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Counting Rupees: Bust Blox

Jeff Engel

Each week Jeff Engel and Geoff Brooks contribute Counting Rupees, a column on the business behind gaming:

Boom Blox seemed to have everything going for it. EA, one of the biggest and most successful developers and publishers, was creating it. The massively famous and successful director Steven Spielberg was directly involved with both the concept and the design of the game on an ongoing basis, and his name was featured on the cover art. Its simple and intuitive family-oriented concept seemed like a perfect match for the wildly popular Wii, where simple and intuitive family-oriented games thrived. And in the end, it debuted to relatively good reviews (and even a few outstanding ones) which should have ensured at least a positive word of mouth.

Apparently, there were not enough word-spreading mouths to begin with, as it only sold 60k copies in its debut month (which includes almost all of May, since it launched May 6th). Despite what EA's CEO said, this was probably not what EA had hoped for with a game it had collaborated on with the most profitable director in the world. So, what happened?

There are at least a few reasons for its initial failure, but perhaps the biggest one is something I mentioned several columns ago: the "WiiCube" effect. Here's what I said back in April:

    "The Wii isn't just selling Nintendo-developed games and some casual games to a big audience; the audience seems almost strictly divided into casual, low-attach-rate gamers, happy with Wii Sports and picking up the occasional Wii Play and whatnot, and Nintendo loyalists who have probably played Nintendo games since the NES days... The exception to these rules are well-established franchises, like Resident Evil or Guitar Hero, as even Nintendo loyalists (and some casual gamers) know about these and probably have played them on other systems, whether theirs or a friend's."

"Unfortunately, while the concept of throwing a ball is simple and intuitive, no one knows what a 'Boom Blox' is."

Since Boom Blox didn't include Nintendo characters and wasn't developed by Nintendo, it obviously wouldn't be a game for "Nintendo Loyalists." It was also a completely new franchise, unfamiliar to people who may have seen their friends' games or played a few titles in the past. That means that it would likely be up to the "casual, low-attach-rate gamers" to make the game a success. In some ways, it seemed like EA had the right direction for this. The game literally just has you throwing baseballs at a bunch of things on the screen (according to The Onion, this "Throw the Thing at the Thing" concept should've been a big hit.) Yes, there are a few other aspects of the game, such as the building your own levels, but at its core, the gameplay mechanics should have been familiar to just about anyone who had pitched in Wii Sports Baseball. Unfortunately, while the concept of throwing a ball is simple and intuitive, no one knows what a "Boom Blox" is. And this is where marketing comes in.

A lot of people are pointing to this being a failure of marketing. Anecdotally, most people didn't see any TV ads for the game (I certainly didn't). Doing a quick Google search for ads only produces a single result, and in it we can certainly see the explanation for most of us never seeing it.

Clearly, this ad is targeting a younger audience. There's nothing necessarily wrong with targeting a younger audience, but despite Nintendo's longstanding reputation of being for "kids", even Nintendo itself has said the average age of a Wii gamer is 29. This IS younger than the industry average, which the ESA pegs at 35, but it certainly means that a good portion of Nintendo's audience has aged (as Nintendo has clearly realized with products like Brain Age, Wii Fit, etc).

"The lack of any adult marketing for the game is a bit puzzling as well ..."

This wouldn't necessarily be a problem if the ad did a good job at reaching the target demographic. I can't claim to be knowledgeable of everything that kids think is cool, but focusing the first few seconds of the ad on the silly storyline and random talking blox seems like a mistake. Once again, the kids don't know what a "blox" is or why they should care about them, and simply making a bunch of them explode on screen probably isn't all that interesting, as they can see all kinds of explosions and such in their morning cartoons. Then, in the next 15 seconds, the gameplay elements are introduced at such a lightning-pace that you can barely even see what they're doing. All-in-all, it doesn't make a lasting impression about what the game is about and why you would have fun playing it.

The lack of any adult marketing for the game is a bit puzzling as well, considering Steven Spielberg's oft-reported comments that he "wanted to create a video game that [he] could play with [his] kids." Had Boom Blox been advertised as a family game that Steven Spielberg claimed to have set out to create, rather than just a kids game, it could've hit that lucrative cross-generational appeal. This makes good business sense as well, as kids have little to no money and usually need to beg their parents to buy games for them. Wouldn't a parent be far more likely to buy a game that they were aware of because they saw an ad suggesting a family experience, versus one that they've only heard about through their kids? It probably just sounds the same to them as another Pokemon or Dragonball.

And as for Spielberg himself, while there is no evidence to suggest that his name would have special pull with the gaming audience, there's probably not much evidence to suggest that it wouldn't either. While Spielberg's name is on the box, it is not particularly prominent, nor is it very prominent in the above ad. The box simply says in smallish letters above the "Boom Blox" name, "A Steven Spielberg/EA Game". The Product Features, which are often provided by the publisher, do not even make a mention of Steven Spielberg. Perhaps the game would garner more attention if it had been prominently titled "Steven Spielberg's Boom Blox" a la Sid Meier games. It certainly seems like the adult / parent crowd would at least be more interested in the title if they were more aware about his participation in the game. This may not have been possible for a variety of legal or practical reasons, but for as much as EA was promoting Spielberg's work on the game pre-release, it seems like the publisher toned it down a bit for the actual debut.

Certainly, Boom Blox could still succeed in the end, as even Zack & Wiki has finally found a decent audience of around 300k. Still, if Boom Blox 2 is going to come out, EA had better understand that the part of the Wii audience it's trying to reach may require a lot more marketing effort to reach.

As co-editors of A Link To The Future, Geoff and Jeff like to discuss, among many other topics, the business aspects of gaming. Game companies often make decisions that on their face appear baffling, or even infuriating, to many gamers. Yet when you think hard about them from the company's perspective, many other decisions are eminently sensible, or at least appeared to be so based on the conditions at the time those choices were made. Our goal with this column is to start a conversation about just those topics. While neither Geoff nor Jeff are employed in the game industry, they do have professional backgrounds that are relevant to the discussion. More to the point, they don't claim to have all the answers -- but this is a conversation worth having. You can reach them at

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