June 12, 2006
Q&A With Jennifer MacLean: Comcast’s Guru of Fun and Games
By Shirley Brady
As Comcast's senior director of entertainment and games, Jennifer MacLean puts the fun in high-speed by overseeing and developing interactive products and services to sweeten the value of broadband (and soon, wireless) subscriptions. A former game developer who worked at AOL before joining Comcast, she has an MBA from Columbia and a toddler who's fast becoming a games enthusiast. Having launched content since 2003 to attract gamers to Comcast.net, MacLean gave us a glimpse at where broadband games are headed plus her takeaways from last month's Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles.
How big is the games business now for Comcast?
The games area is the stickiest content area on Comcast.net, which we're very excited about. We have a casual games offering that includes content from RealArcade, WildTangent and Disney. We have a games-on-demand product that streams games content. It's a subscription product that's powered by Exent Technologies. We have a hard-core gaming offering that takes editorial content from IGN, G4 and game publishers and developers. And we recently announced Game Invasion, which is an add-on to our highest-speed tier that targets gamers and bundles in IGN Founders' Club, which is a premium content offering with our premium speeds. Our message to our audience there is we're taking premium content and premium community from IGN, the leading gaming and editorial website, and combining it with a premium [high-speed] connection from Comcast to give gamers everything that they need to play better. That's where we are with games right now. We feel like we've really led the industry because we've done so much by launching these products since 2003, when we introduced our casual games offering, and in 2004, when we launched our games-on-demand product.
Of all the topics discussed at E3 this year, what will have the biggest impact on cable?
One of the things that really excited me about E3 this year was that, without exception, every publisher I spoke with—and I spoke with all of the top publishers—was really excited about day-and-date distribution digitally. This is huge for cable because it really allows us to become a new distribution channel for games and it allows us to present a great customer experience.
How would that work?
When I want the latest games I don't have to get in my car and go to Best Buy, I can press a single button and download it through my cable connection. It's a great opportunity to show off our speeds and how we really differentiate ourselves from our DSL competitors based on our speeds, our reliability and our great network.
Jennifer MacLean, senior director of entertainment and games for Comcast, says day-and-date digital release will help cable grow into a serious distribution channel for the latest games.
The games publishers are more flexible than the studios have been regarding day-and-date distribution of movies for VOD?
That used to be the case [that games publishers were reluctant]. A lot of times when we would talk to the publishers and we would ask them about day-and-date, they'd be very hesitant to do so because retail really accounted for so much of their revenue stream. If you look at our games-on-demand product, for example, which I think is the best analogy to the video-on-demand space, most of the games there are three or six months old or older.
Why are the publishers now changing their minds about cable distribution?
In speaking with the publishers, one of the things that I say when speaking at games industry conferences is that people in the games industry like to say that they're bigger than movies, and that's just not true. They're bigger than the U.S. gross domestic box office. But that's only a small part, usually 20-30%, of a movie's total revenue stream. So I would always challenge the games industry by saying look, how much money are you missing by not having distribution channels other than retail and not having other distribution windows? People have really listened to that, and now everybody is saying you know, we're open to this and we want to talk to you more about it because we think cable represents a great way for us to reach customers and provide a great customer experience.
What are some of the issues connected with this turnaround?
In a lot of cases, we're talking about [downloading] very large files, anywhere from 500 megs to 5 gigs. So when we would talk to publishers at first they would ask, how do you feel about these really large files? And we'd say it's no problem—in fact, they're great because they really allow us to differentiate our service from DSL. If you try to download a 5 gig file on a 768K or 1.5 meg DSL connection, and then try to download it on a 6 meg or 8 meg Comcast connection, your experience is so much better.
From the consumer perspective, what were gamers excited about at E3?
The Nintendo Wii, (pronounced "Wheee!"), the name of its new games console, is going to be the surprise hit of this generation of broadband-connected consoles. Each of the three main console manufacturers—Microsoft with the Xbox 360, Sony with the PlayStation 3 and Nintendo with the Wii—are launching or have launched a new broadband-connected console. Microsoft launched theirs last November while Sony and Nintendo will launch theirs this November.
With all three companies in the broadband console game, why is the Wii a big deal?
I think the Wii is going to be a huge hit and this is great news for us and for other cable subscribers because it's really focusing on reaching a lot more audiences. Nintendo is using a remote-control type controller, so they're reaching not only hard-core gamers but also children and women. Because it's broadband-enabled and because Nintendo is delivering some of their legacy content from platforms like the Super Nintendo system and the GameCube, it really gives people a reason to hook up their console and to get this additional content. So it's not just your hard-core gamers, who are usually men 18 to 34, but women and children in the family will take part too. The more people we can get recognizing what a great connection we provide and what a great customer experience we provide, whether it's to a PC or to a game console, the better it is for the industry.
Getting more women excited about broadband games could be huge for cable.
We call them casual gamers because they don't really fit the stereotype of the man 18 to 34 who's playing a first-person shooter game like a Halo. It's somebody who's more interested in a game like Solitaire, a word search game or other casual games. What I really saw at E3 this year was huge attention being paid to casual gamers. The best-attended session at E3 was a casual games session, and that bodes well for cable because it means more people playing online and it gets more people recognizing what a great experience they can have on cable, and that the PC isn't just for work or for e-mail, it's for entertainment as well.
What's the takeaway for Comcast?
It's confirming what we've already done because we've really made an effort to promote our casual gaming area and our play games area on Comcast.net to women and to make it seem very easy, very fun, very nonthreatening. If you look at the graphics and the way that we've designed the play games areas, it gives you a very happy feeling and it feels like a fun place to be. That was done deliberately to ease any barrier to entry and to make it feel comforting and fun to someone who may not consider themselves a gamer. We do that in our [marketing] promotions as well. So it really confirms the strategy that we've had all along. If you go into the Comcast.net games area, you literally see the screen split in half: One half is the play games section which is more fun, and the other half is the Game Invasion section for the gaming enthusiasts and the hard-core gamer.
Is the increase in casual gamers affecting the overall demographics of the online gamers? Or is it being offset because kids these days grow up playing games?
The overall games demographic is actually getting older because you're seeing more and more people play the casual games, more and more women and older people as well. You're also seeing a generation that grew up with games, who had their Atari 2600 and then their Super Nintendo, grow up and still see games as an important part of their entertainment experience.
So games are now something the whole family can enjoy, not just teen boys holed up in their bedrooms.
You're really starting to see parents playing with their kids, and I can speak from experience. Parents who've grown up with games are saying this is something I've always enjoyed and I'm going to share this with my kids. Things like the Nintendo DS [handheld game console] are a great example of that, or sitting down in front of the PC and looking at educational content together. That's why our games-on-demand product includes a kids pack that for $7.95 a month gives you unlimited access to over 50 titles that are appropriate for children. We make it easy for parents to play these games with their kids and to share in this fun and educational experience. One other area where we're serving this market is in our agreement with Disney. We were the first broadband provider in North America to launch Disney Connection [a children's broadband content subscription service including games] so our customers get a lot of Disney's free content plus special discounts if they want to subscribe to Disney Blast and Disney Toontown, which is a 3D animated game for kids of all ages.
Does your family share in this trend?
I do. I have a 14-month-old daughter who loves to chew on my Xbox controller, and we've started looking at the PC and looking at some of the products like Disney Blast and the Disney Connections product that's targeted towards preschoolers. You're already starting to see the entertainment community targeting babies six months and up, and there's some debate about how young is too young. To me, I think it's a great opportunity for parents, especially when their children are age two or older, to really get involved with their kids' development and to share this fun, educational experience and to bond with their children. I love to play games and I can't wait to usher my daughter into the next generation of gamers. It's a really nice way to get involved directly with your child and to really share this great experience together.
What's the biggest opportunity for cable operators overall in this space?
There's a huge opportunity for us as an industry to create a cable preference for gamers. In the research that we've done, we've seen gamers say that the top three [most important] elements of their broadband service are speed, reliability and stability. That really speaks to cable and how we set ourselves apart from our DSL competitors. Because of the way the cable industry works, when we speak with publishers and when we speak with developers, we talk about things like PacketCable Multimedia, which is a really great opportunity for game developers to create an amazing online game experience. We also speak about the speeds that we offer, which makes cable a viable alternate distribution channel. So for us, while we're proud of what Comcast has done, we see this as a great opportunity for the cable industry in general. The opportunity is to create a cable preference for gamers not only in our broadband service but also as entertainment providers, as companies that are giving gamers the entertainment they want how they want it, when they want it and where they want it: on demand, on their mobile phones, on their TVs. This audience segment is a very interested consumer of media and represents a great opportunity for us as an industry to really make them loyal to cable.
How do you leverage gamers' loyalty to cable's other products and services?
We've had marketing partnerships with Electronic Arts, or EA, the No. 1 games publisher in the world, and also with UbiSoft. Comcast is the exclusive broadband sponsor for Battlefield 1942, one of the highest-rated and most popular first-person shooters out there. We've also had marketing partnerships with Xbox and Xbox Live. I know that Cox has done the same thing with Xbox and Xbox Live. We have been very aggressive in tying into different Xbox titles and the Xbox Live service to promote our products. By aligning with these kinds of services that require a broadband connection and publishers like Electronic Arts, it's a great way for us to reach this audience and really show how valuable a cable connection is and how much we enhance the experience that these publishers and developers are providing.
With the huge boom in broadband advertising are you—or Comcast Spotlight—also looking at other ways to monetize games through advertising, such as "adver-gaming" or other ways of imbedding sponsors messages?
We think it's a really interesting opportunity. We want to be conscious of making sure that we preserve our great experience for customers. But there are so many ways that we can do that in the context of the game that it's definitely something that we're really interested in.