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DVD's Got Game

7 Mar, 2002 By: Thomas K. Arnold


Ever since he discovered his Disney DVDs of animated classics like Peter Pan and Tarzan often included simple video games, 6-year-old Justin won't even bother watching VHS videos.
“They're yucky,” he says. “I want the DVD.”

Chalk up another victory for savvy studios in their quest to get families to buy DVDs instead of videocassettes.

Easy-to-understand video games, playable on set-top machines rather than computers, are proliferating on DVDs of children's movies, as suppliers seek to provide extra value and at the same time hook kids on the DVD experience.

“The kidvid sector is definitely lagging behind the rest of the market in the move to DVD,” said analyst Tom Adams of Adams Media Research.

According to Adams, of the more than 900 million video units shipped to retailers last year, about one-third were DVD -- but in the kidvid sector, DVD accounted for less than 20 percent of shipments.

“We think it will catch up eventually,” Adams said, “but this may help speed that along. Any feature that causes kids to want to consume it on DVD instead of VHS will help.”


DVDs Are More Than Better Picture and Sound

Gordon Ho, VP of brand marketing, animation, for Buena Vista Home Entertainment, agrees.

To help transition families into the DVD market, Ho said, “We felt we had the obligation to really demonstrate that this isn't just about better picture and sound.”

Interactive elements like games help differentiate DVD further from VHS and at the same time help promote family togetherness, Ho said.

“And if families have a better connection with your movies because of DVD, the better off we in this industry are,” he said.

Disney began putting games and other interactive features on its DVDs of animated feature films with the February 2000 release of Tarzan.

“We realized, based on our focus groups, talks with consumers and other research, that while the most important thing will always be the movie itself, we needed to offer families more than passive viewing to really experience the [DVD] medium,” Ho said. “We came up with a trivia game and a storybook, and that was the start of a new programming group.”

That programming group is headed by David Jessen, VP of DVD production, and is responsible for all supplemental material on Disney DVDs. But Jessen maintains he finds set-top games “among the most exciting things to work on, because these are special feature that really let us stretch the bounds of the medium.”

The games Disney puts on its DVDs are simple and take about eight weeks to produce, compared to a typical production cycle of two to three years for standard computer and video games.

“The limitations are astronomical,” Jessen said. “There's not a lot you can do with the medium at the current time because set-top DVD players don't have the brain power of a computer. It's simply video and TIFs, or static images, and you have to creatively manipulate them through storytelling, music and graphics to create an entertainment experience.”

Typical games are in the “if X, then Y,” or branching, model. The viewer is asked a multiple-choice question and then depending on which icon he clicks, the game either progresses or he's flashed a “try again” message.

Using such a limited framework taxes game developers' creativity, Jessen said, but he's quite happy with what his team has come up with, particularly when he hears from friends or colleagues how excited their children were with a particular game.

“Every time we start a new game, we think about how can we make a kid want to rush to this package, open it, and play this game first,” Jessen said.

When Snow White bowed on DVD late last year, Disney produced TV commercials, aimed at kids, that specifically highlighted the games and other interactive features on the two-DVD set. “It was important for kids to know that,” Ho said. “They are now the ones who realize if you have a new DVD from Disney, there's more to do than watch the movie.”


More Studios Got Game

Disney may have produced more games for DVDs than other suppliers, but the studio is hardly alone. When DreamWorks prepared Shrek for DVD the package was designed with two discs, one aimed at families with the movie in full frame and a “game swamp” with 15 games and activities, including “Shrek Pinball” and a “Rescue the Princess” trivia game.

“The more involved we can get kids in DVD through games and other interactive features, the more interested they will become in the format and the more they will ask specifically to see the DVD,” said Kelly Sooter, domestic head of DreamWorks Home Entertainment.

Warner Home Video, too, is game for interactive features. The studio has just begun putting simple set-top games on its upcoming family titles, beginning with the March release of Reel Wheels. Previously, interactive games were limited to DVD-ROM.

“It's the result of an initiative we started several months ago,” said Paul Hemstreet, VP of special features for Warner Home Video. “So much has come back to us in terms of consumer response that children enjoy these games and go back to them, so we wanted to come up with more of these features.”

Independent suppliers are also getting in on the game. Anchor Bay Entertainment included a trivia game on its “Mr. Bill” compilation DVD and is now also putting games on its “Thomas the Tank Engine” titles.

The Best of James (featuring Thomas' sidekick, James), which streeted March 5, includes a trivia game, four sing-alongs and an exploratory game called “Where Do I Belong?” The disc also lets kids “build” a train engine of their own design.

“We're just trying to take advantage of the DVD format and give parents and kids extra value,” said Kristin Sands, senior brand manager for Anchor Bay's children's division. “We want to expose kids to the format and when they see they can play games and read along to stories, they will start wanting the format and understanding that there is a difference between DVD and VHS.”


It Plays at Retail

Retailer John Marmaduke, president and CEO of 143-store Hastings Entertainment of Amarillo, Texas, said he welcomes the addition of games onto children's DVDs. He singles out Shrek as “a pivotal release as far as DVD penetration into families goes,” and believes the inclusion of games on the disc “certainly didn't hurt.”

“We are now, just this year, seeing families rent and buy DVD,” Marmaduke said. “That's really something we really started to notice post-Shrek.

Going forward, expect more games on future DVD releases. “We'll try to approach each title differently to create an original experience and not get stale and pop out templates,” Disney's Jessen said. “But when convergence is finally here and your DVD player is also your computer and you can sit on your couch with your feet on the coffee table and your keyboard in your lap, that's when things will get really dynamic.”

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