In a tough market that has driven numerous amusement and music companies out of business, it's always worth giving closer study to the handful of companies that don't just survive, but thrive. One of the companies that ranks highest on that short list is Incredible Technologies. This year the maker of Golden Tee marks its 25th anniversary.
Estimates are that during its quarter-century in a leadership positon, IT may have generated over $3 billion in actual game revenue. Overall revenues could be considerably higher when we factor in sales of beer and food that have been spurred by IT's ability to keep millions of players happily "at home" in bars and taverns, enjoying themselves and spending more of their leisure dollars.
How has IT done it? And, what can the rest of the industry learn from its achievements? Everyone knows that IT developed one of the industry's most successful videogame titles of all time: the Golden Tee Golf series, launched in 1989, went on to sell over 100,000 units and arguably remains as strong today as when it was first launched.
But many amusement professionals are just beginning to appreciate the fact that IT has also charted a new path in the market – a path that, if widely adopted by more elements of the trade, could well lead to a much stronger industry overall, with a larger, more loyal, more active, higher-spending player base.
For operators, then, IT offers not just strong product and support tools (such as Silent Partner route management software); the company also offers a treasure trove of lessons that point to success. Here are a few of them.
Remember the basics: When the company started in 1985, founders Elaine Hodgson and Richard Ditton set IT's direction based on insights gained during previous stints within Data East. Although they quickly became innovators and continued to embrace new technologies for the next 25 years, IT's leaders never lost sight of the fundamentals.
While most of the coin-op videogame industry drifted away from its birthplace - the tavern - IT continued down a path of developing and offering strong but simple game content focused most sharply on the hospitality sector. Not just golf themes but bowling and later, hunting – and bean bag tossing and lawn darts proved that no matter how many high-tech bells and whistles you add, you can never go wrong delivering the basics in a fun way. So many of IT's games provide a popular activity for groups gathered in sports taverns, redeeming an almost-lost opportunity.
Innovate: If IT remembered the basics, it also embraced the high-tech bells and whistles (and invented more than a few of them). Golden Tee is found in over 10,000 bars worldwide today: a deceptively simple 2D golf game, supported by a tournament infrastructure that perfectly complements the hospitality sector's gameplay environment and offers strong secondary play. IT has also been one of the first to embrace downloadable content for videogames. The company's development team is now over 100 strong, which shows that IT puts its money where its ideals are.
Diversify: After its first mega-hit, IT could have hunkered down and just kept making more golf games. But rather than being a one-trick pony, IT went on to create and elaborate the Big Buck Hunter theme through its links with Play Mechanix (which has subsequently gone independent with its franchise), and then moved to other casual gaming experiences that perfectly suit that very challenging tavern and bar environment. Branching out in yet another direction, IT dared to target the younger audience with PowerPutt, bringing the miniature golf experience to the trackball game platform.
IT's diversification also extends beyond the out-of-home, pay-for-play amusements industry. The company applies its intellectual property and game themes to the consumer sector, with versions of its popular titles on the Nintendo Wii - and taking the development one step further, even an iPhone game application. IT is also moving into the gambling industry.
Market aggressively: While continuing to use classic media channels, IT has also embraced brand-new ways to publicize its products. The online versions of Golden Tee Live and Silver Strike Live leverage the vast opportunities of the Internet to promote the game-playing experience. The company has allowed players to register and track their playing habits on dedicated websites. Players can also post their achievements for the rest of the world to see through a variety of online social networks such as Facebook and online video platforms like YouTube.
Market innovatively: The above may elicit a "so what?" reaction at first. In 2010, even grandmothers are active on Facebook. So it is worth remembering that IT was – and by and large, still is – the first amusement company to use FaceBook in this way, with players posting their achievements and even video of their games on their own personal Facebook pages. The firmware in the IT network infrastructure that enables this also allows players to upload their "Great Shots" to YouTube, free of charge. Nearly 70,000 "Great Shots" have been uploaded from connected Golden Tee LIVE machines in the field.
Support the players: The amusements industry knows that supporting players is a good idea. Operators of pool, darts and air hockey have turned such support into an art form with local, regional, nationally and worldwide league and tournament programs for these physical sports games. But what about video? IT showed leadership here by creating the Golden Tee community. This is largely an under-appreciated contributor the success of the game series. IT not only offers opportunities for players to win considerable cash prizes; it also gives ardent professional and amateur players many fun ways to follow the development of the game – sharing advice and knowledge on community websites, forums, blogs and tweets. All this generates a level of repeat play that is unique to the company's product. The result is that individual fans are not isolated and scattered around the world; they are united into an ardent following ... a true community.
Support the operator: IT developed its Free Automated Contest and Tournament software, or FACTS program, because company officials know that league and tournament opportunities can be a vital revenue engine for any venue. The AdWiz feature gives operators the ability to create and drop advertisements directly into screens on their machines to generate local traction.
What lessons can operators - and the rest of the music and amusements industry – learn from IT's example? One takeaway is that every element of this industry can learn from every other. IT itself was not too proud to learn from the success of pool and dart leagues. Decades ago, pool table manufacturer Valley teamed up with operators to apply a marketing program that had been used for decades by the bowling industry. IT had the insight and courage to adapt the idea again, this time to the videogame sector – in a tavern setting, yet.
The rest of the industry should not be too proud to learn from IT. Operators can learn much from IT's aggressive and innovative use of online marketing and social networking. The company's endeavors in these media remind us that amusement by its nature is a public entertainment platform in high-traffic locations. The amusement industry is about people – not people who are isolated loners, but people who are competitors and teammates, fans and cheerleaders, social creatures who love to share their thoughts, feelings and experiences.
Knowing this critical fact about the customer base is one reason why IT never abandoned the tavern (hospitality) market. That is more of a bigger deal than it may seem at first. We have spent the past 25 years hearing people report the "death of the neighborhood tavern" and predict that the death of the tavern operator is not far behind. Happily, the tavern operators of today and tomorrow can take heart from IT's example. Keeping the company's record in mind, tavern operators can remain secure in the knowledge that their favorite type of venue will always be a valid, vibrant scene for amusements – as long as that venue is served with respect, fun, understanding of its social nature, and a steady stream of well-targeted innovation.
A TIME TO LEAD
To that end, there is clearly a world "waiting to be conquered" by the next generation of tavern operators. When this column said IT has blazed a trail that others are only beginning to appreciate … and has provided an example that could strengthen the entire industry … the use of online social networks to support players is what I was talking about. Operators who want to follow IT's successful example will eventually become much more active in using online social networking to support their players, build player communities, and market their games and tournaments in the 24/7, globe-spanning world of the Internet.
Let's hope it happens sooner rather than later, because this is no pipe dream. IT has proved again and again that aggressive and innovative online marketing is a practical, valuable effort that measurably puts incremental dollars into cashboxes. If Fortune 500 companies and global leading brands such as Coca-Cola and Mercedes have staked out aggressive Facebook presences to make their customers welcome, the entire amusements industry can and should do likewise. A few Facebook pages here and there, and websites here and there, that encourage the trade to have stronger intra-industry communication are an excellent foothold.
GET A LEG UP
But there is much more to be done to extend this foothold, to build upon it. There is considerably more to work to do in order to bring in our players into the "amusements universe" in more welcoming, creative and effective ways through social networking. Not only can this effort strengthen the bonds between current players and the industry; if properly executed, this effort could educate millions of new potential customers around the world about the pleasures of amusements, and thereby permanently enlarge the player base.
One more thought: Aggressive use of social networking could be the long-sought answer to one of the industry's greatest challenges. For nearly 30 years now, the amusement videogame industry has found itself in an unwelcome competition with home videogames. Unlike the movie industry, videogames have not yet found the magic formula to make the two markets – public venues and private living rooms – mutually reinforcing.
Online promotions, and specifically the creative use of social networking, just could be the missing ingredient required to square this circle. This much is sure; the home videogame industry is not resting on its laurels. It continues to innovate, even when that innovation takes the form of "borrowing" the best ideas and practices from the world of amusements. Today, the consumer games industry is rushing towards the concepts of tournament gaming and casual experiences as its future salvation. This raises the question, how will amusements compete when its best promotional tools are co-opted by the competition?
One solution may be suggested by the company in this industry that has repeatedly shown leadership and success in using new media for marketing and player support in creative new ways. IT has already defined the aspects of this opportunity. IT has demonstrated solid ways to generate greater revenues. And IT has already modeled the best areas to apply new media to classic gameplay. It is now the job of the rest of the industry to follow up on this proven success.
KEVIN WILLIAMS is founder and director of the out-of-home leisure entertainment consultancy KWP Ltd. His nearly 20 years experience in global video amusements and high-tech attractions includes top management and design posts, with a focus on new technology development and applications. He is a well-known speaker on the industry lecture circuit, and has authored numerous articles. Williams is also editor and publisher of The Stinger Report, a leading industry e-newsletter and Web-based information service. Go to thestingerreport.com to sign up for a free subscription.