The software industry may have finally found the real mass market "killer app": programs that encourage the realistic dispatching of defenseless game, fish, and fowl.
On a show floor full of first-person shooters and real-time strategy games, GT Interactive's Deer Hunter was the surprise success story of this year's Electronic Entertainment Expo in Atlanta. The $20 package, developed for a reported $100,000, has sold nearly 1 million copies since it was introduced eight months ago.
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Deer Hunter is one of those rare software titles that delivers exactly what the name promises—in this case, the unfettered removal of Bambi from his natural habitat by arrow or bullet. Other companies such as Sierra, Head Games, and Macmillan Digital Publishing, apparently not afraid of turning success into excess, have hurriedly announced or stepped up promotion of their own waste-the-wildlife releases. GT Interactive has no fewer than six follow-up products planned for release between now and the fall, including Rocky Mountain Trophy Hunter, Saltwater Trophy Fishing, Pro Bass Fishing, Sporting Clays, Bird Hunter, and a 3-D version of Deer Hunter. Even a $10 add-on, Deer Hunter Extended Season, has shown up on the best-seller lists thanks to the strength of the original and a claim of "More bucks, new locations, and a new weapon" (a black-powder muzzleloader, if you must know).
Much of Deer Hunter's runaway success is directly attributable to mass merchant Wal-Mart, which had the right target audience and an exclusive on sales of the program for its first three months—probably bundling each copy with a pickup truck and gun rack. Still, it's tempting to speculate how much further copycats could carry this trend: For vegetarians and picky 8-year-old eaters, how about Brussels Sprouts Hunter-Gatherer? Or Hunter Hunter for animal-rights activists?
Yet imitators who jump on the carrion wagon may miss what's likely one of the major underlying reason for Deer Hunter's appeal. It's not that it provides a socially acceptable—or at least more private—way for hunters to enrage vegans. It's that Deer Hunter is, perhaps literally, brain-dead simple entertainment. Just point and shoot.
Deer Hunter, despite its fascination with carnivore behavior, has a lot in common with games such as Tetris and Frogger. Like them, it requires no reading of a complicated manual or learning of a complex strategy and point system. These are games for "casual" gamers; they can be picked up, played almost immediately, and put away without much concern about wasting 100 hours of continuous time at a keyboard to reach a goal. Deer Hunter's popularity may be less a reflection of venison lust than the demand by the mass market for computer games understandable by the masses.
Hard-core gamers will always get their sophisticated, cutting-edge strategy and role-playing adventure games. But as the success of their simpler cousins shows, the much bigger market is in games for normal people.
One of the most publicized games at last month's Electronic Entertainment Expo in Atlanta was Space Bunnies Must Die!, a 3-D adventure game in which the player is gun-wielding Allison Huxter. Your mission: Save your country-singer sister from evil space bunnies by blasting them and gathering 10 radioactive carrots. Along the way you find music CDs of country songs left by your sister (playing them mesmerizes the bunnies and makes them easy targets), and gift-wrapped packages (opening them provides for dramatic clothing changes), reflecting the title's B-movie sense of humor. When asked about obvious physical similarities between the well-endowed Huxter and Lara Croft, heroine of the somewhat similar and best-selling Tomb Raider series from Eidos, Space Bunnies developers said it should be clear that Croft is an aristocratic British archaeologist and Huxter is a truck stop waitress. I suspect the only difference most teen-age boys will notice is that Croft has a ponytail and Huxter has pigtails.
Nevertheless, promotion of the September release is something of a change of strategy for publisher Ripcord Games and its parent Panasonic Interactive Media, criticized last E3 for their hard push behind the very bloody, and ultimately unsuccessful, shooting game Postal. Perhaps they reasoned that if violence doesn't sell, sex might.
The recent E3 provided a peek at several products worth waiting for among the estimated 1,600 new titles on the trade show floor.
Casual gamers will appreciate Hasbro Interactive's October release of Centipede, a three-dimensional and very playable update of the addictive arcade classic. Those with more patience will be rewarded next March by Prince of Persia 3D, a stunning and fluid sequel to Prince of Persia, the swordplay action/adventure game from Broderbund's Red Orb Entertainment division.
And adding to an animated stuffed-toy heap that soon will include multimedia products based on Marc Brown's Arthur and Sesame Street's Big Bird is My Interactive Pooh from Mattel Media, due in September for about $100 with transmitter and software. The 15-inch-high plush Winnie the Pooh has silicon instead of fluff for brains and can remember and mouth up to six children's names as the kids and Pooh interact with the included PC software. It's quite cute, but unlike Microsoft ActiMates Barney, not drop-kickably so.
Frank Catalano, a Seattle-area analyst for computer industry companies and the co-author of Marketing Online for Dummies, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Related Links and information:
Information on Deer Hunter
The Arthur cartoon page