Nickelodeon, Online Media, and 600 Games

Tapping into this desire, media companies are increasingly entering the marketplace for online games — called casual games — and treating them as new programming, not just online add-ons to their television properties.

In addition to building brands, one of the big lures in casual games is the opportunity to attract advertising, including from food companies which have gradually agreed to limit the nature and volume of television advertisements aimed at children. But those agreements have not always extended to the Internet.

Viacom, the parent company of Nickelodeon and MTV, may be moving the most aggressively. On Tuesday Nickelodeon is expected to announce the first of 600 original and exclusive games for its network of Web sites, as part of a $100 million investment in game development.

“We don’t believe they have enough homework,” joked Cyma Zarghami, the president of the MTV Networks’ Nickelodeon Kids and Family group.

The term “casual,” used to contrast with the action-packed console games popularized by Sony and Microsoft, belies the fact that users devote hours to the games. Studies show that one-third of Internet users play online games at least once a week. Millions of children and teenagers play games on sites like Addicting Games, Miniclip Games and Disney.com and social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook are also becoming popular platforms for gaming.

A recent study by Grunwald Associates found that multitasking young people are often driven to online games by television shows and frequently interact with both media at the same time.

“Sitting and watching Dora DVDs is quite different from playing Dora in a game,” said Michael Cai, the director for broadband and gaming at Parks Associates, whose 3-year-old daughter is a fan of the preschool brand. “It’s definitely more engaging — and the brand affiliation is stronger — in an interactive setting.”

Just how important are games to Nickelodeon’s future? Standing on stage at the Hammerstein Ballroom in Manhattan at an annual event for advertisers last Wednesday, Ms. Zarghami began her presentation by gesturing to a giant overhead monitor tinted in the channel’s signature shade of orange. A message promoted the company’s gaming audience: “Over 25 million unique visitors last month.”

“What video is to TV, games are to the Web,” Steve Youngwood, the executive vice president for digital media at Nickelodeon, said in an interview. “For us to be relevant to our audience, that is where we need to put our investment.”

With a series of customized sites for different age groups (preschoolers, tweens, teenage boys, moms), Nickelodeon calls itself the “biggest gaming network in the country.” Movie studios, video game publishers, and toy makers are among the top marketers on the sites. In the online games market, its stiffest competition comes from Yahoo Games, which had 15.5 million unique visitors in February according to the measurement firm comScore.

With more than 12 million visitors each, Electronic Arts and Disney.com are also leaders in the arena. (By comparison, Microsoft’s online game network, Xbox Live, has about 10 million members.)

The N, Nickelodeon’s teenage network, has dozens of games for children ages 12 to 17. Slightly younger players are directed to Nick.com, which drew an average of 2.1 million visitors in February and is expected to add 185 games this year. The youngest players of all are welcome on the sites of Nick Jr. and Noggin, where games are meant to be played by children “on the laps of their moms,” Ms. Zarghami said.

The company also owns Neopets, a virtual pet Web site. The investment will add scores of new games to each site in the coming year.

Judy McGrath, the chief executive of MTV Networks, said that many of the company’s assets are ripe for game development. Fresh off an impromptu “Rock Band” jam session in her Times Square office, Ms. McGrath made a reference to “Frog Baseball,” a 16-year-old pilot episode of the cartoon “Beavis and Butt-Head.” In the episode, the two characters play the game described in the title.

“That would be a brilliant game,” Ms. McGrath said with a grin.

But the revenue streams for casual games are still experimental. Companies are exploring try-before-you-buy models, integrated advertising and micro-transactions, where players can purchase items and levels within games. Advertisers have shown interest in inserting their products into game play.

Last year on Shockwave, a gaming site acquired by MTV Networks in 2006, players struggling with the jigsaw puzzle game could press the “easy button” sponsored by Staples to see a solution hint. Last year on Nick.com Arcade, the game site for Nickelodeon viewers, a custom game promoted “Bee Movie” for Paramount Pictures. Games are repeatable, customizable and measurable, adding up to “great engagement for the advertiser,” Mr. Youngwood said.

Across the company’s gaming sites, sponsored and pay-to-play games are always labeled as advertisements. Still, some parents and watchdog groups worry that children are already smothered by branding messages.

For instance, the television version of the preschool brand Noggin is mostly commercial-free, but the channel’s Web site displays advertising. These ads — for Target, Circuit City, Six Flags and Orlando vacations on a recent day — are aimed at parents, but the young faces and bright colors in the ads probably appeal to children as well.

Some advertisers have devised their own games to pull in children from media sites. An advertisement for Cinnamon Toast Crunch that ran at the top of Nick.com one afternoon last week linked to the Millsberry Arcade, a site operated by General Mills where visitors can play games like Reese’s Puffs Cereal Snowboard Slalom.

Margo G. Wootan, director for nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said the games produced by food companies were of more concern than those run by media outlets. “On food Web sites, lots and lots of junk food is built into online gaming,” Ms. Wootan said.

Her organization threatened to sue Viacom in 2006 over its television advertising to children.

Some analysts, however, said that media companies and game publishers have generally behaved responsibly in their advertising.

Online Games by the Hundreds, With Tie-Ins – New York Times (By BRIAN STELTER)

There still a bit more to that article, so feel free to click the link for the last part.

WOW… 600.

I’m glad to FINALLY hear Nickelodeon speak up about SOMETHING in the online media ring. So far, their only successful unique, appropriate, non-insulting-with-ads venture has been iCarly (btw, I’m in love with Carly’s older brother… relax, he’s 29.. heh). Argue “Nicktropolis” and “Neopets” all you like… but I’m not buying it. Both are ad-insulting, and there’s no deep love from the creators (Neopets doesn’t feel nearly as meaningful anymore, and slightly skeeztastic with it’s dual point system & microbuy revenue models– plus, it’s not really a world as much as a dynamic enviro).

Sure, they’ve got Addictinggames.com & shockwave – but they were “leave-’em-be” projects due to success and casual nature. Plus, they’re not really tween, nor IP prolific.

I’m happy that Nickelodeon has set its eyes on the best-game prize, but I’m kinda a little heartsad that they aren’t trying anything unique, creative, edgy, or that pushes media in a futuristic fashion. Sure, they can be creating new in-game methods of playing with brand, but that’s what everyone is doing at the moment. Welcome to the room, it’s crowded.

I hate to say it, but it reminds me a bit of early 00 Cartoon Network. CN has been very good about keeping quietly with their audience. They’ve been ALL ABOUT the games, knowing their audience, while everyone else was leaping on the community, UGC bandwagon. And now that they’re releasing their exciting new MMO that explorings gaming & branding appropriate for the demo… Nick seems to be in their wake.

Nickelodeon has so much going for it, but I miss their edginess. They feel a bit lost in the times, trying to be original in an emptying room. Or maybe they’re banking on the MMO/VW existence as a fad, a trend that will grow wearisome with the tweens, who basically only want games.

Could be true, but there’s something to be said for escapism, play patterns, and story continuation. Kids still pick up sticks and play Lord of the Rings in the play yard (saw ’em last week, in fact), and that movie is finished – bye, bye Frodo.

Part of the reason I love “The Neverending Story” is that it proved a hope for me – that even when the book ends, the fictional lives go on. Movies try to leap on this play pattern, mind frame with their sequels. But honestly, can you think of a sequel that feels legit enough? No, because by this time you’ve already made up your own mind about what happened… and it’s rare that the sequel can compare to your own visions – hence the reason why it’s SO BRILLIANT that entertainment/biz are angling for MMO experiences. Go ahead, keep playing with your web-based Star Wars dolls, pretend your own way, and maybe even explore something new within the content on your own! Le sigh… I love this industry.

Anyway, I’m glad Nickelodeon is speaking to us again, bringing us into their embrace with future plans and promises for new media. I was getting worried that they gave up on us – the audience- and just doing whatever it takes to make money. I just hope they try to slime– ahem, spice– things up a bit more with explorations of new tech & youth, empowerment & imagination, respect & future.

My only hope, Nickelodeon, is that you do something to cure, enhance, improve Nicktropolis, and/or Neopets. And by the way, Nick, I’m only hard on you because I lurve ya. Expect the best from the best.

Update:

Woot: Nickelodeon Sheds More Light

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  1. Robert
    March 18, 2008 at 4:16 pm

    And now that they’re releasing their exciting new MMO that explorings gaming & branding appropriate for the demo… Nick seems to be in their wake.

    From earlier posts, I can tell you’re excited for Fusion Fall. But strangely enough you haven’t mentioned the fact that they asked a Korean company to design the game, in what I see as a way to get kids interested because it has an “anime” look to it. I guess that’s not really the kind of subject you would focus on. Also, Cartoon Network is in a way playing catch-up to Nick when it comes to online games all the while they’re neglecting any and everything else. What I mean by that is, CartoonNetwork.com is just a game site. They have no news or anything, well they have schedule and video but the only thing I find useful about CN Video is the classics, as does any older fan does. It seems as though I’m rambling so that is all.

  2. March 18, 2008 at 5:01 pm

    Interesting point about the Anime, Robert. I hadn’t really put that connection together – mainly because the CN demo is hot for Manga & Anime. Naruto is one of their hottest shows. To me, the Anime look is just following the path of what they’re audience has enjoyed. It strikes me of Teen Titans and stuff – a blend of anime & western animation styles.

    Although I do agree that CN hasn’t posted news/etc, I don’t think Cartoon Network has really engaged the audience as an entity the same way the overall brand of Nickelodeon has. Nicktoons Network is more like Cartoon Network – they focus on cartoons & games, forgoing the whole “hub” atmosphere that both Nick.com & Disney aim for. Instead of throwing everything on the table, hoping to engage all, they threw what they knew their direct audience wanted most. Community elements, even continuous copy, takes a good bit of scalability & money to drive – I’d like to believe that perhaps CN decided to wait until their model was proven before giving birth to such a living breathing entity.

    For several years I worked on a community that didn’t have the money to sustain itself – and, man, that’s not fun, easy, or encouraging. You want to do the best for your audience, but you just can’t. Basically, you end up watching this great opportunity with awesome kid-interaction kinda drown in sinking sand. So, if people aren’t adding community elements in a time when that buzz word means $$… I applaud them for not just jumping into the mix and smearing ill-constructed community elements over their site. Of course, that’s slightly mute now, since some of the bigger kids sites with community elements have since cleaned up parts – or are in the attempts of correcting and improving.

    I dunno. That’s my take on it. 🙂 And no worries about the rambling. I do it all the time, lol!

  3. March 19, 2008 at 2:07 am

    Just keepin’ up with the Disneys 🙂

    At an average of ~$165K per casual game, they better be pretty ding dang awesome.

    It’s gotta be cool to have that sort of budget :0.

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