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Getting Families to Play Together

By Mike Musgrove
Thursday, October 12, 2006

At a video game trade show last year, Microsoft practically screamed its ambition to reach a billion consumers with this generation of video game consoles, partly by broadening its appeal to the sisters, the girlfriends and the moms of the world.

Good thing the company's executives didn't mention just when they want to hit that target, because they're not even close -- Microsoft expects to have sold 10 million Xbox 360s by the end of 2006.

And I don't know if they'll move closer anytime soon, given that the coming lineup of games for the system features mostly the same old violent, guy-oriented titles that have long given the industry a bad rep.

Hey, I'm looking forward to Gears of War, the upcoming sci-fi action game where the trademark weapon is an assault rifle with a chainsaw attached -- but let's keep the kids downstairs and away from the TV, okay?

For a lesson in how to get the rest of the family interested in video games, Microsoft could take a cue from Nintendo. So adamant is the company about reaching families who don't consider themselves game fans that it has taken to showing up on doorstops with its new system, called the Wii (which rhymes with "me").

Seriously.

Last month, the game company rented a moving truck and drove to the home of a Southern California mother of two girls, ages 8 and 3. Inside the truck were large-screen televisions and four units of the new console, which is considered innovative because it lets people interact with games by waving their arms and hands, rather than just mashing buttons on a controller. For a day, the Clark family and a couple dozen of their friends got to try out the new system.

When the company first contacted Tracey Clark, a photographer and an author with a popular blog about motherhood, she thought they had the wrong person. The Clarks don't own any game consoles.

Now she's a Nintendo fan. And it doesn't hurt for the company that the story caused a nice little splash when she wrote about the experience on her blog ( http://maypapers.blogspot.com/ ).

"I think it's fantastic marketing," she said in a phone conversation this week. After all, "moms are who spend the money; moms are the ones who go shopping for their kids." Her family had such a good time playing with the thing that she's thinking about buying the Wii. The device hits retail stores next month, on her daughter's 9th birthday.

Broadening the market beyond teenage and 20-something guys is important stuff for the game industry. The budgets for video game development tend to double with every new generation of cutting-edge consoles -- and you don't have to be an economist to figure out that it's bad news if the audience isn't growing at the same rate.

And it isn't, just yet. As the Xbox 360 approaches its first anniversary, Microsoft is selling about 225,000 game consoles every month, said Michael Pachter, a game industry analyst at Wedbush Morgan. A few years ago, when the PlayStation 2 was nearing its first anniversary, Sony was selling about 350,000 of them every month.

Xbox kingpin Robbie Bach, president of Microsoft's entertainment and devices division, says there's still plenty of time for the company's game console to reach a mainstream audience.

"It's still early in the product cycle," he said in a phone interview yesterday. In the first year or two of a console's life, hard-core gamers are the target, he said. After that, the company will work to broaden the market with a roster of more family-friendly offerings.

Bach said the company has high hopes for an coming title called Viva Piñata, a game that's already turned into a TV show, an attempt by Microsoft to build a Mario- or Pokemon-like moneymaker. Microsoft is hoping that the game (and show) -- which takes place on a cartoonish island populated by herds of, yes, piñata-looking animals -- will appeal to kids and grown-ups alike.

In any case, the head start for the Xbox 360 is almost over. The console had the market to itself for a year, but now the competition is about to arrive. In addition to the Wii, Sony's next PlayStation is also on the way -- and there is already demand for that system.

Some game stores took a limited number of pre-orders for the PlayStation 3 and quickly sold out of their expected inventory of the console, which lists for up to $600. EBay auctions for the not-yet-available device already have started; the going "Buy It Now" price on eBay for the PS3, which launches next month, is about $2,000.

The last PlayStation won the console war by a factor of four to one, by some calculations. And Pachter predicts that Sony will eventually pull ahead because more of the important Japanese game developers will support the PlayStation 3 first, based on the company's past strong performance.

As for the Viva Piñata franchise, he's not a fan of what he's seen so far -- and not optimistic that the title will be the one that will break open the family market for Microsoft's console.

"Please," he said. "You might as well tattoo 'geek' on your forehead."

For Those About to Rock

On the other hand, who cares about the 360, PS3 or Wii? Guitar Hero 2 is on the way, amigos, and it will be available only on the PlayStation 2 for now. Publisher Activision has announced that the popular game, the one where players rock out on songs with a toy guitar controller, will be available for the other consoles -- but not this year.

This week, developer RedOctane announced the songs on the new version of the cult-hit game, which comes out Nov. 7.

There's still no Metallica or AC/DC in the game -- which, I think we all can agree, is a bummer. But on the set list are songs from the Rolling Stones, Van Halen and Rage Against the Machine. And toy-guitar rockers will finally be able to play the Southern-fried rock classic "Free Bird" for an encore.

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