SAN FRANCISCO--Even great games can flop, and one of the biggest reasons why is marketing. It's not enough to simply have a great product if nobody knows about it, or if the characteristics that make it great aren't made clear to the buying public.
That's why there's the MI6 Conference. Now in its third year, MI6 brings together gaming marketers throughout the industry to network, share secrets, and dole out MI6 Awards to the best and brightest in the field. This year, the launch ad campaigns for BioShock, Halo 3, Assassin's Creed, and Call of Duty 4 took home some of the top honors.
This year's conference capped off its stint at the Grand Hyatt hotel in Union Square with a panel discussion featuring some of the biggest names in the business. Moderated by Wedbush Morgan Securities' quotable industry analyst Michael Pachter, the panel featured Atari founder and industry pioneer Nolan Bushnell, EA Sports president Peter Moore, EA Casual president Kathy Vrabeck, Ubisoft North America president Laurent Detoc, and WildTangent CEO Alex St. John.
Pachter set the semiserious tone of the session early on, playfully ribbing the panel members during the introductions. In addition to prefacing Moore's introduction with "Last and maybe least," Pachter pointed out that, "As president of Sega of America, he managed to sell the sports business to Take-Two Interactive. And he's now in the process of buying it back. At a premium."
However, he wasted little time getting to the heart of the matter, given that the first question posed to the panel was the very topic of the session: Where will gaming be in the year 2020?
Detoc answered first, emphasizing that the success of Nintendo's Wii and DS, along with products like Activision's Guitar Hero, have broadened the user base to a wealth of nontraditional gamers. He used his mother as an example, saying that the industry needs to learn how to market to her, instead of to the core gaming crowd of today. St. John interjected that the adoption of gaming among the elderly actually predates Nintendo's recent successes.
"Your grandmother learned to play casual games on Yahoo! years before Nintendo took credit for Brain Age," Detoc said. "The interesting phenomenon is that the Internet really created the grandma gamers--frankly the online casino sites did and got them used to paying for it--and Nintendo discovered that trend years later and took the credit for it."
As the junior member of the panel, Vrabeck said she doesn't normally use her mother as an example because she's only about Pachter's age. The senior analyst responded with the [delightfully] juvenile quip, "I used to date her. Can't you see the resemblance?"
After a healthy "Ooooooooooh" from the audience died down, Vrabeck went back to making her point, saying that she actually spends a lot of time considering her children rather than her parents. After all, in 12 years, the biggest gaming consumers will be the kids who are 4 to 15 years old today.
"At that point I reference my own children and I watch what they do," Vrabeck said. "They don't even know how to look up a word in a dictionary anymore because it's always dictionary.com. The big prank in tech class in seventh grade when you have free time is to make a fake entry on Wikipedia and see how fast it gets changed back. Those are the kinds of people who are going to be the core gamer in the years to come, and they're used to very different things."
Pachter followed up by asking Vrabeck if EA was using its Littlest Pet Shop online game aimed at young girls to condition them to be gamers--of EA games specifically--a decade or so down the road.
"We're not that diabolical at EA," Vrabeck joked.
Pachter brought up Ubisoft as one company that might have a master plan of that scope, telling Detoc that while playing through Assassin's Creed, it was obvious to him that the publisher had the next five installments of the series already planned out. Detoc knew better than to confirm Assassin's Creed 2 through 6, but he did strike his best Dr. Evil impression, silently raising an extended pinky to his smirking mouth.
Detoc said that designing a series with multiple installments in mind from the outset is something Ubisoft had done before, specifically with the revival of the Prince of Persia series. That franchise had been planned as a trilogy since Sands of Time was in development.
"Even a trilogy goes into something else," Detoc said. "As soon as it's popular, you want to make 20 of them as opposed to three, right?"
Detoc said publishers should have ideas for sequels when they start a new franchise, but they have to be careful not to hold back too much. It's crucial that the first game in a series be successful in order to make developing all those sequels worthwhile.
Bushnell's vision of 2020 played on some of the previously voiced ideas such as social gaming and nontraditional audiences, but it was mostly built around his current upstart project, uWink. Bushnell's goal is for uWink, a restaurant chain with playable games in every table, be the biggest gaming company in the world in 2020.
"What I want to do is create this fun environment with a group of people playing eyeball-to-eyeball," the Chuck E. Cheese founder said, "having a great time, drinking beer, eating pizza--maybe even good pizza, but not necessarily... The reality is a drunk with a credit card is a wonderful thing!"
Bushnell mentioned a Truth or Dare game currently playing on uWink tables as a particularly successful effort. He said 20 percent of the game is the actual game, and 80 percent is made up of the social interactions that it spurs. By 2010, Bushnell said people will play between 10-60 trillion game sessions a year on uWink tables, saying he'll get maybe a nickel from each one and he'll be happy.
"The math is really compelling," Bushnell said.
Like Bushnell, St. John's take on gaming in 2020 revolved around his current company. Describing WildTangent as an iTunes for games, the cocky CEO said while the rest of the panel was speculating about the future, he had actually come back from the future to share what he had learned.
St. John said the console business will be gone in 2020 as the game industry becomes a broadcast medium. He said that as games move to online community models like World of Warcraft, they displace traditional games.
"It's not that selling boxes, and plastic, and demanding $60 and telling the consumer to go to hell won't still exist as a business model," St. John joked. "That will still be viable. But I think the vast revenue and growth will all be in the broadcast business models heavily supported by advertising."
It won't be just any kind of advertising, though. The current trend of dynamic in-game advertising is just a novelty that won't catch on, St. John said. Aside from the technical difficulties associated with inserting them into games and changing them up as new sponsors come on board, St. John said they don't make as much of an impression as a simple image on a loading screen. He also said that advertisers don't like how there's nothing to click on with in-gameplay ads because the user is busy playing. He pointed to WildTangent's ad-driven revenue, saying that interstitial ads and loading-screen spots command an average of $140 per 1,000 impressions for Wild Tangent, compared with $18 for the company's interstitial efforts.
Although he technically wasn't even on the panel, Pachter couldn't resist and offered an opinion anyway.
"I don't know that I agree with any of you," Pachter said. "You all seem to agree the future is in social interaction, this social, collaborative gameplay. I think of entertainment as a solitary experience. I may go to the movies with my wife, but we don't sit there and talk about it during the film. We consume it on our own."