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Battle of the Books: Hint Guide Publishers Go Head-to-Head

Nintendo's March release of Legend of Zelda Wind Waker did more than jumpstart the sluggish sales of its GameCube console. It was also a battle of hint guide publishing approaches as the two remaining giants of the field BradyGames and Prima Games went head to head in some stores with competing Zelda guides.

Brady "pulled out all the stops," according to publisher David Waybright, creating a massive Signature Series treatment of 272 pages of exhaustive detail, what he intended as "the best strategy guide ever." Prima went with its perennial strength of working the retail channel, securing exclusive carriage at one of the major sales venues and offering multiple point-of-sale premiums through GameStop and EB. In the end, "We really kicked their butt," crows Debra Kempler, publisher, Prima Games, citing NPD data that showed her Zelda outselling Brady's two to one in the first month. Nintendo, the only publisher who does not grant exclusive hint guide licenses to third-parties, produced its own Zelda book which placed just ahead of Brady's.

"They clobbered us on the NPD data," Waybright admits, but counters that Prima "seems to have decided in the past to compete with us on a sheer marketing standpoint and to try to push dollars at retailers and secure placement at a few accounts." He feels Brady produced the superior book that will sell better long term and build brand equity with consumers.

And so it goes. With also-ran competitor Versus Books closing late last year, Prima and Brady continue to jockey for market share and deeper market penetration among gamers. While both publishers emphasize the importance of increasing the quality and breadth of titles to gain brand differentiation, and especially the role of co-marketing agreements with retailers, Brady and Prima take somewhat different approaches to playing the book game.

In terms of overall expansion, Waybright says the hint guide market hasn't grown significantly in recent years, so he focuses on increasing market share and getting more of the hot titles under his imprint. "We have been pretty aggressive in pursuing the key licenses and very aggressive in improving our quality and setting ourselves apart from everyone else." For instance, in its new book for Atari's Enter the Matrix, Brady included an exclusive timeline of the Matrix world that was unavailable elsewhere for fans of the movie saga.

In 2002 Brady published about 60 titles, but Waybright is targeting 80 for this year. "Basically we've always stayed rooted in the fact that we have to be very selective. It's a hit-driven industry, and as licensed merchandise we follow that very closely." By focusing more on major hits on consoles, Brady produced the top five selling hint guides in 2002 (see chart), all selling over 100,000 copies.

Nabbing the big licenses is always a good thing, but "Market share is not something we believe should be chased," says Kempler "We are really focused on quality product and still publishing what we think is a pretty broad range of games that have loyal followings." Prima commands the PC market and publishes almost twice as many titles overall (130 to 140) a year as Brady.

Prima sees the greatest challenge and opportunity in growing the overall market and steadily increasing the "attach rates" for books, the percentage of game buyers that also purchase a guide. Attach rates vary greatly according to game genres (up to 35% for RPGs), but in aggregate it is between 10% and 15%. "We have a lot of upside if we can convert more consumers," says Kempler.

In The Marketing Mix

For Kempler, merchandising has become the critical piece, both for gaining new customers but also getting good licenses. "I think there has been more recognition on the part of game publishers that strategy guides are a critical component," says Kempler. "They serve not only a customer satisfaction piece but they can serve as an effective marketing vehicle." Hint books now enjoy placement at the checkout at many retailers and their ads appear alongside the games in Sunday circulars. She says attach rates overall climbed last year.

And timing is everything in this business, says Waybright. When a book is not out by the street date of a game, it can result in reduced orders from retailers or outright cancellation. In fact, the recent trend of drop shipping books to retail in advance of game publication seems to help remind gamers of a title's impending release. "With Final Fantasy, we sold tens of thousands of copies before the game came out," says Waybright.

Nevertheless, "It's a tough business," Waybright admits. Like Prima, Brady says it is profitable, but, "we're not exactly rolling around in money from our bottom line." Licensing fees, co-marketing arrangements and rising costs for more elaborate books have forced both publishers to be very careful about the deals they strike with game publishers and retailers as well as their internal efficiencies.

With so many game titles bunched into the last quarter, Brady is looking to keep the production line more active in the early parts of the year with some less visible titles. Kempler says Prima has improved internal efficiencies and has to be very careful about the cost of deals both with retailers and publishers. "There is so much game sell-through data now that it's all about the mathematics of it," she says. "We all have data about how much a certain genre attaches to the software, so you can look and see about how many guides are going to sell."

In competing against one another both for publisher licenses and retail exposure, "each of us can pay if we want to as much as we want to," says Waybright, and on the distribution side "some retailers can ask for quite a bit." With royalty rates to game publishers still well below 30% on most licenses, the companies compete for publishers and retailers on the basis of marketing plans, brand equity, and quality.

Best Defense

Waybright is anticipating some sort of game sales slump in the transition between console generation sometime in 2005 or 2006, and so is planning to defend company revenues by increasing Brady's share of PC titles but also venturing into a broader range of games related titles like game art books and titles about the industry and the making of high profile titles. "The U.S. market has become more receptive to the kinds of publications you might have seen only in Japan," he says.

Neither company feels threatened by Web-based hint and cheat content, because most gamers seem to prefer having a detailed, competent printed guide in their laps. And while several failed attempts have been made in the past to market multimedia and video-based guides, both companies admit that they are exploring alternative channels for delivering game strategy. Don't be surprised if the battle between the books eventually becomes the battle between the bundled DVDs.

Contacts: Debra Kempler, 916/787-6932; David Waybright, 317/581-4593

Top Ten Interactive Strategy Guides of 2002
Rank  Title (Pub. Date)                        Publisher   Units Sold
1     Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (10/02)      Brady       504,000
2     Final Fantasy X (12/01)                  Brady       284,000
3     Kingdom Hearts (9/02)                    Brady       195,000
4     Grand Theft Auto 3 (10/01)               Brady       181,000
5     Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance (10/02)   Brady       105,000
6     Morrowind (4/02)                         Bethesda    103,000
7     Spiderman: The Movie (4/02)              Brady       102,000
8     Medal of Honor Frontline (5/02)          Prima       99,000
9     Madden NFL 2003 (7/02)                   Prima       86,000
10    Splinter Cell (11/02)                    Prima       70,000
Source: The NPD Group/NPD Funworld/TRSTS

Hint Guide Quick Tips

* Brady's Waybright says that as some RPG games pass the height of their sales window but players keep playing them, attach rates for the accompanying hint guide can outpace game sales.

* Specialty stores EB and GameStop are the major venues for hint guides, despite the fact that mass merchandise chains such as WalMart sell more games. In many cases these large retailers have rack room for 12 to 16 guides at a time and often decide to carry only one guide for a given title.

[Copyright 2003 PBI Media, LLC. All rights reserved.]

COPYRIGHT 2003 PBI Media, LLC
COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group





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