It seems a lifetime ago now, but at one time (a little less than ten years ago) it seemed nigh-on impossible for the games market to break out of its traditional enclave of 16-30 year old males.
The Holy Grail was the female market, but girls just weren’t interested in video games. Then came The Sims, an interactive pre-cursor to reality TV if you like, and we all know how much of that garbage the ladies love. Cheers for that. All of a sudden, girls started to play games. Throw in a pink version of Nintendo’s DS, which seems a remarkably simple solution to the long-standing problem, and the girls’ market had lift-off.
What really broadened out the games market to be inclusive of pretty much all demographics was Nintendo’s Wii console. All of a sudden, even your nan could play and enjoy video games, thanks to its intuitive motion sensor control system.
So now, pre-schoolers too can enjoy the pleasures of video games. Sure, there have always been pre-school titles on PC and the occasional console version, but only now has the market expanded sufficiently and the notion of pre-schoolers on consoles become a concept that parents are comfortable with. Excepting those that already think it is okay to let their kids play Grand Theft Auto, that is.
Crucially, the market is now also of sufficient size to recoup the investment that goes into making a decent video game for that target market. Pre-school being pre-school of course, licensed characters and brands are hugely important to the success of any title.
Andrew Carly from Entertainment One, which has had success with Peppa Pig games, says: “It’s an interesting category. If you had asked us five years ago if we would look at it, it would have been an outright ‘no’.
"We have been working with P2 Games for over a year now and we have a very close working relationship between us, P2 and the developers. There’s not many categories where you can take what you do on TV and put it on another format. It’s essential that we carry all those qualities from the TV show into the gameplay.
"Children are so aware of what makes up Peppa Pig for instance and any other pre-school property that if it doesn’t match it very closely, there is disapproval all round.”
In the games market software determines whether a platform will succeed or not. Technically superior hardware will always come second to an all-star line-up of big name software titles. And of course, it’s the software that makes the money, hardware doesn’t.
VTech and Leapfrog, who are competing against Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft with their own pre-school hardware platforms such as V.Smile and Leapster, rely heavily on licensed titles to add weight to their software argument.
In the VTech software offering, licensed games account for 90 per cent of its titles.
Marketing director, Clive Richardson, explains: "Thomas and Dora have historically been the consistent performers and continue to be strong in our software sales, but Toy Story will be our biggest software license this year.
“There’s clearly a preference for parents to buy a dedicated system for young children given the continued success of the V.Smile brand as they know the hardware, handsets and games will be age appropriate.
“That means they will be easy to use for little hands, easy to learn to play, they will be non-violent and they will learn something while they're having fun. The other advantage is the price, we take the technology and make it affordable to buy for a three-year old. We’ve used these principles to launch new touch-screen systems this year, Storio which comes bundled with Toy Story 3 and Mobigo which comes with Shrek.”
The scale of investment required is such that manufacturers are tending to look at international deals rather than single territory deals, which can be a little out of synch with what licensors want.
Andrew Carly says video games are also an important part of an emerging technology picture.
"It’s all about what comes next. The iPad can be used for pre-school gaming for instance, the whole area is merging into one and it’s hugely exciting."
Whether it’s DS, iPad, online or Leapster, one thing is for sure, success in the pre-school gaming market is unlikely without a good licence.