Gaming has gone through many changes over the years, but 2008 was most definitely when the self-improvement and non-gaming software genre came into its own.
Although traditional titles continued to break new ground and fare well commercially, any advances made were comparatively small to those made in the self-improvement market.
The successful launch of games such as Wii Fit and Cooking Guide and the introduction of more practical products like Atari and Ubisoft’s driving theory test titles has expanded the scope of the genre. Meanwhile, the continually strong sales of the Brain Training series inspired a significant increase in similar, less conventional games hitting the shelves.
As we enter 2009, this growth shows no sign of slowing. Wii Fit has consistently ridden high in the charts and the likes of recent releases My Fitness Coach and Mind Your Language have contributed in their own way to the impressive roster of self-improvement titles that are already available.
Each subsequent release proves that the demand for such products – arguably started in 2006 with the original Brain Training’s release – is hardly temporary.
Having already helped to pioneer and establish this genre, Nintendo is keen to further explore the possibilities of such titles, catering to their new audience.
“We are always trying to find new ways of enriching people’s lives and making people smile – and games such as Wii Fit, Brain Training and Cooking Guide certainly seem to do just that,” says Nintendo’s senior product manager for Wii Rob Lowe.
“We’re glad that third-party publishers are also seeing success on our formats, and hope that we can all continue to find new and innovative ways to make people enjoy Wii and DS even more.”
More and more publishers are viewing these titles as viable investments, but to drive the market forward, we need to understand the reason for the growth we’ve seen so far.
“There is increasing pressure about looking good, being healthy, and generally being – or at least looking – happy,” explains Ubisoft’s UK brand manager Ombeline Wallon.
“In the past few years, technology in video games has evolved so much that consoles have pretty much become part of everyday lives for a wide range of people, and this really became obvious in 2008.”
Slitherine’s marketing director Marco Minoli adds: “I think it’s mainly down to a dramatic shift towards a completely new target audience willing to have a completely different gaming experience.
“New elements like social interaction, self-improvement and personal knowledge are now an integral part of our vocabulary and we need to look at our products from different angles – not solely from a pure entertainment point of view.”
While this new audience is important, the fact that the mainstream appeal of video games has expanded so rapidly over the last few years is also key to the genre’s success, making it easier for publishers to raise awareness of these titles among non-gamers.
“More mainstream consumers are enjoying these games because they are interesting and relevant to them and their lives,” says Oxygen Games’ CEO Jim Scott. “The games are advertised in the same places as other household brands that dominate the cereals, vitamins and yogurts sectors, as well as awareness being spread through word of mouth.”
Atari’s UK product manager Lauren Bradley points to the additional psychological benefits of these games, describing how the medium of video games frees such concepts from the pressure inherent to traditional methods for looking after your body.
“It’s a much less committal way to access new forms of self-improvement, as you don’t have the same pressures or fear of failure,” she says. “Games are, on the whole, non-prescriptive and can be taken at your own pace, which is much less scary. You can be more honest with the information you give and your results as it can be private.”
The industry seems to be optimistic about the sector’s foreseeable future, with the general consensus that self-improvement is a genre here to stay. Remarkably, it shows a particularly positive attitude towards the financial viability of this market.
“It can be argued that self-improvement software – particularly on Nintendo formats – could be susceptible to a reduction in family household income and confidence in the future,” says Midas’ head of sales Sam Collins.
“To date, the figures suggest otherwise. It looks like the Wii is no more affected than other consoles.”
“There is no reason that the self-improvement category will be hit any more than other areas,” adds 505 Games’ senior brand manager Alex Price. “In fact, in a climate like this people may be more inclined to try self-improvement titles.”
The Stationery Office’s marketing executive Laura Searle reports that her company – which specialises in driving theory test software – has seen resilient and steady sales so far this year, proving the economic downturn has not put off learners from gaining an advantage in learning to drive.
If anything, the recession makes it more important for them to study hard and pass first time, as failing and booking the test again can be a costly process.
Similarly, Scott believes consumers will look upon games as great value for money, particularly those that are beneficial to the player, so the self-improvement genre could stand to fare better than others.
While the Wii and DS is set to continue its domination of the market, publishers are keen to see other platforms entering the fold.
Development studio Lightning Fish is already working on bringing such titles to these audiences, although it recognises the challenges that need to overcome
“Sony, Microsoft and other platform holders need to develop new and non-intrusive ways of interacting with their titles,” says the studio’s CEO Simon Prytherch. “It is essential to bring not only self-improvement titles, but games in general to a much wider audience.”
“The Xbox 360 and PS3 have their strengths,” adds Wallon. “As their userbase widens, so does the range of interests and passions of these users. We could see demand for self-improvement games on these platforms too.”
Bradley agrees that the technology of those platforms is good enough but states that
“it’s more of an attitude shift that needs to happen” before the genre can really appeal to these audiences.
“Until the other platforms have penetrated the casual, female and family audiences, such titles are not going to be commercially viable on those formats,” warns Price.
“With current demographics on the other platforms, a move onto these ones is not likely in the immediate future, although I wouldn’t rule it out over the next year or so.”
Self-improvement games and the success of key titles in 2008 has captured the imagination and attention of publishers across the board. Many are now looking to push it further.
“Perhaps it will become increasingly led from a marketing perspective,” suggests Bradley. “Games may be developed in conjunction with brands that are already well known, such as our What’s Cooking with Jamie Oliver.
“The gameplay will be underpinned by the brand’s values and ideals, and will simply be part of a bigger picture. We know this has worked in the past for celebrity-endorsed fitness DVDs.”
Several firms concur that marketing and online strategies will be key to the sector’s ongoing growth.
Focus Multimedia’s PR and marketing manager Grant Hughes says: “These titles lend themselves perfectly to social networking. Future titles could encourage online competition and interaction with other users. If your daily self-improvement regime is flagging, you’ll get support from your fellow users.”
But overall, the consensus is that the market stands to undergo self-improvement of its own. PlayV’s interim managing director Luiz Ferreira believes that “only the surface has been scratched in the genre so far”.
“It’s a brand new market in itself and it has been successful because it has been properly pioneered,” adds Minoli.
So it is clear that the industry captured such a new audience that it needs to maintain their interest. Self-improvement games have become so popular that publishers cannot afford to neglect them.