Game enthusiasm rises up from the basement

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Consumers who play video games are not just teenage freaks glued to a console in their parents' basement.

A study by Ziff Davis Media Game Group, which publishes gaming magazines, found that they are much more mainstream.

"The population of so-called enthusiast gamers mirrors the general population more than you might think," said Scott McCarthy, president of the media-game group at the magazine publisher. "It makes perfect sense when you think about the evolution of the Internet. It's really been in the last generation or two where games have been part of the experience of the household. So now you have people in their 20s, 30s and 40s who have video games in the household and their kids are playing-so they play."

The mean age has climbed from 28 in 2002 to 34 in 2005 among PC gamers. Women compose the majority of PC gamers, making up 63% of players. Among video gamers, almost 40% are female, and even among the prized hard-core video gamers, more than one-third (35%) are women. (A video-game player is someone who plays on a console device like a PlayStation, and a PC gamer obviously plays a game on a PC that can be downloaded.)

Responding to the changing times, video and PC game publishers have focused on reaching beyond their core 18-to-34-year-old male customers. They're launching games that appeal to not only older men, but to women, too.

None of this should undermine the importance of the core demographic, which represents 56% of the total gaming revenue of $10.1 billion. But experts agree publishers must make and market games to a wider demographic to survive. Because of the high price tag, doing so is risky. But certain forward-thinking publishers-like Nintendo, Electronic Arts and WildTangent-are doing so anyway.

One game that's been a hit with women is Nintendo's game Nintendogs. Developed to sell to girls in Japan, this console game allows users to pick out a puppy, name it and then watch it interact with other dogs. Forty-two percent of Nintendogs purchasers were women (not children), according to Nintendo. Some 700,000 games were sold over the first two months on the market.

Nintendogs hit the U.S. last month and sold out of two chains, EB and GameStop, within the month. What's the appeal? "There's a social aspect to it," Josh Larsen, director-industry products, Game Spot, said. "There is a cutesy element, but it does build off some of the elements of the [role-playing blockbuster] Sims game, which does well in the female market. Those elements are that you build a character, name a character, develop skills and have relationships."

THE APPEAL

Next year, two games that have particular resonance for the older male demographic are to be released. EA is putting out Godfather and Vivendi is marketing Scarface-both based on the notorious gangster films from the 1970s. "Godfather and Scarface have historical significance for an older demographic, but a direct relevance for a younger audience as well," Renny Gleeson, senior VP-managing director, Carat Interactive, New York.

And reaching as many demographic groups as possible is the point. Cognizant of that, online game maker WildTangent has put out its own crossover offering with the best seller Fate, launched this summer. WildTangent offers games to play online that consumers can then download for a fee.

Fate is an adventure role-playing game that appeals to the hard-core gamer, but contains design elements that make it flexible for a lot of demographics. "This one is crack," boasted Bill Clifford, general manager of advertising platforms, WildTangent.

For one thing, it does not take a huge time investment to become a skilled player, making it accessible for the married, 30-something dad to play in between dinner and his kids' bedtime.

Light humor and cuteness appeal to women and kids, Mr. Clifford added. Characters can be designed and the player picks a pet that help fight the monster. Also, the content is also not as overtly violent as some others-there's no blood for example-and the controls are easy to manipulate.

And it is successful. The average game converts at 2% online, but Fate converts at 15%, according to the company. Fate is bundled on Hewlett-Packard's PCs for sale now. WildTangent is also in talks with another game publisher to box it up for sale at holiday time.

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