As certain game properties like Rock Band and Hannah Montana push the boundaries of what it means to be a "gamer," marketers consider the importance of reaching out to the hardcore gamer.
As the industry buzzes with hopes of expanding the marketplace beyond core gamers, definitions come into play. At the MI6 Conference, one panel addressed the question of how you can reach gamers as the market fractures.
Craig Relyea, senior vice president of Global Marketing at Disney Interactive Studios began with a definition of terms. "Mainstream is interesting... I think it will change as our industry evolves," adding, "In this context, it means outside of the core audience." He doesn't think this is a discussion that the industry will be having in three to five years - just as movies and music today have market segments, but no 'core audience.' "It should really mean the broadest possible audience."
"As I see it, three key things have happened," noted 2K Games senior vice president of marketing, Sarah Anderson. With Nintendo DS and the Brain Age game, the Nintendo Wii, and the music games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band, "Games are cool again, and it's not just violence. I think there's something really great about that."
But it also presents challenges. Designers have to change the way they look at development, says Anderson. "It has to appeal to a wider audience as well." She cites a movie like Shrek that appeals to children, but also has jokes for the adults in the audience. "I think that's something that's really difficult to design."
Bob Picunko, the vice president of Game and Interactive Product at MTV Networks picks up the thread. "There's taking a core game, and turning it into a mainstream game by broadening the audience," he says, and then there are pod games for specific audiences. For example, Halo can be a mainstream game when enough people buy it, but that's different from a game that clings to its niche.
"How important is the core gamer still?" asked moderator John Davison from media company What We Like. He continued by noting that the industry always spoke of a need to grow core gamers. "Is that not the case?"
Disney's Relyea, who has been in the industry for 12 years, says the industry has been growing the whole time, in spite of itself. It's been selling more products to the same people. "We're talking about selling more products to more people," which he calls "the healthy thing to do as an industry."
The key to that, says MTV's Picunko is "finding the audience - and then more importantly, finding the appropriate way to communicate with that audience. This is part of the success of Rock Band. Whether you were a hard-core gamer, or a 16-year-old female, the right message was being targeted towards you."
Picunko shows a four-minute reel that shows how Rock Band was marketed through MTV's television networks, and each has a distinct flavor. For example, their country music channel took a different approach from VH1.
This is something which Picunko believes had a lot to do with the success of the title. "It became casual very quickly - which was great." And that success continues. "I think we've announced 6 million downloads."
"If you're in situations where you have a limited budget," says Relyea. "You have to make decisions about the budget."
He continues, "Do you need the core audience to buy into your audience? Is it still important? If it is, then you can't ignore them." He notes with a Hannah Montana game, chances are slim that core gamers are the right spend. "We weren't going to spend our dollars on reaching the core," Relyea concludes - which meant that Disney had to market the platform to people who might not have been gamers. "Hannah Montana didn't have gameplay clips, it showed the whole experience."
2K's Anderson says, "I think it will be interesting as great designers...as they're looking at casual gamers." It will be curious to see how that evolves over the next year or so. "And what's the gateway? Are they going to become a core gamer or not? Are they just going to buy songs?" She believes that when you have a limited budget you still have to go after "the core audience for it to spread."
Picunko gives the example of going to a friend's house, getting your butt kicked at Wii tennis, and wanting to buy a system so you can practice for a rematch. This is the reason MTV launched Rock Band three days before the Thanksgiving holiday. "Retail did not like that," he jokes. "I do not recommend that." The end result, concludes Picunko, is that the gamers brought Rock Band into their homes, and over that weekend, sold it for the company.
Anderson also cites a recent consumer survey she conducted. 2K asked gamers what they wanted. The top answer was Fun. "I've never seen that before," Anderson says. Previously, the top answers have been "Graphics and Realism." Those were there, but were now two and three. After pulling the answers from Wii gamers, it was still true for PS3 and 360 gamers.
"I feel like this is a time-warp conversation," says Relyea. He once again mentions movies, adding "I'm sure they talked about the core movie audience. At some point, everyone in some fashion...everyone will be involved in interactive entertainment somehow."