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Comics & Games Retailer

Let the Games Begin

By Oliver Chin

By the time you read this, the 2000 Electronic Entertainment Expo (aka "E3") will be history. E3 has quickly become the largest US convention on video games, mirroring this sector's increasing popularity and profitability. Presently, the industry estimates 60% of Americans play video games (www.idsa.com) and contribute to $14 billion in annual sales. I'll have attended E3 because video games portend the future of the comics market.

In the 90s, gaming surpassed comics both in audience and revenue, partially due to its dominant appeal to teens. Now in 2000, the combination of video games and the Internet into "online gaming" means that kids have even less time, money, and motivation to pursue other alternative entertainment.

But unlike mainstream comics, anime and manga enjoy significant synergy with video games. Increasingly Japanese companies "port" their native games directly into American versions, with little change in look and feel. The localization process, which had habitually masked the anime roots, now revels in them. Learning that fans prize gameplay more than cultural prejudice, developers unabashedly tout Asian character designs, environments, and themes. Predictably, domestic games, like their comics counterparts, have appropriated these features. In so doing, video games have seeded the next larger tier of customers to prefer anime and manga.

Comics Got Game?

As you compete with video game stores for customer loyalty - and allowances - comic retailers can sell anime and manga to attract them. Opportunistic publishers have capitalized by offering anime and manga versions of hit video games, benefiting from established name and sales recognition. (Viz chronicled this emerging movement in its monthly magazine Game On! USA in 1996).

Comics' pipeline to Hollywood have been well-established over the decades. Comicdom has spawned generations of characters, big and small, which were merchandized on TV and film. But lately, the balance of conceptual power has shifted to video games. These liaisons have involved Western companies, exemplified by Image Comics and Eidos' partnership with Tomb Raider and Fear Effect, but this promotional engine has been perfected on Eastern shores.

Japan is the video game nexus, where innovative software and hardware are born and then take the world by storm. The existing troika of platform vendors (Sony, Nintendo, Sega) have invented a pantheon of characters (Mario, Zelda, Sonic) that have unparalleled recognition among youth. Past contenders still endure (Battle Arena Toshinden, Fatal Fury, Samurai Shodown), but developers such as Capcom (Night Warriors) relentlessly introduce more candidates every year for induction.

Currently Pokémon (Nintendo) has increased audience and revenue higher in every direction, and inspired a pack of imitators - Digimon (Bandai) and Monster Rancher (Tecmo). The formula of success has been cloned into multiple media: TV show to movie, anime to manga, books to merchandise, card game to toys.

Today, the most anime and manga spinoffs emerge from the action-adventure genre. Fabricating mythology behind games to add a third dimension to their simple 2-player scenarios, companies weave tales between prequels and sequels. Customers rapidly consume these "back stories" and demand more complex role-playing games (RPGs). The success of Pokémon for the Gameboy indicates kids are in the vanguard.

Format follows Fan Fervor

Retailers must pay attention to swiftly shifting tastes and product lines. Exemplifying how the cart can be put in front of the horse, new comic publishers strike deals to make characters into action figures after just 2 issues. Distributors' regular toy "exclusives" emphasize that selling these higher margin items is more profitable for both publishers and retailers than building demand for comics. In this climate, use toys' higher profiles (since they are meant for display whereas comics are destined for the desk drawer) to drive sales for related anime and manga.

In Japan, the creation of series is fluidly translated from one medium to the next, and readers expect the cross-pollination. Many smaller toy manufacturers, such as Resaurus (Street Fighter, Speed Racer), and Palisades (Tekken), as opposed to Hasbro and Mattel, have forged their reputations on replicating American editions of game properties, especially those with anime angles.

Game developers regularly employ computer graphics (CG) animation to advance their plot and characters. They proudly promote the 15 minutes of original CG which are produced by famous anime studios. These are mini-cinematic masterpieces , such as the animation in THQ's Ghost in the Shell that drive fans to find the full-length animated features. Commercials for Final Fantasy 7 (SquareSoft) exclusively featured the animation, not the game itself. These are such breaktaking showstoppers, that fans wish their were accompanying anime.

Retail Exposure

In April 2000, Babbages (500 stores) just won the $135 million bidding war for Funcoland (400 stores) over Electronics Boutique (628 stores). Altogether, these three chains controlled half as many outlets as the entire comic market. If Blockbuster dedicates 15% of their floor space to video game rentals, and game retailers stock toys, then comic retailers had better take action.

You don't have to become video game sellers. But you should take advantage of gamers' desire to inhabit the worlds of their favorite games. If they spend 60 hours to crack a title, more than likely they'd love reading the manga, viewing the anime, buying the shirts and playing with the model kits. But comics still make popular video games, even though they may not have been widely available in America. Ranma 1/2, Dragon Ball Z and Gundam have generated popular video games.

Game companies have huge ambitions: Sony wants to sell 100 million Playstation 2 consoles, and Sega is giving away $200 Dreamcasts for users to subscribe to its web site. Whether or not they achieve their goals, both will expand the market for anime and manga sales. Sony will immediately double the DVD installed base (currently at 10 million or 10% of US households by end of 2000), and Anime DVD is a growth category. Sega has sold 2 million units since 1999, and now an estimated 30% of people on the Internet play online games regularly. A disproportionate percentage of these are anime fanatics who chat and organize.

With next generation consoles by Nintendo's Dolphin and Microsoft's X-Box to launch in 2001, the video game/comics crossover will only continue. American publishers want in on the action, but anime and manga have the best opportunity to capitalize on E3's multi-faceted appeal. The marriage of print, video, merchandise and electronic entertainment is not only a marketing juggernaut, but a fan's dream come true.

Magazines

Comics Buyer's Guide is the USA's longest running magazine about comic books. Every month it features new comic reviews, nostalgic retroviews, interviews and a price guide. Oliver Chin reviews anime, manga, movies, videos, graphic novels, comics, and books.

Comics & Games Retailer provides news to comic and games retailers about practical how-to tips on selling comics and keeping up with industry and market trends. Monthly issues include Oliver Chin's column "Going Global" and other articles that give a national overview of the market.