Dance games shimmy to success
LOS ANGELES — This year, before the pumpkin pie and turkey gravy even hit the Thanksgiving table, Reili Waniss got a head start on her perennial New Year's resolution to lose weight and get fit.
She did it with a video game called "Zumba Fitness 2," which she bought this summer and began playing at home while her twin toddlers napped. She lost 32 pounds in 4 months, a third of the way to shedding the 100 pounds she gained while pregnant.
"It's crazy, but I've totally fallen in love with this game," said the 31-year-old lab technician from Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif. "It makes me happy."
Dancing games have steadily marched up the charts of top-selling games, in some months outdoing big-budget bestsellers such as "Madden NFL 12" and "Gears of War 3." In October, sales of dancing titles such as "Just Dance 3," "Everybody Dance," "Dance Central" and the first installment of "Zumba" leaped 135 percent over October 2010, according to NPD Group Inc., a market research firm.
Overall game sales rose only 3 percent over the same period. Total sales for the year are expected to stay flat, at best. The dancing genre — like the exercise craze that drove videocassette sales in the 1980s — branched out of the popularity of fitness games beginning in 2008 with Nintendo Co.'s "Wii Fit," which reintroduced the aerobic step platform in high-tech fashion to millions of living rooms around the world.
The fitness game boom has since given way to dancing games, starting in November 2009 with "Dance Central," a title developed by Harmonix and published by MTV Network. Played on Microsoft Corp.'s Xbox 360, the game uses the console's Kinect motion-sensing camera to track players' body movements, scoring them on how accurately they mimic the dance routine.
Until recently, game reviewers and analysts dismissed dancing games as a novelty with little staying power, predicting they would last no longer than music games such as Guitar Hero, which debuted to great acclaim in 2006 and within a few seasons was forgotten.
"I thought it would die after the first year, because it felt like a fad to me," said Michael Pachter, an analyst with Wedbush Securities. "But it's been two years now, and I've been wrong the whole time."
U.S. sales of dancing titles rose 326 percent during the 12 months that ended Oct. 31, compared with the prior year, making it the fifth-largest video game genre — after shooter, action, adventure and role-playing games — according to NPD.
Unlike those other game categories, the dance game genre appeals mainly to younger female players, pulling in a demographic that hasn't always played video games. Nearly 8 out of every 10 players of dance games are female, according to NPD.
For Lisa Malambri, a 27-year-old fashion model who lives in Valley Village, Calif., playing "Just Dance 3" every morning since she got the game a month ago has toned up her muscles. Before that, she played "Dance Central" for months.
"That jar is a little easier to open now," Malambri half-joked.
Plus, NPD's numbers show, the majority of players are teens or younger.
"We're bringing new consumers into the market," said Tony Key, head of U.S. marketing and sales for Ubisoft Entertainment, the French publisher of the "Just Dance" franchise, which has sold more than 5 million copies in the U.S. "Parents love to buy these games because they love seeing their kids get off the couch and be active. It also plays well with the dance shows on TV."
To keep the attention of this fickle demographic, dance game publishers are including celebrity tie-ins. Members of the Grammy-winning pop group Black Eyed Peas spent a full day in motion capture suits, going through more than 300 dance moves for the dancing game "The Black Eyed Peas Experience."
"The game has a party vibe that just seemed perfect for us and our fans," said band singer Fergie, whose mother took her to musicals when she was a little girl. "I loved to dance. I wish I had this game when I was a kid."
The Zumba titles rely on the high-voltage personalities of its instructors, some of whom have built devoted followings. But the primary reason for the popularity of Zumba titles lies in their jump-right-in simplicity, said Lisa Roth, a senior producer at Zumba's creator, Majesco Entertainment.
"The Zumba formula is to put choreography and music together in a way that makes dancing easy for a wide variety of people, to tap into something innately human. Every person has a beat inside them," Roth said. "But the main objective is really just to have fun."
The dance game genre may have legs, analysts say, because dancing offers real benefits.
"You really do learn how to dance," said analyst Pachter, who sheepishly admitted to getting his groove on while trying out a few of the titles at home.