Despite the mass shift to mobile gaming in recent years, a quick glance at industry stats would make it appear as if console games are striking gold right now.
According to Nielsen, 162 million people currently own a game console in the US, and market research firm The NPD Group reported that US video game sales reached year-over-year growth of 59% in January—the highest total for that month since 2011. But dive a little deeper and things aren’t exactly rosy for the world of children’s console games. According to NPD data, the number of two- to 12-year-olds playing games on consoles has dropped by 11% since 2013 (which is as far back as this data set goes). In addition, the number of games rated E for Everyone by the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) has fallen from 25% to 22% of all games since 2013.
“Right now is probably the worst time it’s ever been for the kids console gaming market,” says NPD video games analyst Mat Piscatella. “It’s just not great.” Pundits like Piscatella have become accustomed to painting a despairing picture for the industry, while at the same time presenting a chicken-and-egg scenario—have kids stopped playing games because there’s less content aimed at them, or have companies stopped making console games for kids because they’re simply not selling?
Kids are far from over video games. From Minecraft and Roblox, to Toca Boca’s suite of three dozen apps, children are gaming in great numbers—but it’s mainly on phones, tablets and PCs. The cost disparity could be one reason why. Video game consoles can run anywhere from US$299 (Nintendo Switch) to US$499 (Xbox One X), and each game costs roughly US$30, compared to most digital games that are only a few dollars, if not free. But consoles have always been a relatively expensive toy. And since content is always king, nothing will bring young gamers back on board without compelling storylines and attention-grabbing action. Which is why a number of gaming publishers are looking to change gears with innovative spin-offs and recognizable licensed titles.
“The Wii era had a bunch of kids content, and the PS3′s and Xbox 360′s early cycles in the late 2000s had a lot of kids material,” says Piscatella. “But over the past eight years, particularly with the new-generation consoles that launched in 2017/2018, the priority has shifted to the 25-plus M-rated market.” Currently, hope is riding on the Nintendo Switch, which combines console power with pocket-sized portability. Despite Nintendo’s own data showing that Switch owners, so far, are generally men over the age of 18, the Japanese gaming giant has been making a concerted effort of late to attract the kid audience. Launched in April, Labo—a DIY cardboard kit that lets users customize the Switch controller—is expected to be a hit among the console’s youngest users. And coupled with the upcoming release of a new Pokémon game, the sales outlook could be ready for a serious, well, switch. “I think the future depends on Pokémon for the Switch. That will be the key thing to watch,” says Piscatella. “It should bring a lot of kids to the platform, which would then allow them to pick up any other games targeted at that audience.”
What a majority of kids have been leaving behind are toys-to-life titles. A gaming phenomenon set into motion in 2011 with Activision’s Skylanders: Spiro’s Adventure, the physical/digital tie-in concept reached an all-time low in 2016 when the House of Mouse shuttered its Disney Infinity operations. Activision, meanwhile, announced it would stop releasing new Skylanders content for consoles a year later. When Warner Bros. followed with a halt on all LEGO Dimensions production last October, toys-to-life was officially limp.
“Skylanders and Infinity were two big products that have since gone away, but the fact that you saw kids’ appetites for them shows there are still opportunities from a platform perspective,” says Lisa Anderson, VP of games at Disney. “It’s just to what degree, and how you go about those executions.” For its part, Disney is still dabbling in the console market with upcoming title LEGO The Incredibles, set to be released on June 15 to coincide with the US theatrical debut of Incredibles 2. Like all of LEGO’s console games, the title is produced by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment and TT Games, allowing Disney to use its in-house resources to focus on mobile, which has been its strategy this past year.
“If you look at the numbers that LEGO games bring in, they’re still blockbusters,” says Nick Button-Brown, chair of Outright Games and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts’ games committee, while acknowledging that not all licensed titles experience the same success rates. “The industry almost got too ambitious, too big—lots of money was spent on large licenses, and when you’re spending that much money on a game, you have to sell the same number of units as a Call of Duty title. A lot of big companies who were chasing the blockbusters moved away from kids games because they’re not going to be selling 20 million units. Those days have passed.”
Button-Brown classifies a console blockbuster as any game that sells more than two million units. He says while Outright isn’t shooting for those numbers, it would be satisfied with 500,000 units sold. “As long as you match the scope of what you’re trying to do with reasonable revenue, there’s a purpose to carry on making those games,” he says.
While selling specifically child-focused console games is difficult, Outright is now giving itself an even greater challenge—putting out a game for the preschool set, this one based on the PAW Patrol brand. “To be honest, we’re experimenting a little bit with this. This is a younger demographic than what normally picks up console games,” says Button-Brown. “We’re hoping there are enough people who will buy it, and if there are, then we’ll look to make more games for that age group.”
Beyond this fall’s release of PAW Patrol: On a Roll, Outright’s most recent title was a Ben 10 game for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch and PC. On deck, the company also has Adventure Time: Pirates of Enchiridion and Hotel Transylvania: Monsters Overboard ready to ship in July. Several of Outright’s titles are tied to Cartoon Network properties, which the kidsnet says is in line with its strategy to make 360-degree IPs. And while Cartoon Network has its sights firmly set in the mobile space, it hasn’t forgotten about console by any means.
“Given the trajectory of physical to digital in almost every area, I would have thought we would be further into digital-only games by now,” says Chris Waldron, VP of games and digital products at Cartoon Network. “But kids are a particularly interesting demographic because they have relatives or friends buying physical console games as gifts, so there are big enough physical sales that we want to participate in.”
In 2016, Cartoon Network launched OK K.O.! Let’s Be Heroes, an animated comedy series keenly influenced by the video game world. Earlier this year, the kidsnet published a companion console game called OK K.O.! Let’s Play Heroes, developed by Toronto’s Capybara Games and written in collaboration with linear series creator Ian Jones-Quartey. Last year also saw the release of Steven Universe: Save the Light for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, a console sequel to the franchise’s previous mobile-only game. And CN says it doesn’t intend to back down from its console gaming strategy anytime soon.
“There’s nothing suggesting to me that kids are going to stop watching TVs or playing games on them. Television has as much value as the little screens do,” says Waldron.
Martin Rae, video game expert and former president of the US Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences, thinks TV-driven console gaming is really no match for digital content. “Unless you have a compelling software experience, kids are just going to go back to their phones, because they are fun and flashy, the music is cool, and you level up quickly,” Rae says. “Console games have to be really good to pull kids away from that. Console is a tough sell for kids because they want those seven-minute bites, and console games tend to be longer.” And for parents looking to indulge their children’s waning attention spans for a few minutes while they rush off for a shower, a tablet or smartphone is much easier to hand off than a console cue-up.
Ironically, parents may actually be the key to bringing children back into the console space. Just as content has aged up over time, so has the last generation of gamer kids—those who grew up on a wave of GameCube, Dreamcast and early PlayStation and Xbox games. Now that they’re the right age to buy and play M-rated games, they’ve also reached a point where they’re starting to have kids of their own, thereby ushering in a new generation of gamers that can ultimately change the market once again. If it’s just a case of boom, bust and echo, it might not be game over just yet.