VIDE GAME with a message Local game designer Gabriel Entertainment mixes health education with virtual fun Few teen-agers would thrill at the prospect of an anti-smoking lecture. But if the same message were embedded in a video game, they might perk up and take notice.
Indianapolis-based Gabriel Entertainment is counting on it. The company is just a few weeks away from completing the prototype of its new title, "Ocean Secret." Aimed at pre-teen and teenage girls, the game is a sort of virtual Nancy Drew mystery with a concealed anti-tobacco message.
Gabriel President Michael Root wants to make sure the message is well h i d d e n indeed. Hit game titles all have one thing in common:
"At the end of the day, you want to know, 'Is this fun?'" he said. "So we ask that question at many points along the way."
Fo r m e d i n 1999, Gabriel has 10 employees and a firm foothold in the personal computer game market. Last year, the company released five titles, including three farm simulators bearing the John Deere brand name. In 2005, it also released "Caterpillar Construction Tycoon" and a driving game called "Super Stunt Spectacular." Root declined to disclose Gabriel's annual revenue, except to say it was double 2004's.
Gabriel faces a crossroads. Unless it can move beyond PCs and penetrate the growing video game console market, its sales potential will always be limited.
"The problem is the PC market is one-fifth the size of the console market," said Van Baker, research vice president for Stamford, Conn.-based technology research firm Gartner Inc. "But to have that small of an organization trying to move to the new platforms is going to be a challenge."
Sony has sold about 100 million PlayStation 2s, Root said. Microsoft has sold about 25 million of its original Xbox. It released the next version, Xbox 360, last fall. Sony's PS3 is in development. Analysts expect to see robust sales of both new systems, with Microsoft increasing its market share thanks to its head start.
But Gabriel can't sell titles for those consoles unless it develops content specifically for them. Direct-to-PC games don't automatically translate. And Baker pointed out it takes between $15 million and $20 million and a team of several hundred to develop a top-tier game for those systems. The daunting expense has kept Gabriel from launching a tank simulator that's long been in development-although Root still has high hopes for that project.
In the meantime, Gabriel has other ideas in mind. It sees opportunities as a niche game maker. Most video games are designed for boys' twitchy fingers. If Gabriel aims for an underserved demographic such as young girls, it faces less competition. And there's not as much pressure to produce a blockbuster.
"You can make money in this industry by making a single or double, so to speak, without always having to swing for the fence," Root said.
Hence Gabriel's newest project, "Ocean Secret." Developed with more than a quarter of a million dollars from the National Cancer Institute and the Indiana 21st Century Research and Technology Fund, Gabriel hopes it will be just the first in a series of games for young girls, all with a health or education theme. Gabriel is testing "Ocean Secret's" playability with a sample audience from the local chapter of Girls Inc.
Anna McDaniel, director of the graduate program of health informatics at the Indiana University School of Informatics in Indianapolis, conceived the idea of an anti-smoking video game and developed a limited version herself on campus. She searched the country for a developer to produce a commercial version and struck on Gabriel when she happened to meet Root's wife on an airplane.
"If you remember the aftermath of Columbine, every talk show, the press and public opinion was somehow that video games had turned these boys into monsters," she said. "If we really believe video games are that powerful, we should try to harness them to do good, and help kids make the right choices."
Gabriel's challenge is to achieve that lofty goal without boring its audience. To that end, "Ocean Secret" is designed to deliver its antitobacco message subtly. For example, the smoking antagonists have yellow teeth and obviously stinky clothes. Later in the plot, the game's heroines discover that the town is being poisoned with the same chemicals that make cigarettes addictive.
Gartner's Baker saw merit in Gabriel's niche strategy.
"There's clearly a market, and that's clearly an area where they're less likely to get stomped on by the competition, because they're going after a segment the majority largely ignores," he said. "In that sense, it could be a very good opportunity for them."
If "Ocean Secret" is successful, Gabriel hopes it will spawn a series of "Dolphin Pier" mysteries set in the same town with recurring main characters. If that happened, Gabriel could enjoy licensing opportunities for toys and other spin-off products.
But despite the big potential payoff, creating proprietary video game content is risky. Established brand names are what usually attract players, particularly the casual variety. And for the moment, "Ocean Secret" is only a prototype. Gabriel has to finish the game. Then it must form from scratch a marketing campaign to draw attention from an oblivious public.
Steve Charbonneau has published Gabriel's John Deere titles through his Plymouth, Minn.-based firm Destineer Studios Inc. He lauded Gabriel's success attracting casual gamers, such as farmers.
But he won't yet commit to publishing "Ocean Secret."
"Half the battle is getting the customer to pick up the box and inquire more about it. When you have a brand like John Deere, it's easily recognizable, especially in a store like Wal-Mart," Charbonneau said. "Growing a brand from scratch takes a lot of money, creativity and time. Usually it's better in the casual market to go after an established brand people recognize."
No matter whether the title is aimed for PCs or consoles, girls or boys, for a niche or mass market, Gabriel's ultimate challenge remains the same. In video games, fun is always the most important element.
"It all hinges on the game. The thing that builds game franchises is a successful title," Baker said. "First and foremost, it has to be a great gaming experience. It has to be compelling. People have to like it."