Elite” was shelved last fall because of quality and game-play concerns, “NBA Jam” was released on its own for all three major gaming consoles, and then in mobile form for Apple’s iPhone and iPad. The two-on-two basketball play features no rules, no fouls and little regard for the laws of physics. The game will get a further update this fall when EA releases “NBA Jam: On Fire Edition” as a download-only title for the PlayStation Network and XBox Live Arcade.

    3-ON-3 NHL ARCADE, EA Sports (2009)

    One of the first downloadable-only arcade sports titles, this light take on NHL play was distributed through online networks for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. A recession-friendly $10 price point and generally favorable reviews created some early buzz. But the game last year was essentially replaced by “NHL Slapshot,” a more traditional, Wayne Gretzky-endorsed title for the Nintendo Wii targeting the casual market that features several similar arcade-style mini-games and a hockey stick controller. “3-On-3” also paved the way for a downloadable arcade version of “Madden NFL.”

    FACEBREAKER, EA Sports (2008)

    One of the first new game franchises overseen by EA Sports President Peter Moore after his 2007 arrival at the company, this heavily cartoonish take on boxing did not rely on licensed intellectual property. But it was seen as too difficult to play by many reviewers and gamers, and the title was soon pushed aside as the company refocused its attention within fighting titles to its simulation boxing franchise, “Fight Night,” and new mixed-martial arts title, “EA Sports MMA.”

    THE BIGS, 2K Sports (2007)

    One of several attempted and generally fleeting extensions of 2K Sports’ exclusive and unprofitable license with Major League Baseball, this over-the-top representation of the game featured among other elements a Home Run Derby pinball game set in New York’s Times Square. The franchise spawned a 2009 sequel, but has since faded from view.

    NFL BLITZ, Midway Games (1998)

    A big success created by the same operation that originally created “NBA Jam,” this hyperviolent rendering of NFL play was a fixture of the late 1990s and early 2000s gaming scene. Even after EA Sports gained an exclusive NFL license in late 2004, Midway released two versions of “Blitz,” without league marks and players. Since the recent reboot of “NBA Jam,” rumors have been heavy around the gaming industry that EA Sports will do the same with this one. But the company has made no announcements around this title, and it’s difficult to reconcile re-creating this game given the NFL’s new sensitivity toward real-world player concussions and on-field safety. Even before the Midway license expired, NFL officials pressed the developer to tone down some of the particularly violent aspects of the game.

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