Toying with Natal

Ben Parfitt
Toying with Natal

Despite working in the same office as the UK’s leading games trade title, I’m going to have to admit to knowing next to nothing about games.

While it’s clear there is a growing crossover in retail terms between games and toys, the gaming world is something that has left me standing and is something that I’m not familiar with on any level.

I was a little surprised therefore, to be invited to Microsoft’s Project Natal briefing. But along I went to find out about its next big secret weapon.

The showcase ran over two days with celebs (such as Jonathan Ross) and consumer media attending. It would seem Microsoft’s mission for Natal is to educate as many mainstream and lifestyle sectors outside of the gaming industry as possible.

After a short introduction, we were given the chance to try out the demo game, Ricochet. Watching the others, I quickly realised I was probably one of Natal’s target audience.

The lack of controllers on the Xbox accessory is probably the most inviting thing about Project Natal for non-gamers like myself. We all know how to use our bodies and the 3D and infrared technology means the player becomes the controller, in turn including everybody in Project Natal’s entertainment experience.

I was hooked pretty much straight away. And if I can play it, anyone can, which made me realise the link between this product and toys.

Suddenly, there is a computer game that even pre-school kids would be able to master. If I managed to get a half decent score, the new generation of technology savvy kids are likely to leave me at the starting blocks. Even the toddlers.

Xbox, Wii and a number of other gaming products have become mainstays on the shelves of major toy retailers like Toys R Us, Argos and Smyths. It’s easy to see why. These big-ticket items boost sales and the big names can help increase footfall into stores, in turn helping raise sales of traditional toys.

This was the case for toy retailer, The Entertainer, when it began to stock Wii back in 2008, although the firm no longer offers the consoles.

Buying director, Stuart Grant explains: “It was brilliant for us in 2008 and saw us through a really difficult trading period, when every High Street retailer was struggling.

“It was absolutely the right thing for us to do in hindsight.”

It has also become clear recently that video games are overtaking some areas of the toy market. At the end of last year NPD showed that while the video games market had grown 33 per cent, board games had seen a decline of 19 per cent.

This is a trend the board game suppliers have picked up on and are adapting to accommodate, as can be seen in the licensing deal between EA and Hasbro, with a range of its properties and brands appearing as video games.

With Xbox already present in many toy outlets, Microsoft has said it will again be approaching them with Project Natal, making it likely we will soon see the product on the toy shop shelves.

The firm has also confirmed it will be working with Disney, EA and Konami, among others to develop games for Natal, so expect to see more links with toy brands at launch.

But it’s yet to be seen what affect this entertainment experience and future gaming developments will have on the toy market.

Grant continues: “The games market is definitely stealing spend from toys, but only in the same way as I’d say the fashion, music and mobile phone industries currently are.

“Children are now exposed to what were traditionally adult sectors, so every industry is potentially a threat to the toy market.

“Kids have a limited spend available and there are many areas attracting them. However, I wouldn’t say this was any more the case in the past five years, than it has been in the last 20.”

The Entertainer isn’t planning to stock Natal, but there’s no doubt other toy retailers will.

People will always buy toys, so it’s safe to say the traditional sector isn’t going anywhere yet. But the toy industry is going to have to continue to up its game and embrace and help introduce innovative products like Natal to maintain its share of consumer spending.

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