NEW YORK -- In the Game of Life, the goal is to travel along a windy road to find success and happiness, while avoiding such pitfalls as bankruptcy. In a case of life imitating Life, many computer game publishers face similar challenges this holiday season.
As more and more households purchase sub-$1,000 computers, companies are wooing people who might not ordinarily buy games for the computer by making them easier to understand -- and by using familiar names as well.As such, games like pachisi (part of Hoyle Board Games from Sierra On-Line Inc.) and Hasbro Interactive Inc.'s Game of Life, have moved to the computer screen.
That's not to say that the hard-core game player will be lacking for opportunities this holiday season. New games such as Fallout 2 by Black Isle Studios, Grim Fandango by LucasArts Inc. and Railroad Tycoon II by PopTop Software are already generating raves.
But the hard-core gamers are already hooked. So, in the battle to expand market share and demographics, companies are targeting computer users of all ages who would not ordinarily buy computer games, but who might want an entertaining distraction.
The best-seller lists are reflective of the changing demographics. For the week ended Nov. 14, for example, the top three computer games according to market-research firm PC Data Inc. were: Barbie Riding Club from Mattel, Barbie Nail Designer from Mattel and Railroad Tycoon II, which brings back memories of capitalism at the turn of the century.
Game prices are falling as well. While many titles still cost about $40, the success of Deer Hunter II 3-D by GT Interactive, a best-seller earlier this year at only $18, has the industry rethinking its pricing strategies.
"The broadening audience has been a major factor in a lot of the decisions we're making," said Scott Lynch, a senior vice president for Sierra Studios.
It's unclear, though, whether people who enjoy playing the board games of their youth will be attracted to the computer version.
"The fact of the matter is what makes a good computer game is very different than what makes a good board game," said Richard Irving, of Salinas, Calif., who plays both board and computer games. "Board games are social activity, whereas computer games tend not to be."
Tom Dusenberry, president of Hasbro Interactive, said computer games should complement the existing board games, rather than replace them.
And for those who want interactivity, there's always the Internet, where game servers provide connections for likeminded people across the world, he said.
Many companies hope the casual game player will migrate to more challenging games. Rather than risk scaring new users with difficult rules and hard-to-understand controls, more games now include introductory sequences to teach players the right moves.
For example, in Sierra Studios' Half-Life, a new role-playing game set in an abandoned missile base where an experiment goes horribly wrong, users can go through a hazard course to learn how to move around the game.
It's a painless way to learn the challenging adventure without the risk of getting eaten by one of the assorted beasties. EA Sports' Tiger Woods 99 PGA Tour Golf takes a similar approach, providing an option that walks the novice game player through the best shots possible.
Rather than sacrifice the challenges for hard-core gamers, companies are taking a whole new level of interaction and placing it on top of the existing models, said Chip Lange, director of marketing at EA Sports.
"Hundreds of thousands of hard-core game fans revel in the level of simulation," Lange said. "The last things we want to do is alienate a customer base that's been so loyal for so long."
But balancing the two always has been a difficult task, and many of the loyal base are quick to clamor for improvements on the more difficult games -- and don't care about the simplistic board games.
Longtime game player Scott Dega, of Sun Prairie, Wis., offers a typical opinion.
He says that the Tiger Woods' game has "raised the bar" for golf games, but feels that golf simulations overall still aren't taking advantage of the 3D-graphics and other technological advances that appear in some other games.
Trip Hawkins, chairman and chief executive of game manufacturer 3DO Co., points out that computer game publishing is still a relatively young industry, so that production consistency will vary widely from product to product. But he expects gaming to continue flourishing.
"Play is very important to human beings, and computer play has become something that can be digested by the masses," Hawkins said.