The Metreon Center at 4th and Mission in downtown San Francisco is a lonesome place, a retail ghost-town, murmuring with the spooky semi-silence of our ruined economy. Mostly, it's empty and gray, echoing the endless moan of a trundling escalator, shifting dwindling numbers of movie-goers to a fourth floor cinema.
For ten colorful years, the PlayStation Store gloried at the prime corner of this mall, jangling and heaving with young people. Now it's a farmer's market, like the ultimate statement on the end of our society, technology finally eating itself as we revert to agrarianism.
In every town and city in the Western world, there are more empty stores than anyone can recall. For a glass-half-empty kind of thinking, this is a bad time to be opening up any kind of games store, certainly not one focused on a single hardware brand, and most especially not one wholly dedicated to a single game.
And yet, one block away from the Metreon, a shop has opened that's all about EA Sports Active, a Wii Sports type game with an angle on the kinds of high impact work-outs we like in the West. EA Sports Active launched in the spring and has sold over a million units in North America. An add-on (More Workouts) launched last week. Both products boast reviews in the 80s. Gamedaily trumpeted, "If you crave an exercise game with a more serious edge, don't hesitate to sign up for this workout. Just remember to bring a towel."
EA Sports Active's marketing director Monique Gomel is clearly a glass half full-type, which is a good fit for this brand, positively bursting with bright orange optimism, like a cult-cool gym mixed with a bouncing cheery infomercial. She explains the idea behind the store in San Francisco, and another in Boston. "The data showed that 80% of our consumers were recommending EA Sports Active to their friends. We knew that we had a good product but our challenge was getting the word further out there and really differentiating it from the other products."
She adds, "We wanted to find a way to drive those recommendations even further and make the most of that relationship. We wanted to find a way to allow people who are using the game to show it to their friends so as well as trying to encourage people to show it to their friends at home we decided to create a venue for that, one that is representative of the brand and welcoming and comfortable."
People can book a session with an "ambassador" or just walk in and have a play. There's even a lending library plan through which would-be buyers are encouraged to take the game home and try it for a few days. With 26 million Wiis in U.S. homes, this is actually feasible. Also, the percentage of people with Wiis walking up and down Stockton (in fact, two doors away from the West Coast's consumer technology Emerald City - The Apple Store) is probably faintly obscene.
But isn't this all a bit expensive? Gomel points out that the stores are "like living billboards" in some of the world's most desirable shopping locations. The San Francisco shop is just a few steps away from the famous trolleys, a clanking tourist machine, right up there with Alcatraz.
"It's actually not that expensive and is good value as an influencer campaign," she says, "we're getting a lot of traffic from people just passing by. An idea like this generates its own buzz."
Indeed, EA Sports has declined any local advertising, relying on PR and lots of social marketing. The brand's Twitter account (Active_Girl) is one of the very rare examples of game industry social marketing that actually does something useful, and properly represents the values and meaning of the brand itself.
The stores, the Twitter account, the community pages are "all about helping people who are interested in a fitness product". To be fair, EA Sports Active can barely be described as a game, and has more in common with gym membership or home fitness equipment. The desire to look good does not cease during a recession - the need to be thrifty in the pursuit of beauty merely becomes more urgent, a boon for value-products like EA Sports Active.
Gomel acknowledges that the same tough retail environment that has cursed The Metreon, has helped get these stores up and running. "Retail floor space is plentiful right now," she says, even in prime locations. This is a marketing idea of its time, taking something ostensibly negative in the real world, and turning it to a brand's advantage, breaking rules and trying something different. More power to their elbow.