Those of us old enough to remember pong know that today's video game consoles bear little resemblance to the early forms of video gaming. What was once a white block deflecting a white dot has become a nearly life-like visual experience with complex storylines and immersive environments.
Still, for all the technical and experiential evolution found on game consoles over the last 30 years, what has remained nearly constant has been their purpose - to play games. Advancements, additions and expansions all came with the focus of enhancing or evolving game play. But the game is changing.
Today's consoles, dominated by Microsoft's Xbox 360, Sony's PlayStation 3 and Nintendo's groundbreaking Wii, have moved beyond game play to find a new place in the home as the family entertainment hub. With expanded features such as high-definition video-disc players (PlayStation 3 comes standard with Blu-ray while Microsoft offers a HD-DVD add-on for the Xbox 360), social networking capabilities and even on-demand content, console owners can use their investment for a great deal more than just games.
Game consoles also have the unique advantage of serving as platforms on which manufacturers can expand the devices' capabilities over time - a feature rarely shared by their entertainment center neighbors. This fall, PlayStation 3 owners will see the release of Sony Home, - a virtual world and social network where players can meet and interact with other gamers using avatars in a massive 3D world. Xbox 360 owners will enjoy the addition of IPTV, which gives users the ability to watch live or on-demand video content over the Internet.
Although gaming has always been a form of entertainment and is still at the heart of each of these consoles, the landscape and demographics of games are changing. Thanks in part to the Internet and the massive jump in the popularity of casual games, which have little learning curve, more people are now playing video games than ever before.
One noticeable shift: the number of women playing video games has jumped dramatically. A recent eMarketer report indicates more than 70 percent of casual gamers are women, with the majority of them over age 30. The same group has been shown to hold 80 percent of the decision-making buying power in the household.
As a result, manufacturers are rapidly expanding their offerings to include casual games available via each console's online network. Even the larger video game industry sees an opportunity to reach a broader audience. This year's E3 gaming conference tagline said it all: "Everyone's a gamer."
For Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo, the strategy is paying off. U.S. sales of video game hardware and software reached $1.1 billion in June, up 31 percent from a year ago, according to market research firm NPD. What's more, Nielsen estimates more than 45 million U.S. homes have at least one game console, accounting for over 41 percent of U.S. TV households. And that number will likely grow in both size and reach.
For marketers looking for the new masses, the expanding gaming demographic brings greater interest to an already popular advertising topic. Although in-game advertising is expected to reach $800 million by 2009, the bigger opportunity for advertisers may be in the expanded entertainment capabilities of these consoles. Creating your own casual game, leveraging content delivery technologies like IPTV or getting involved in Sony Home's virtual world are just some of the possibilities.
The Nintendo Wii and its family-friendly game play also has played a role in changing the gaming landscape. A comfortable stepping stone, the Wii eases casual gamers accustomed to playing online, or those totally new to gaming, into the world of console games - a feat the competition has failed to accomplish, at least with groups other than 18- to 34-year-old males. The Wii may turn out to be the champion of all game consoles and is currently outselling both PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. One of the best things about the Wii is that it's simply fun - and easy for anyone to play, turning "non-gamers" into new Wii owners.
Don't take my word for it. Ask the next soccer mom you see. Chances are she can tell you as much about today's gaming consoles as the 12-year-old son she just schooled in Wii Boxing.
Kirk Drummond is a digital advertising and technology veteran and emerging media consultant. (firstname.lastname@example.org)