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Video games locked and loaded to appeal to core

Ice-T, right, and Epic's design director Cliff Bleszinski demonstrated the new video game Gears of War 3 at Microsoft's 2011 Xbox 360 media briefing last week in Los Angeles.
Ice-T, right, and Epic's design director Cliff Bleszinski demonstrated the new video game Gears of War 3 at Microsoft's 2011 Xbox 360 media briefing last week in Los Angeles. MCT

LOS ANGELES — Taking center stage at this year's video games convention in Los Angeles were big-budget epic games that feature sweeping cinematic sequences, colossal battles and intricate story lines. Gone were the cute pet simulations and the music games that flooded store shelves just two years ago.

The shift away from simpler games toward action and military ones at the Electronic Entertainment Expo, which ran through Thursday at the Los Angeles Convention Center, reflects a change in strategy by the largest video game companies.

Most sought to expand their businesses over the last few years by going after casual gamers such as women and older adults, but those players were the first to cut back spending as the economy declined. They also switched to less expensive or free games on Facebook and smartphones.

As a result, sales of Nintendo's casual-focused Wii console and music games such as Guitar Hero plummeted last year, driving an overall 5 percent decline in consumer video game spending.

However, "core" young male gamers continued buying action titles like Call of Duty: Black Ops, which sold more than 20 million copies. Game publishers are hoping they will spend even more this year. Among the hot titles aimed at this audience, and hyped at E3 last week, were Mass Effect 3, Saints Row: The Third and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3.

"This year, the theme is a return to the core consumers as a key part of the business," said Geoff Keighley, host and executive producer of Spike TV's GameTrailers TV. "These guys will be with you in good times and in bad, and they spend a lot of money playing games month in and month out."

At its E3 news conference Monday, Microsoft aggressively targeted this audience. In addition to showing off coming action titles including Gears of War 3 and Halo 4, Microsoft demonstrated a number of new high-octane games that use Kinect, a voice-and-motion-sensing accessory for the Xbox 360 that launched last year.

Most early titles for the device were aimed at a casual audience, such as one focused on hip-hop dancing and another with furry animals. But many Kinect games demonstrated at E3 featured guns, knives and light sabers.

"We skimped a little on the core (audience) with Kinect last year," Michael Delman, Xbox president of global marketing, said in an interview. "We expect to see their usage go way up."

Reports of Nintendo's new Wii U indicate that it will be more powerful than the Wii, which should attract more core gamers.

It will also have a new controller with a built-in touch screen that could marry some of the capabilities of tablet computers such as the iPad with a video game system.

Getting devoted gamers who love Nintendo's iconic brands like Super Mario and Legend of Zelda but were turned off by the Wii's lack of high-definition graphics and sophisticated online capabilities is crucial for the company, said Michael Pachter, a Wedbush Securities analyst in Los Angeles.

"That audience is shifting to smartphones, tablets and social games," he said. "Nintendo did a great job getting that crowd to play console games. They weren't able to do as good of a job in keeping them there."

Nintendo also recently had what the company conceded was a disappointing launch for its 3DS portable console. Sony was poised to take advantage of that when it showed off a new portable gaming device last week.

Dubbed NGP, for "next-generation portable," it is loaded with features designed to appeal to gamers obsessed with the latest technology, including two touch screens, two cameras and the ability to wirelessly connect to the Web.

Hard-core gamers who have felt that they were shoved aside in the past are likely to welcome the renewed focus on their needs this year.

But a narrower market will make it very difficult for the video game industry to return to the high-flying days of 2006 to 2009, when game sales rose more than 30 percent each year for some companies.

"It's going to grow a couple of percentage points a year from here on," Pachter said. "It's not the gigantic growth that we've seen in the past. It'll be a very slow-growth industry, but it's not going to be fatal."

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