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Immersive evolution alive and well at E3

There's no denying that the entry of the Nintendo Wii has almost single-handedly galvanized video game publishers to incorporate active play in their titles. (And the influence of the revolutionary platform's success has even inspired toy companies to embrace the motion-control trend of late.) But the market supply of Wii games is increasingly dense, putting pressure on software players of all shapes and sizes to find ways to differentiate their Wii offerings with unique approaches to the peripheral controller. And they're also on the lookout for new tech trends that could make the experience gamers have with their products even more immersive.
August 1, 2008

There’s no denying that the entry of the Nintendo Wii has almost single-handedly galvanized video game publishers to incorporate active play in their titles. (And the influence of the revolutionary platform’s success has even inspired toy companies to embrace the motion-control trend of late.) But the market supply of Wii games is increasingly dense, putting pressure on software players of all shapes and sizes to find ways to differentiate their Wii offerings with unique approaches to the peripheral controller. And they’re also on the lookout for new tech trends that could make the experience gamers have with their products even more immersive.

Since announcing its partnership with Hasbro earlier this year, Electronic Arts has generated a considerable amount of industry buzz with its Nerf N-Strike game, the most compelling feature of which is the Nerf SwitchShot blaster toy that doubles as a branded shell for the Wii Remote. The beauty of the product’s retail positioning is that it’s both a toy and a game, so it will be merchandised at mass in toy and electronics aisles when it rolls out in November.

Chip Lange, VP and GM of EA Hasbro Studio and the EA Casual Entertainment Label, says it quickly became apparent during R&D that the tactile appeal of the blaster controller was as much of a draw as the competitive dart-shooting gameplay. ‘Once we started controlling the game with the blaster itself, it just got a whole lot more fun, and so we reset our entire development strategy around that moment.’

Lange is confident that Nerf N-Strike will be a hit this holiday season, and says retailers are already hungry for more. Having looked at the Hasbro IP portfolio, he believes there’s more than enough strong fodder there to drive the creation of a whole new genre and business strategy. And the timing couldn’t be better, now that retailers have figured out where and how to push these category hybrids in-store, thanks to working with pioneering franchises like Rock Band and Guitar Hero.

Speaking of music-based titles, the THQ team has figured out a way to bring that gameplay down to a younger demographic. The high-priced peripherals and kids’ limited motor skills had traditionally stymied efforts to bring them into the target of these franchises, but THQ is tapping into its master video game partnership with Nickelodeon to take a whack at it. Rock University: Naked Brothers Band edition is due out this fall and takes a stripped-down approach to gear.

The Rock Band-esque game comes packaged with a microphone, and budding musicians must use their vocal skills and play guitar and drums through the Wii’s standard remote and nunchuk to keep their audience happiness meter high enough to progress to increasingly larger concert venues.

As the Wii’s launch peripheral, it’s natural that the Wii-mote has been getting all the R&D attention thus far. But Jim Huntley, THQ’s director of kids global brand management, sees even greater potential in the Wii Balance Board that was introduced with Wii Fit this past May. ‘How immersive can we get in terms of involving full-body movements and activities, rather than just hand controls? The next step is coming up with games that tap into that experience.’

The company’s All-Star Cheer Squad is looking to do just that when it comes out this fall. Targeting the under-served gaming demo of girls eight to 12, the title challenges players to create their own cheers while bouncing around on the Balance Board, while an avatar performs the same moves on-screen.

Avatars are certainly not new in the space, but their function of fostering relationships between users and games is an area that Namco Bandai’s Andrew Lelchuk expects to get more sophisticated in the next few years.

‘Anything we can do to provide a more immersive experience for the consumer, we will do – as long as technology allows us,’ says Lelchuk, the company’s EVP of sales and marketing. ‘I think avatars will become more lifelike and realistic, to the point where they embody other attributes of the player beyond physical features, including body language and voice inflections.’

Oddcast is looking to make waves in this space with its Voki speaking avatar platform, which gives gamers the power to record and upload their own voices and then use these audio tracks to speak through their avatars. Last month, Toei Animation partnered up with the New York-based company to apply the technology to its Digimon video game range as part of a larger business development effort to trigger more user-generated content and create closer ties between consumers and the property.

Casual gaming continues its reign as the industry’s shining white hope for extending its reach beyond consoles and handheld players, and many of the larger studios have set up robust labels and development teams to serve that market. And with mobile devices like digital music players and smart phones proliferating at such a rapid pace in the mainstream market, the platform opportunities to explore are quite plentiful.

‘There are a lot of people walking around with iPods as their primary piece of interactive glass in their purse or pocket,’ says EA’s Lange. ‘And as more smartphones start coming out, our mobile division has a real core competency to be optimized to those.’

Developing games for these platforms is a complex process, though, because they involve operating systems that vary widely across so many existing devices – basically, a programmer’s worst nightmare. EA cracked the code on the iPod and does a nice business selling Scrabble for this platform, but the landscape is still wide open for capitalization.

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