Just after Christmas last year, Evite staffers began to notice Nintendo's Wii video-game system popping up in search queries, idea forums and party themes. In fact, they were seeing more than 100 Wii parties a month. So in March, the online-party-invite specialist launched dedicated Wii party-planning pages. This month, it added invitations including actual Wii avatars, games and themes.
The Wii party popularity is part of a growing phenomenon that's overhauling the video-gaming industry. That is, video gaming is beginning to transcend the solitary boy-in-the-basement stereotype with a new generation of gamers including women, older people and younger children who want to play in a more social atmosphere.
"In the past, video gaming tended to be less mainstream, especially among adults. Today more games are rated "E" for everyone and more parents are inclined to play these types of video games with their children. The Wii, in particular, is great for parties because of the level of activity and the multiplayer format -- it's fun to play and fun for others to watch," said Lariayn Payne, VP-marketing and public relations at Evite.
And while Wii is a big part of that social movement, it's not alone.
Tearing it up with friends
"Guitar Hero" fests, for instance, are becoming popular at home and in bars and restaurants. The game parties pit wannabe rock stars against each other in ax duals. Particularly popular with college kids and young couples, "Guitar Hero" (a next-generation version, "Guitar Hero 3," is due out in October) parties spawn MySpace and Flickr pass-along ideas, photographs and brand mentions.
How far behind can Mountain Dew, beer-makers and bean-dip marketers be in actively courting this audience?
"In terms of marketing, there's a lot of opportunity just waiting to be hatched, especially on the local level," said David Riley, analyst with the NPD Group, and an avid gamer who has hosted his own Guitar Hero parties.
Nintendo already is striking up partnerships such as the Evite one. Beth Llewelyn, senior director-corporate communications at Nintendo, said the company has partnered with Norwegian Cruise Lines to put Wii and Wii parties onboard cruises, as well as the Erickson Retirement Communities to place Wiis in those group homes. They're also in discussions with local libraries about how to use Wiis for community-building.
"The opportunities are almost unlimited in tapping into new ideas or working with new partners," she said. "We're talking to a lot of people we haven't before -- from media outlets to partners to consumers. It's really broadened our base."
Nintendo is trying to cast the net even wider by giving consumers in certain influencer groups -- mother/daughter, couples and active 50-plus leaders -- Wiis for them to hold parties for family and friends.
It's all contributing to a booming video-game industry. NPD Group reported overall hardware sales are up 34% with consoles alone up 69% during the first half of 2007 vs. the same time period during 2006. NPD also said the industry is on track to ring up $16 billion ot $18 billion in sales this year.
Wii tops software sales
The rise of this social gaming is definitely visible in the numbers. Of the top-10-selling video-game items in June, seven were Wii software or accessories. "Guitar Hero 2" for PS2 and Xbox 360 ranked Nos. 6 and 7 respectively, selling almost 400,000 guitars (and software) at average prices of $80 to $90, according to NPD.
And just wait until fall, when more social-party games such as "Boogie," the Wii dance game from Electronic Arts (which began running its own ad campaign last week with TV spots set to the tune "Boogie Oogie Oogie"), and "Rock Band" -- MTV and EA's make-your-own-band game with drums, guitar, vocals and downloadable tracks -- join the fray. "SingStar," a karaoke-type console game published by Sony is another potential hit social game in the U.S.; it's already huge in Europe, and just released here, but already garnering fans.
Mr. Cole said he recently met with a group of U.S. music merchants who were concerned that kids are playing video games instead of musical instruments. When he mentioned "Guitar Hero" to them, they hadn't heard of it, but their attention was riveted. "I told them video games are actually a perfect opportunity for you to build your audience," he said. "Yamaha could do a custom instrument that ties into video games, for instance."
He added, "This is the beginning of where the video-game system becomes more like a general entertainment system. ... It opens the doors for a lot of different applications."
We're having a partyWii parties and "Guitar Hero" get-togethers are played on video consoles, but the trend is also spilling over into traditional game play with a plethora of DVD games that are played on consumers' TVs. They include crossover standard board games, such as Sorry, Family Feud, The Price is Right, Name That Tune and Deal or No Deal.
Others are original franchises, like the Scene It? series of trivia games created by Screenlife that launched in 2001. A video game version of Scene It? (called Scene It? Lights, Camera, Action) was announced at E3 this year for Xbox 360 and comes complete with big-button, game-show-style controllers for party play. It will be out this holiday and retail for $60.
Less formal, but still a college-party force are drinking games based on TV shows or movies. In the old days, it was "Love Boat" (take a drink every time your character appears on screen -- if you're smart, you don't choose Julie), but now there are ones for top movies such as "Dreamgirls" (drink every time Curtis orders anyone around, when anyone is shown in a recording studio and when anyone cries). Website LazyDork.com chronicles and creates more than a thousand such movie-related drinking games.
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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported "Guitar Hero 2" for PS2 and Wii ranked Nos. 6 and 7 respectively. The title was ranked No. 7 on the Xbox 360 system.