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The Toy Book®
Vol. 15, No. 8

September 1999

Change is the Name of the Game
A Shift in Leisure Time Activities Impacts the Game Category


By Nancy Lombardi

The board game category may be one of the toughest in the industry. Sure, there are limited-edition versions of everyone's favorites, retro games are a hit with all the generations, and Monopoly and Uno are still among the classics that reign supreme. But what about those with a new concept - how do they fit into an equation that is dominated by games that are often older than its players?

The best way to break down the popular board games is to place them into three categories, according to Sid Good, president of Good Marketing, a product development and consulting firm focusing on the kids' marketplace. There are the classic games that everyone is still playing, games of the licensed variety, and the special-edition group.

One of Good's clients, Hasbro, has an especially strong hold on the first and last category with Monopoly. Not only is the game still one of America's favorites, but it has morphed into other forms, the latest include a Marvel comics edition, a Nascar edition, and a millennium edition.

"There are the classics such as Candyland and Chutes and Ladders," says Good. "Then there is the licensed area. It has always been there, but in the last several years it has grown extraordinarily, primarily in the preschool area, which is really a reflection of the entire industry."

Venturing further within the licensed category produces games that are trying to reach out to the young adult set using hit properties such as MTV, VH-1, and Chicken Soup for the Soul.

"These are title driven which should make them big for Christmas," says Cheryl Stern, vice-president of The Game Keeper store operations. "The three of them cover a broad spectrum of age. This reaches the college market when we typically don't have anything for them."

The special edition group takes games such as Clue, Monopoly, Scrabble, and Trivial Pursuit and gives the consumer a reason to purchase it again even though they may already own one, according to Good.

G. Steven Cleere, director of client services for Trade Marketing, Inc., an agency that helps clients maximize their retail relationships, says he works with Hasbro in the games and puzzles area and sees Hasbro's idea of releasing limited-edition games as a trend the other manufacturers will start to build off of.

Leisure Time for Young and Old

Typically when we analyze a category the focus is on the new. Here there seems to be a trend toward repackaging and renewing the classics. The Game Keeper's Stern thinks she understands why this trend may be happening now. Stern notes that this has been a soft category for the last two years, attributing this to an aging population and a lack of game play in the homes of those with young children.

"Baby boomers are aging. The way they spend their downtime has changed," she says. "Their children are grown and out of the house so they are socializing more with their peers and unless they are game players by inclination they are just not going to start now."

She notes that they have more disposable income now that they would rather use to go to the movies or to dinner. "It's typical of adults who have young children at home to play a game since money is tight," she says. "They'll have a few friends over, maybe put the kids to bed, then they'll sit around and play a game because they're looking for something to do."

The younger generation is a different story entirely. Rather than shifting the way they spend their time and money, as the adults are doing, many of today's kids have never played the classic games on the market.

"I see more and more 20-somethings that have never played Risk or Stratego. My generation was raised on these games," says Stern.

So it's this combination of factors, the older generation's habits changing and the younger generation never having formed these habits, that may prove to be a more dangerous trend than the electronic games that so many are worried about. Because as many pointed out, the electronics and the traditional both have their place with kids. Each offers an entirely different play experience.

Herein lies the problem for the game retailer, because if you don't play games you aren't coming into the store. Stern points out that retailers who specialize in selling games are performing a service to their customers by carrying the widest range of products possible and that is what she feels has given The Game Keeper, and other retailers like this one, an edge in a very small marketplace.

The Launching Pad

Another potentially daunting trend for this category is that consumers are always responsive to new ideas, fads, and technology as it relates to other aspects of the industry but when it comes to games they stick to the tried-and-true. This category may be the hardest to break into with a new product. Games are often quite pricey and to take a chance on an unknown is a huge risk for a consumer who may be throwing as much as $40 away if the game isn't what they are looking for. That is part of the reason licenses sell so well as do the classics.

Sid Good refers to this as security blanket purchasing. "If the parent loved the game as a child, chances are their child will love the game too. Or if a parent buys a new game knowing that their child loves the licensed character then there is a good chance that the child will enjoy the game," says Good.

Many of the mass marketers are as afraid to stock unknown games as consumers are to buy them. Naturally, many manufacturers, especially brand new companies, turn to the specialty market. Because as Stern pointed out earlier, it's this sort of variety that gives the game retailer its edge. They have the ability to play a game in the store allowing the customer to give it a try before putting money down to buy it.

"People aren't willing to take a chance on a new board game unless someone shows them," says Mary Stoody, owner of Winston's Game Co. with two locations in Illinois and three in Pennsylvania. "That's just what we will do in the store. We'll play a game with them for roughly three minutes and that is how we sell the more obscure games." It worked for one such game - Zobmondo, from Zobmondo, Inc. It debuted last fall and has been a continuously strong seller since then.

"They'll spend a little bit more if there is customer service behind it showing them what they'll get," says Stoody.

Pam Canfield, owner of That Games Store, is in agreement, demonstrating many games as well as puzzles at one time in her establishment. "In the fall we have inventors come in for 'meet the inventor day' where consumers can talk about the game and get an autographed copy," she says.

As a result the popularity grows and then it often crosses over into the mass. Stoody says that some of her best sellers have been games that are now sold in the mass market such as Tribond and Sequence.

Canfield says the only way a consumer will take a chance on a new game is if it has a wow factor. One new game, that she used as an example, is trying to make a name for itself: "Wicked Words - it has a great title. It catches the consumer right away. You are going to wonder how wicked it will get," she says.

Wadjet is another game that is wowing people. It retails for approximately $60 but players see the quality of the game. They see the weight and size of the box and that alone has the perception of quality, according to Canfield. "It's an intriguing game-even the name is intriguing," she says.

However she does mention that the average price a consumer is willing to spend on a game is $20-$30. About $35 is the limit but, "it has to have bells and whistles at that price," says Canfield.

Ed Martinedes, owner of Game Show in New York City, explains what he calls the great divide as it relates to price and interest. "Domestic games need to be a lower price point. We are moving a lot of translated European games, those tend to be $50-$60 items. Many more games are being translated, especially from German," he says.

Most people are not willing to take a chance on a game that expensive. The catch here is the interest of the subject matter because Martinedes says that so many of the European are subject intensive. "Many true game players have the notion that if it's something they have never tried before they should give it a shot. It's not an easy sell to somebody that just comes in cold and is looking to pick up a game. Those expensive and experimental ones are for the die-hard game player," he says.

Gadgets and Gizmos

The increased use of electronic games, whether the handheld or the console version, are deferring the interest of kids from many other toy categories and many say it is most evident in the game sector. Kids think nothing of playing with handhelds and when their favorite board games are offered in that form it is easier to play with that version than it is to round up everyone and sit around the table to play.

Martinedes notes that Hasbro is discontinuing many of its travel games in favor of an electronic counterpart. "It's become a sore spot with our customers because you can occupy two people versus buying a machine for each child. Lots of parents have complained to us about this," says Martinedes.

But many say that board game makers have not much to worry about for a number of reasons. A handheld game is often more expensive than a board game because it only occupies one child at a time whereas a board game occupies a number of children.

"There is also the difference of everyone sitting around the board and looking at it as opposed to handing off a handheld version to share," says Shelley Pazer, one of the principals in the Discovery Group, a market research company specializing in children, which conducts toy testing for Sesame Street Parents Magazine. The traditional game teaches children many skills such as social interaction and waiting for your turn.

Co-principal Ellen Sackoff adds, "It's a different kind of interaction to sit around the board with kids; it's perceived as quiet interaction."

One game they both pointed out as the perfect blending of the traditional game with the new technology is Damert's Brain-O-Matic. "It's a board game with an electronic component - it's a take-off of Trivial Pursuit," says Sackoff. "Games are including more interactive features as a payoff or randomizer because the kids then think the game is cooler," says Pazer. Discovery Group also cited Pressman's HydroBattle as an item that incorporates the traditional game format with technology.

A further reason traditionalists can rejoice is that many say players can become bored easily with the handheld electronic game faster than they will with traditional board game.

A handheld offers solitary play while a board game can bring together all different sorts of people each time it's played, adding different dimensions and dynamics to the game play. This may be one point Hasbro was trying to make with its campaign, Get Together Games. Aside from a good marketing tool to sell product, it shows how games are a relatively inexpensive form of entertainment.

Canfield says that she tells everyone that asks her about the impact of technology not to worry because as long as humans are social animals there is nothing like the interaction of sitting across from people. "There is the comradery of playing a game together, the laughter, the socialization," she says.

Die-hard gamers that frequent many of the retailers cited here know that it's true-- no machine can match the energy, laughter, fun, strategy, and competitive nature that another human being exudes.

 

Reprinted with permission from Adventure Publishing Group ©1999.  All rights reserved.


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