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: Children learn to sharpen their math and vocabulary skills, in a fun, arcade game-like setting, with the help of the Power Rangers.
Target Audience: Children age two to 12 years
Key Activities: Math and vocabulary skills development
Even as Saban Interactive readies its first two educational CD-ROMs for release this summer, it is trying to determine now what will be hot two years down the line. However, not only must it judge what series will be popular and transferable to multimedia, it must also make a best guess as to what technology will be the most widely used delivery system in the future.
Saban Interactive, formed in 1994 as a division of Saban Entertainment, released its first five CD-ROM titles, all related to Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, last December. This summer, it publishes Power Rangers ZEO PowerActive Words and Power Rangers ZEO PowerActive Math, educational titles designed to improve children’s math and vocabulary skills while they have fun with their favorite superher’es. The TV series Power Rangers ZEO debuted in April.
‘We decided very specifically that if we entered the [CD-ROM] marketplace, we would concentrate on Power Rangers,’ says J. David Koch, vice president, Saban Interactive.
‘It’s obviously our jewel in the crown.’
Koch says the reasoning behind the decision to produce Power Rangers products exclusively, as opposed to other Saban properties, was to establish the Saban brand in the multimedia marketplace. As it gains a reputation for producing a good product at a fair price, Saban will launch brand extensions of its other properties.
The Power Rangers have the obvious built-in advantage of being some of the most popular characters with children. They also have the disadvantage of parents being somewhat skeptical about whether such an entertainment-driven vehicle can pack an educational punch. The challenge for Saban comes in proving that these products are fun for kids while reassuring parents that they are also solid educational tools.
‘If you don’t walk that line correctly, you’ll wind up not appealing to either audience,’ says Koch.
Even with such a high-profile property as Power Rangers, Saban cannot rest on the laurels of the show to sell the CD-ROM. Koch explains that many studios err in believing that a big-name license on a computer disk will guarantee big sales. Saban’s position is to treat Power Rangers as if it were an unknown entity so as to determine if the game or activity stands well enough on its own.
‘If you don’t start from that direction, I think the tendency is to spend a lot on the license and the marketing of it, without making sure that the product itself takes advantage of the technology,’ he adds.
That said, it’s still easier to work with an established product, not just for brand recognition, but also in terms of the economics of game production. Saban has four seasons of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers shows and a theatrical movie from which to take material in terms of visual imagery.
Saban’s interactive division works hand-in-hand with the company’s production department to evaluate the multimedia possibilities of future product. Much like guessing what show is going to be a hit, the process is not scientific. Koch cites Toy Story as an example.
He says that if Disney had been able to predict two years ago that the movie was going to be the blockbuster it was, the studio could have been in a position to release more film-related CD-ROM products than the two that are currently on the market.
Characters from TV, movies and comic books are naturals for line expansion into multimedia. Koch can envision the day when multimedia is no longer ‘new media’ and the origin of the program content won’t matter. Already, Saban is preparing an animated series for UPN based on the very popular ‘Bad Dog’ screensaver.
‘Whether something starts as software or a comic book or whatever and gates out to the rest of the technology areas, or whether it starts out as an animated show and makes its way into software, eventually, there’s going to be less and less of a tendency to worry about where a good piece comes from, and more, how many ways can you amortize it,’ he says.
The other major challenge facing multimedia companies is determining what technology is going to be the proper platform a few years down the road. Koch says that some of the questions Saban needs to answer include: Is the industry taking off in the direction of CD-ROMs, more sophisticated on-line services or a hybrid of the two? Is the major delivery platform going to be a Pentium chip or Windows 95 or something completely new? What are the implications of more sophisticated interactivity among users?
‘You have to ride the leading edge of technology without falling off your board,’ he says.
It’s an odd and strange game, filled with many pitfalls, and it’s something that most companies have not had to deal with before. Koch says that in television production, the tools are firmly established. If something g’es wrong, you don’t have to invent a new camera. In multimedia, you might have to create new tools or technology to solve your problems.
‘There isn’t a de facto standard, like a VCR standard, where you know that if you make a VHS tape, it’s going to work,’ Koch says. ‘We have to figure out how we are going to support the largest amount of customers while causing less consternation for that small percentage that we’re not compatible with.’
Saban will expand into its other properties beginning with this holiday season. It will release a CD-ROM in conjunction with Masked Rider for Christmas. It hopes to distribute an art studio game featuring many Saban characters in early 1997. and it’s currently negotiating with fast food, packaged goods and other companies, seeking promotional partners for its CD-ROM products.