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No Kidding: The Business of Kids' Games

Thursday, May 11, 2006, 12:51PM EST

There are scores of family-friendly titles targeted directly to the nation's youth. From top-tier publishers of adult fare such as Microsoft to dedicated kids' software publishers such as American Game Factory, Carrie Shepherd takes a look at the big things in store for small fry in 2006 and beyond.

The kids' game market is doubly challenging: Not only do publishers have to have compelling product for the target market, they have to win over the adults shopping for them as well. According to Leah Kalboussi, the vice president of the North American division of The Game Factory, a good kids' product is evergreen, has a strong brand heritage, and is based on a known and trusted property or license, perhaps even invoking a nostalgic feeling in the purchaser. The idea is that if a mother has fond memories of Cabbage Patch Kids, she'll want a Cabbage Patch game for her daughter.

American Game Factory has several such nostalgia-invoking games in its roster: Strawberry Shortcake:Adventures in the Land of Dreams; Strawberry Shortcake: Strawberryland Games; and Garfield—A Tail of Two Kitties. Namco Bandai's Snoopy vs. The Red Baron will likely attract buyers fond of the classic Peanuts comic strip; while Konami's My Frogger for DS may bring back memories of arcade triumphs in the '80s.

Atari's Her Interactive-developed PC adventure games, including the upcoming Nancy Drew: Danger By Design and Nancy Drew: The Secret of Kapu Caves, are based on a very strong property that not only evokes pleasant nostalgic memories, but provide girls with a positive, strong role model—something parents are sure to appreciate.

Wrapping a game around both a ubiquitous building block toy and a '70s classic film, Eidos had huge success, reflected in both sales and critical acclaim, with LEGO Star Wars. LucasArts hopes, no doubt, to replicate that success this fall with the sequel, LEGO Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy (working title).

Au currant

Of course, many games are based on licenses grown-ups won't remember from their childhood, relying instead on today's hit properties. In this case, kids are the ones who'll drive the purchase—not necessarily by throwing themselves on the floor of Wal-Mart and screaming until Mom drops the game in the cart, but by bringing the property to her attention. One need look only at the Saturday morning cartoon lineup and dedicated cable cartoon networks to see hot license fodder for games, many of which have popular toy lines as well.

"Since most kids' products that will come from Midway are licensed properties, the key is to stay true to the license and also to work with great partners," says Midway Games president and CEO David Zucker. "Cartoon Network is a leading creator of premier animated content and its programming has consistently ranked atop the charts for kids and tweens during day and prime time hours. We launched Ed, Edd and Eddy: The Mis-Edventures last holiday season to great success and have plans to launch The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy this holiday."

The American Game Factory's Cartoon Network Grand Prix Racing and Code Lyoko and Atlus's Battle B-Daman and Battle B-Daman 2 GBA games are also based on Cartoon Network TV shows. THQ's Bratz Diamondz features the hip and stylish characters from the 4Kids TV animated series; THQ's Avatar: The Last Airbender and SpongeBob SquarePants: Creature from the Krusty Krab are both based on Nickelodeon shows; and Game Factory's Noddy and the Magic Book is a preschool property with a show on public television.

Manga and anime have also become big sellers, getting increasingly accessible and familiar to a crop of kids weaned on Pokémon. In this realm we have Konami's Yu-Gi-Oh! GX Tag Force, Winx Club: The Quest for the Codex, Winx Club: Shadow of the Phoenix, and Xiaolin Showdown. Meanwhile, Namco Bandai has Naruto: Ultimate Ninja and Zatchbell! Mamodo Fury. All of these upcoming games also have TV counterparts.

Though not popular from Saturday morning cartoons, the LarryBoy series is made by the creators of VeggieTales. Both computer-animated DVD/video series strive to teach kids morals such as honesty, kindness, and forgiveness. With wholesomeness that attracts parents and wit that engages kids, it's another contemporary property that should have strong retail power. Crave Entertainment will publish LarryBoy! and the Bad Apple for PS2 and GBA this summer.

Big screen to small screen

Movie properties get even more attention, due to their built-in marketing juggernaut generating top-of-mind awareness from the barrage of billboards, plush toys, activity books, and fast-food tchotchkes that go along with any children-aimed would-be blockbuster. These movies are often made to be enjoyed by the entire family together, and the games created from them are meant to extend the experience.

A bumper crop of kid-centric movie-based games are headed to store shelves through 2006 into early next year. Ubisoft's Open Season, based on Sony Pictures Animation's first feature-length animated comedy-adventure, is headed to all platforms this September. THQ's Monster House, based on the Columbia Pictures' animated thriller, is headed to PS2, GameCube, GBA, and DS in July. Midway has games coming based on two Warner Bros. animated films: The Ant Bully, coming in July; and Happy Feet, which is due out in November. Sega will publish games for based on the live action Charlotte's Web movie in winter 2006. Activision has Over the Hedge, based on the DreamWorks Animation film, on tap this month. THQ will ship Cars, based on the Disney Pixar film, next month. Atari has Arthur and the Minimoys, based a film currently in production in Europe, slated for a January 2007 release.

Leading the way

Besides the toys, TV shows, and movie-based videogames, there are of course some properties known first as games. Microsoft Game Studios plans to bring Viva Piñata, a property developed by in-house studio Rare, to both Xbox 360, and to Fox's 4Kids TV. The game challenges players to create and maintain a "living" ecosystem that grows in real time, where they can host more than 60 species of wild piñata. New content, as well as the ability to play, trade and interact with other players, will be available over Xbox Live. The game is slated for a holiday release, while the show is planned to debut this fall. 4Kids TV plans to ship additional licensed products based on the property in 2007.

Ubisoft's Rayman has been a mainstay of the videogame world since 1995. Now he'll star in an action-adventure platformer coming to current and next-gen consoles in Q3. The "father" of Rayman, Michel Ancel, who has since achieved critical acclaim for Beyond Good and Evil and Peter Jackson's King Kong, will develop the title, which targets kids 6 to 12. Players must help Rayman tame creatures such as sharks, eagles, dragons, and cobras to battle an invasion of demonic rabbits.

Meanwhile, Microsoft mainstay Zoo Tycoon 2, a sim game with appeal for all ages, has expansion packs African Adventure and Marine Mania on tap, for May and October release, respectively, providing new wildlife for would-be gamekeepers.

Gameplay is king

Even with a great license, though, the game has to be compelling for the player. "Whether a 3-year-old or a 43-year-old, the audience is unforgiving," Kalboussi says. "Ultimately, it still comes back to product." Viral marketing, even among 3- to 13-year-olds, is incredibly effective, she continues, and if a kid plays a game he thinks is great, he's going to tell all his friends about it. "Kids are very vocal; they're the ones who've made properties into a hit or a flop," she says. Even with its double-license and nostalgia power, LEGO Star Wars wouldn't have sold more than 2 million units if players hadn't actually thought it was a good game.

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