Golden oldie games find a niche

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Videogames aren't just for kids anymore.

"The lapsed gamers who played Pong in the `70s are back," says Bill Nielsen, director-marketing for Microsoft Corp.'s Xbox.

And with that, marketers are offered a growing opportunity to reach a key demographic, the 34-plus American male.

For the generation that cut its videogaming teeth on Pong, Asteroid and Pac-Man, the traditional men's night out around a smoky poker table is moving to guys glued to the videogame console, says Mr. Nielsen.

Now dads are flocking with their broods to videogame storefronts where high-speed Internet connections and fancy game devices allow for individual play as well as tournaments, he says. Events at hotels are becoming a big draw.

These guys are also playing in the comfort of their home. However, says Kathy Vrabeck, president of Activision Publishing, the 35-plus male doesn't buy as many videogames as he once did, nor is he playing as many hours during the week as when he was single-before the demands of career and family. Yet it's "still part of their entertainment pie," she says.

"It's a huge opportunity as men get older," says Keith McVaney, partner-planning director at independent shop See Advertising, San Francisco, which handles Electronic Arts.

"Marketers are always trying to catch people where they are engaged" and nowhere are consumers more engaged than when they're playing videogames, eyes fixed on the screen. "If they play for an hour a day," Mr. McVaney notes, "it's a concentrated hour engrossed in content."

EA is taking the opportunity seriously, says Trudy Muller, senior corporate communications manager. "It's important to develop content that interests" these male gamers, she says.

Some of that content is a blast from the electronic past as a number of videogame marketers go retro. Midway Games last year brought back a number of arcade games playable on modern consoles. The success of Midway Arcade Treasure has led to a second collection this year.

The new franchise is intended to strike a nostalgia chord with older game players while also attracting newer players, says Midway spokesman Tim DaRosa.

old meets new

Old meets new at Nintendo of America, which next month releases for the new Game Boy Advance SP the Classic NES Series, including such longtime favorites as "Pac-Man," "Donkey Kong," and "Super Mario Bros."

"The older gamer is a growing segment of the videogame industry," says Reggie Fils-Aime, exec VP-sales and marketing at Nintendo. "Approximately 13% of people who play our Nintendo GameCube home console and 12% of people who play Game Boy Advance SP are 30 or older."

Perhaps not surprisingly, popular game genres for men include sports and war. "Men love sports and don't give it up when they can't play" on the field, Mr. McVaney says. Almost 20% of registered players for EA's "MVP Baseball," for example, are men 35-plus.

Some marketers are starting to realize that games hitting older males offer significant product placement opportunities. EA expects to announce later this year that "multiple" marketers will have product placements in its upcoming Nascar game, some with "billboard"-like ads and others integrated into the game, Ms. Muller says. She declines, however, to name the marketers.

Data on the size of 35-plus male demographic isn't readily available from industry sources. However, the overall game-playing audience has begun to show an increase in the average age of a gamer to 29 in 2003, up from the 22-26 range of the past, according to the Entertainment Software Association. Of the men and women who play videogames, 46% are aged 18-50, with 17% over 50 years old.

The number of videogaming older men should only increase as baby boomers' progeny ages. "Consumers 25 and under don't really know a time before videogames," Ms. Muller says. "They will continue to play as they hit the magic number of 35."

Ms. Muller says EA knows that the industry's "sweet spot," players 18-34, isn't going away. But "As Generation Y gets older-and it's bigger than the boomer population-more of them will be gaming," she says.

There's no doubt about the ability of videogames to reach into an older demographic. Mr. McVaney notes that in the U.K. videogames are being placed in nursing homes to help the elderly remain alert. He says: "It keeps their brains working."

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