Some of the latest trends and products in new media for kids are on display as the world’s leading developers, publishers, distributors and retailers involved in interactive entertainment descend on the Los Angeles Convention Center for only the second Electronic Entertainment Expo.
In the following Special Report, KidScreen takes a look at the cross-over of (mostly animated) film- and television-originated characters to CD-ROMs and on-line services.
Through a series of case histories, we examine some of the issues, including the advantages and disadvantages, in adapting known characters to new media products.
Storyline: Wakko, Yakko and Dot, the crazy characters of the three-year-old Animaniacs series, are debuting on CD-ROM at this month’s Electronic Entertainment Expo. The IBM-compatible game will hit shelves in early September in up to 40 countries.
Target Audience: The Animaniacs CD-ROM can be set for three levels of difficulty based on age: preschoolers to kindergarten students, children in grades one to three, and children in grades four and higher to adults.
Key Activities: Players travel through a 3-D world of rooms shaped like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. To move to another room, players must spin the Wheel of Morality and complete the chosen task. Each activity is some kind of puzzle. The player wins the game when he or she has explored the whole world.
It was the kid in Jay Alan Samit, president of Van Nuys, California-based Jasmine Multimedia Publishing, that ‘fell in love’ with Wakko, Yakko and Dot and the idea of bringing them to life on a CD-ROM. ‘There’s nothing zanier than these characters,’ he says. ‘They’re irreverent. They’re fresh. They’re what kids want to be.’
Luckily for Samit, he’s not the only one who adores these characters. Since its premiere in the fall of 1993, the show has become one of the hottest series on air. Kids and adults can tune in to this wacky threesome six days a week on the Kids WB Television Network.
Samit’s first step in creating the CD-ROM was pitching the idea to Steven Spielberg, inventor of the TV series, two years ago. ‘He really was excited by it,’ says Samit. In December of that year, he met with both partners in the animated program-Warner Bros. and Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment-and won the license to the property.
For Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, the Warner Bros. unit that licenses properties for video game and computer platforms, Jasmine’s proposal offered an exciting opportunity to launch the Animaniacs on CD-ROM, says Holly Stein, Burbank, California-based WBIE’s vice president of licensing and marketing. WBIE had extended television and movie franchises like Batman, Black Beauty and The Secret Garden into CD-ROMs. But it had only brought out a line of Animaniacs video games with Konami (America) of Buffalo Grove, Illinois. ‘With the broad appeal of the show and the personality of the characters, Animaniacs was the perfect property to exploit in this medium,’ she says.
The challenge that lay ahead for Jasmine was to create a game befitting of its characters and suitable for the Animaniacs audience. Kids and adults expect to see the characters look and behave as they do in the show.
Jasmine has tried to achieve this by adapting video clips, music and features like the Wheel of Morality from the show. The CD-ROM includes more than an hour of TV programming. And Samit says incorporating footage is still fairly uncommon for a CD-ROM. ‘One of the things that has kept other shows from being turned into multimedia has been problems with how to work with the unions’ representing writers, directors, musicians, actors and other participants who created the series.
Samit is pleased with the final product. ‘It really combines the best features of some of the most popular games out there,’ he says, ‘but in a non-violent way.’ The game takes place in a 3-D world. Players collect puzzle pieces and participate in activities, as in other adventure games. And the game is fun and educational at the same time, he says. For example, one of the activities is a jigsaw puzzle with a moving Animaniacs cartoon on the pieces. The video clip features a character singing a list of rote information, such as the names of all the countries in the world. The player must assemble the pieces before the song ends.
Parents will like the educational aspect of the CD-ROM and its potential for reuse. Jasmine has designed the game so that the activities in each room differ, and each time a player starts a new game, the order of the rooms changes from the last game. But Samit predicts that the best part for kids-and adults who love the show-will be interacting with their favorite characters. ‘They’re not passive viewers,’ he says. ‘They’re active participants.’
Using a known character for a CD-ROM is a plus not only for consumers, but for its developers. ‘The benefit of working with an already established character or brand,’ says Stein, ‘is that you’ve got the brand or character equity in place.’ And, Samit adds, because the interactive entertainment industry lacks a means of letting customers try a product before they buy it, ‘one of the best ways to instantly bond with the consumer is to have a character that they recognize.’
Still, adapting a known character into a CD-ROM d’es not guarantee a hit. ‘It has to be a great title without the character,’ says Samit. ‘That character helps you in marketing; it d’esn’t excuse poor design.’
Creating new media products therefore requires a different mindset from producing a TV show. ‘When you’re creating for TV, you are the storyteller. You are engrossing someone in something that has a beginning, a middle and an end. And you are taking along the audience for that ride,’ says Samit. ‘When you’re creating for an interactive medium, you are creating a situation, but the audience is determining the outcome. So that empowerment is what makes the difference between a successful title and an unsuccessful title.’
The creator of a CD-ROM must also recognize the technological limitations of the medium. The game environment d’es not offer the full range of colors available to TV. And CD-ROMs still lag behind TV in the quality of the video and music.
Once the CD-ROM has been developed, tying in a product using a known character with all of the other licensed goods for the property can give it a boost at retail. Jasmine is currently in discussions with other Animaniacs licensees and with retailers to do custom promotions.
Retailers’ demand for known brands will increase the use of properties in interactive entertainment products, says Samit. Retailers prefer licensed products because they understand the ‘need for customers to have instant recognition when they see that box on the shelf.’
More and more, producers of a TV series or a movie are also thinking about interactive entertainment possibilities at the early stages of a program’s development. ‘A lot of shows are being pitched to us before they’re on air,’ says Samit.
As to the future of the Animaniacs in the interactive world, Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment is working with partners on new video games and an edutainment software line. Stein and Samit have no plans for further CD-ROMs, but Samit hopes to introduce more Animaniacs products in the future if the first title is a success.