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Nintendo’s new brand targets aging gamers

Nintendo's Touch Generations subbrand, which launches next week, targets 40-and-50-something gamers.
/ Source: BusinessWeek Online

The Web site for Nintendo's subbrand, Touch Generations, which launched this month, is filled with photos of consumers in the target demographic. In one shot, two gray-haired men in blazers peer curiously over the shoulders of a neatly dressed woman playing a game on a Nintendo DS Lite, the company's sleek new portable player. In another image, a well-coiffed, 60-ish lady holds the DS Lite sideways, like an open book, smiling contentedly at the camera.

On June 26, Nintendo hopes to hook more such aging gamers with its latest Touch Generations title, Sudoku Gridmaster—an electronic version of the wildly popular, crossword puzzle-like logic game in which players fill grids with numbers. The Touch Generations logo, which adorns the box, is a simple orange square with rounded edges and an outline of the letter G in the middle. The most visually compelling feature of the emblem is the silhouette of a stylus, a key element of the DS Lite that was chosen by the logo designers (in-house teams from both sides of the Pacific) to suggest the user-friendliness of the games. Many titles rely on the touch screen and stylus for simple, intuitive navigation. Overall, the logo is meant to convey that the game "is anything but a first-person-shooter."

"It was really important to let people know these are pick-up-and-play games," says Perrin Kaplan, Nintendo of America's vice-president of marketing.

The titles released so far under the Touch Generations brand are geared toward 40- and 50-somethings. The games include Brain Age, which features exercises like solving simple math problems to help aging gamers rebuild any memory, computation, and cognition skills that have become flabby. The training program is inspired by the research of prominent Japanese neuroscientist Dr. Ryuta Kawashima, whose pixellated likeness appears as a floating head throughout the exercises.

Who's playing?
Brain Age was first released in April without the Touch Generations imprint. But this month, along with older titles such as Nintendogs, it was rebranded under Touch Generations. Kaplan says that the phrase "touch generations" was first used in Nintendo's Japan offices to refer to the broad spectrum of players drawn to the DS and its touch screen. The idea of using the name as a subbrand grew out of the term.

The idea behind the aggregation of games under the new brand is to lure in older nongamers by offering skill-building — or at least less violent, less fantasy-based — titles, like True Swing Golf, that might appeal to them more than, say, Grand Theft Auto or World of Warcraft. And Nintendo is also rebranding under the Touch Generations label golden oldies such as Tetris and the arcade game Puzzle Loop, now renamed Magnetica in its portable version. The company hopes the classic games will ring a bell with those who were around in the 1980s.

Nintendo's brand strategy is on target with two simultaneous — although separate — sales trends. According to the latest stats from the Entertainment Software Assn., in 2005, the average age of most frequent game purchasers was 40, and 25% of all gamers were over the age of 50. In addition, women made up 47% of all gamers who are parents.

These markets are in part contributing to record sales in the video-game industry. Researcher NPD Group states that annual 2005 U.S. retail sales of video games (played on both console and portable units) topped $10.5 billion—beating the previous sales record of $10.3 billion in 2002. The 2005 figure is a 6% increase over the $9.9 billion generated in 2004. A big reason for the increased sales: an increasingly strong portable game market. Sales of portable games, like Nintendo's Touch Generations titles, surpassed the $1 billion mark—hitting $1.4 billion—for the second year in a row.

Could 'clubby' industry become more inclusive?
Hardware for portable games—the new DS Lite will fall into this category—saw a dollar increase of a whopping 96% over 2004 (granted, sales of Sony's popular PSP, released in 2005, had a large role in driving sales). Portable software saw an increase of 42% in 2005 sales compared with those in 2004. While it's hard to find data that links the two trends—older gamers, increased portable-game sales—Nintendo's strategy to focus on marketing the DS Lite and Touch Generations games to new, older gamers certainly seems timely.

The unit, which is smaller and lighter than the original Nintendo DS (released in 2004), features an obvious iPod-like design, from its clean lines to its futuristic all-white color scheme. The stylus is larger than that of the earlier DS, and the screen brighter. All of these details indicate that it might be more user-friendly for older gamers than the earlier version, which came in a candy-colored spectrum that seemed more geared to youth than the elegant new unit. And sales of the DS Lite have been brisk. In its first two days on the market, June 11 and 12, Nintendo sold 136,500 units. How the numbers break down by age group isn't available.

But why rebrand some games now when it seems that the gaming industry is doing just fine?

"The industry is really healthy, really big. But it's also very clubby," Nintendo's Kaplan says. "One of our goals was to target people entering the game world for the first time. It's absolutely about tapping into emerging markets." Kaplan adds that one emerging market Nintendo seeks to court is that of aging former gamers weaned on Pac Man and Pong reentering the gaming world.

Brand fits the image
"There's a dormant group of gamers out there, and it behooves us to keep enticing and exciting gamers as they age. We asked, 'How do we bring in people who have careers and families that take up their time?' " says Kaplan. The answer, she says, is games priced at $19.99 (most popular games cost around $50) that are designed to be played in small increments rather than long stretches of time—unlike hardcore or massively multiplayer online role-playing games. "They're more like a small part of life, not a major investment," Kaplan says. She adds that these games could appeal to younger gamers, too, and that the new brand isn't meant to be clubby, despite its demographic focus.

The Touch Generations "umbrella" branding strategy also makes good business sense. "Rather than launch different ad campaigns for each title and hope consumers would see how they might be related, we wanted to frame the games as something more than a one-off game for your mother," she says. Grouping the games under a new subbrand affirms the company's ongoing commitment to these types of games and gamers.

"It's no secret that everyone's playing games," says Eric Zimmerman, co-editor of The Game Design Reader and co-founder of the developer Gamelab, who points to Electronic Arts' The Sims—the best-selling computer game of all time—as evidence of the huge group of gamers who fall between hardcore and casual games. "The big question for game makers is how to begin taking advantage of emerging markets. Nintendo is differentiating itself from the more hardcore profiles of Microsoft and Sony. But Nintendo has consistently been known for creating more innovative, less edgy titles. So the branding approach makes sense for them," he says.

Of course, a brand is only as good as its products. The key for Nintendo will be to continue offering games with fresh, original content that stands out from the formulaic sports-franchise games, the first-person shooters, the movie-themed titles, and the exhaustive sequels. Games like Brain Age do, and it has hooked in new players as a result. To successfully tap the trends of older gamers and increasing portable sales, Nintendo's Touch Generations brand will have to deliver.