Rob Bartel is a veteran designer and producer of video games with Electronic Arts’ BioWare studio. He joins us as a board game correspondent, however, having recently expanded into board game design with Two by Two, 2012 runner up for Best Family Game in Games Magazine's annual "Games 100" Awards. A passionate advocate for the board game industry, Rob helped found two national initiatives – the Game Artisans of Canada and the Canadian Heritage Collection. His newest endeavor is the Famous Games Company, an innovative provider of promotional card games for the sports marketing industry.
As part of my When Games Explode series back in September, I made a series of predictions about the current explosion of growth and innovation we're currently seeing in the board game industry and what to expect in coming years. The first prediction I made was that the 2011 Harris Purchase Intent Poll, which tracks the intent to purchase toys as gifts, "will confirm that tangible games have overtaken video games for the average adult North American consumer." The latest poll, which includes the results from 2,463 adults surveyed online between October 10 and 17, 2011, was released this past week. Let's see how my prediction fared…
As you can see in the chart above, my prediction for 2011 ended up significantly off the mark. Video games were able to arrest and reverse last year's decline, rising a single point to 33%. Meanwhile, after last year's surge that left them neck and neck with video games, board games fell a sudden 7 points to 25%. If anything, I had been expecting those results to be reversed, something easily imagine when looking at the chart. Let's dig deeper into the data to see if we can figure out what happened.
Purchase intent among men and women show some interesting patterns. Last year's board game surge looks to be entirely attributable to renewed interest among men, for instance, while this year's uptick in video games appears to be occurring solely among women. And, while women had preferred board games to video games in 2009 and even more dramatically in 2010, that trend reversed this past year, due to roughly equal movement in both directions. While both genders contributed to this year's board game decline, the bulk of the shift appears to be occurring among men.
Meanwhile, the trends among families with and without children appear less divergent and more in keeping with the overall trend, although they're clearly operating at different scales from each other. Given that the wording of the survey fixates heavily on the term "toys", I wonder if it's introducing a child-centric bias to the results and causing under-reporting among adults who are buying gifts for other adults. For instance, if the survey used the term "entertainment" instead and added some additional product categories, I wonder if the reporting of games would increase among the "Without Children" segment.
New in 2011, the Harris Poll has started to break down the purchase intent of households with children according to the age of those children, leading to some new insights into the data. The chief takeaway here is just how big of a role console games continue to play in the world of of tweens and teens. Outside of those age groups, board games and console games play operate within a fairly similar range. As 2011 is the first year they've broken out the data in this fashion, however, we're unable to see how this compares against historical trends. It's also important to call out that this data simply indicates the ages of children in the household and doesn't directly indicate the age of the gift's intended recipient (although the inference makes some intuitive sense).
Ultimately, while the Harris Poll contains some interesting insights, there's no clear smoking gun as to why my prediction for board games in 2011 fell short. The oft-cited notion of competition and cannibalization between board games and video games doesn't appear to be at play here – Although there was a slight 1% uptick in console games this year, that's clearly not enough to explain the 7% drop in board games. Likewise, none of the other product categories in the survey saw sudden and meaningful increases that would explain the drop on the basis on competition and cannibalization.
Rather than asking about this year's board game decline, the more important question may be to inquire about last year's board game surge. From the four years of data currently available to us, that's the one that currently stands out as the outlier. Was it just a random fluctuation in the data due to a limited sample size? Perhaps, but with 3,084 respondents, the 2010 survey had the largest dataset in the series and about 3 times the number of respondents typically used for election polling. So what was special or unique about 2010 that might have led to this surge, particularly among men, and why might that no longer be true for 2011? If anyone has thoughts on the matter, I'd be very interested to hear them.
So what about the Tipping Point? With the first of my predictions already disproven, what does that say about the future of the board game industry? Well this definitely qualifies as an unexpected setback but I'm going to stick to my guns on this one and say the tipping point's still on. I'll blog soon about some of the hurdles games still face and some creative ideas surrounding the presentation of game rules and some missed opportunities I see at the retail level. I also predicted that North American sales of Settlers of Catan would soon surpass those of Monopoly (Mayfair Games is expecting to sell 1 million copies of Catan a year here by 2013, whereas Monopoly was selling "several million a year" back in 2006) so I'll continue to report on those statistics as I learn of them but that will be a slow climb and information will be sparse. In the meantime, I'll also keep an eye on these Harris Purchase Intent Polls – we'll see where things sit next November. Last of all, I think it's important to keep an eye on how the tipping point continues to evolve within the video game space to see if there are any lessons we can learn from it.
Overall, I still believe that there's an underlying tectonic shift occurring within the board game industry and I still expect we'll see significant channel disruption over the coming years as the industry begins to take on a new and distinct shape. Established players are in a period of increased risk and new players are entering the market to take advantage of emerging opportunities. I'm excited to see where the next few years will take us.