NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - I've got a little secret to share – kids like video games.
You wouldn't think this was a secret really. I mean, walk into just about any house that has kids and you'll find little Sammy or Sarah mashing buttons and handily defeating onscreen opponents (or each other).
Still, the gaming industry spends a whole lot of time and effort trying to convince you that computer and video games are an adult hobby. Ask the Interactive Digital Software Association and they'll tell you the average gamer is 28 years old and has been playing more than six years.
Now I'll happily concede that adults are the core gaming audience, but I've recently started wondering if the industry is doing perhaps too good a job at shuffling younger players to the background. Consider this: Children's and family games had sales of $772 million last year. That's nearly 12 percent of the industry's total software sales - and those numbers were achieved with a substantially smaller marketing budget than other games.
This all came to mind last week when I visited "Christmas in July," the first of a few media sneak peeks that start popping up around this time of year. These are basically displays of what experts believe will be the hot toys of the upcoming holiday season. This year's "hot toys," though, were a pretty familiar line-up: Dolls, remote-control race cars, action figures. Noticeably absent were video games.
|Batter up! Humongous' "Backyard Baseball"
Obviously, this is just one event (and a pretty small one). Game publishers will certainly be at future holiday previews – and many are on separate media tours promoting their upcoming titles. But it was enough to make me notice a few other things about how the industry approaches (and appeals to) gaming tykes.
Take advertising. Gaming companies spend big bucks on promoting their AAA titles. UbiSoft, for example, will spend $20 million between November and March to promote its Tom Clancy line of games. But I suspect you won't be seeing too many commercials for "Backyard Baseball."
That's the latest in Infogrames' string of "Backyard" games. Major-league stars are modeled as children to make the game more accessible to younger players. The games are typically among the industry's top 10 selling games upon their release. Since their inception five years ago, they've sold over 5 million copies (earning $50 million in revenue) - all with a limited marketing budget.
Here's another thing that struck me: While there are dozens of innovative, original titles for adults, you're hard pressed to find one for kids. If it's not a spin-off from an existing franchise, it's probably not a kid's game.
Tonka. Bob the Builder. Blue's Clues. Virtually any cartoon on Nickelodeon. They've all got gaming tie-ins. But good luck finding something based on an original idea.
Mercifully, there is one developer who breaks away from the pack. Humongous Entertainment, the makers of the aforementioned "Backyard" series (and a division of Infogrames (IFGM: Research, Estimates)), have a roster of original gaming characters aimed at children. "Quake" fans may not recognize Putt-Putt and Pajama Sam, but parents do. So do 3-10 year olds.
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Now you could make an argument that Nintendo has been making original games for kids for years. You'd be right – to an extent. I defy you to find a socially-adept adult who can honestly say he or she enjoys playing Pokemon. But some of the other "kiddie" titles from Nintendo have matured into games that are built to appeal to wider audiences. Mario's a hell of a lot of fun, but he's not developed specifically for children.
With the GameCube, Nintendo has said – repeatedly - that it's striving to appeal to an older audience. It has backed that up with the release of the Mature-rated "Eternal Darkness" and the upcoming "Metroid Prime." Curiously, no Pokemon game has yet been announced for the GameCube, though one will be out for the GameBoy Advance in November (and undoubtedly, plans are underway to bring one to the GameCube eventually).
To its credit, Nintendo is hardly abandoning its younger audience. Amid all the Mario and Zelda talk this year, the company unveiled "Animal Crossing," a child-oriented title that utilizes both the GameCube and GameBoy Advance.
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How important are kids to the gaming industry? Six of the 20 top selling games last year were specifically made for young children (four Pokemon titles and two Harry Potter games). Together, those six games sold more than 4.4 million copies, earning roughly $168 million, according to The NPD Group.
Kind of makes you want to give them a little more respect, doesn't it?