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Video gamers look past holiday for hot trends

Some games hit their target market at just the right time, like "Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2"  

In this story:

Winners and also-rans

Not all fun and games


LOS ANGELES (Reuters) -- Christmas 2000? Bah humbug, say video game companies who are already looking past this holiday season to spot the popular trends that will foster the hottest game titles for 2001 and beyond.

In the $8 billion-a-year industry, top game developer companies THQ Inc., Electronics Arts Inc. and Activision Inc. must predict which games and consoles fickle teenagers will clamor for a year ahead of time.

Because games can take from six months to several years to develop, companies try to nab licenses for sports stars and hot brand names. Spotting trends can be risky but lucrative, as one hit can turn an average season into a championship one.

Tony Hawk, for example, became a synonym for skateboarding when he landed the world's first 900-degree turn (a 2-1/2 turn) in competition last June. His new fame proved convenient for Activision, which was just then putting the finishing touches on an extreme sports game named after Hawk.

"You have to anticipate trends, things that are just catching on from the trend setters to the mainstream, so by the time (the games) come out they will be full blown in the mainstream," said Kathy Vrabeck, Activision's executive vice president of global brand management.

A hit game usually means not just a surge in sales, but also a boost for a company's stock price as trend-spotting investors look to scoop up a company's shares. Likewise, just one dud can sour investors.

Games that developers most enjoy -- the original themed ones -- can be risky, but they also are some of the most successful due to their originality, such as Eidos' Tomb Raider, which has inspired its own movie.

Gamers also have to keep abreast of pending new high-tech consoles, including Microsoft's touted Xbox, available in fall 2001, Nintendo Co.'s GameCube system next year and Sony's PlayStation 2, due for a tapered down U.S. release in late October and in Europe in late November.

Winners and also-rans

"Michael Jordan: Chaos in the Windy City," went nowhere despite its big-name association  

Some successes are no-brainers, like Activision's rights to make games based on Marvel Comics heroes or THQ's license to make games using professional wrestling characters, captured before World Wrestling Federation antics caught on.

The world's largest independent video game developer, Electronic Arts generally has the most financial muscle to secure popular themes. EA just secured the license to develop a game based on the popular "Harry Potter" children's books.

Games are typically subject to close scrutiny by focus groups -- basically, lucky kids who come into the game maker's offices to test out new games. THQ bounces game ideas off retailers, whose suggestions led to its 3-D bass fishing game.

But trend predicting is never a sure thing, and sometimes duds fall through the cracks.

THQ's "Shaq Fu" for Game Boy -- in which the L.A. Lakers basketball star battles opponents using martial arts -- proves how even hot names like Shaquille O'Neal may not sell outside their familiar setting. Another example is the company's never released "Michael Jordan: Chaos in the Windy City," in which the athlete hurls basketballs at bad guys in hometown Chicago.

Sometimes a good concept is released on the wrong player, like THQ's Tiger Woods on the Game Boy, which saw disappointing sales because the platform's generally younger audiences are not usually golf aficionados. Electronic Arts holds licenses for the golf star on other consoles.

THQ's cross-town Los Angeles-area rival Activision also has seen failures, like when it misfired in predicting an audience for a reprisal of the company's famous "Space Invaders." A nostalgic game fad had already faded and a new generation of gamers were not impressed by the several decades-old graphics.

Not all fun and games

A game that fails to meet expectations can hurt not just a company's image but its stock price, in a world where both video game players and financial analysts can be brutal.

"The fate of one or two games can make or break a company," said Frank O'Connor, editor in chief of video game and entertainment Web site "It's totally subjective on what makes a hit. There's no star power to drag people in."

So, many companies prefer to play it safe, offering sequels to popular titles and long-standing popular themes. Electronic Arts, is making its 15th version of its popular John Madden football game, O'Connor said.

But latching onto a celebrity, a hot movie or trendy toy is not enough to make a hit. Games must be fun to play.

"Kids these days are so sophisticated," Germaine Gioia, THQ licensing director, said. "First and foremost you need to make quality games. If it's your favorite television show or movie and you have all the pajamas and umbrellas but the game doesn't play well, that resounds pretty quickly in terms of sales."

New consoles with faster playing speeds and richer video quality also demand higher quality games.

"We're moving to new hardware, so it's more about game play than brands now. Games that showcase the technology will cater to people that own the new systems, the more hard-core users," Activision's Vrabeck said.

Another trend helping the industry expand is the boom in younger players. Video game companies are now making games that can be played by increasingly electronic-literate children as young as 5 years old.

"Traditionally we made and marketed to 12 to 14 year-olds but as systems became older and less expensive, they can appeal to larger markets," THQ's Gioia said. "The big brother or sister passes the system to a younger sibling."

Copyright 2000 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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