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Publishers Betting On "Fewer, Bigger, Bloodier"

Publishers Betting On "Fewer, Bigger, Bloodier"

Mon 06 May 2013 2:02pm GMT / 10:02am EDT / 7:02am PDT
Politics

The traditional game industry's growing reliance on violence is marginalizing the medium in short-sighted and self-destructive ways

The gaming industry depends on violence to drive sales more and more every year.

Given the amount of public scrutiny gaming has been under since the Newtown shooting last year, that might be an uncomfortable truth for many in the industry. But it is a truth.

As the graph below makes clear, there's a growing disparity between the number of games that receive an M-for-Mature rating and the amount of US retail software sales they make up. In 2005, 12 percent of the games rated were mature, compared to 15 percent of games sold. But as the generation went on, the gap between those two numbers became a small chasm. In 2011, the M rating was responsible for more than one of every four dollars spent on games, but fewer than one of every 10 new games.

1

Consider that those sales numbers are in units instead of dollars, and the current M-rated market share is likely even more disproportionate. After all, the platforms least likely to host M-rated content (the Wii, DS, and 3DS) are also the ones with lower average selling points. Another interesting note: M-rated titles grew their percentage of total sales even from 2006 to 2009, when the Wii's E-rated lineup and T-rated rhythm games were supposedly reshaping the industry.

The rise in violent games has also been reflected in the industry's most visible successes. M-rated games actually made up a larger percentage of the industry's offerings in 2005 when the current generation started, but the NPD's top 10 best-selling games chart that year featured no M-rated titles. For the last three years, at least half of the annual top 10 has been rated M.

"M-rated titles grew their percentage of total sales even from 2006 to 2009, when the Wii's E-rated lineup and T-rated rhythm games were supposedly reshaping the industry."

Analysts contacted by GamesIndustry International brushed aside concerns about the game industry becoming more violent.

"I'm certain that the number of violent games isn't materially greater than in the past, but the number of overall games is lower," Wedbush's Michael Pachter said. "Violent games sell better than kids' titles generally, so more E-rated game projects are cancelled, and the same number of M-rated projects are approved when publishers decide to cut back on the number of titles published."

EEDAR's Jesse Divnich agreed, saying, "It does not mean that the quantity of violent games, or the exposure of violent games to our audience is increasing; however, it represents a continued balancing act to match the game content with the preferences of the active audience of a platform. The consumers who made the Wii such a success from 2007 to 2010 haven't disappeared, they've simply migrated their gaming habits to other platforms (mobile, social, Xbox 360 Kinect, etc.), and as such the content shifts with consumer demand."

So the explanation for the traditional PC and console sector's increasing reliance on violent games appears to be, "It's what sells." It's to be expected that publishers would chase that quality so enthusiastically, given how little has qualified for that designation of late. Since the industry's 2008 peak, Nintendo's Blue Ocean turned toxic halfway through the Wii's lifespan. The Guitar Hero phenomenon lived fast, died young, and left a savagely exploited corpse. And dedicated handheld gaming has been a hapless victim in the blast radius of the ongoing smartphone explosion.

In light of these difficulties, publishers have grown more conservative. Instead of boldly reaching out to new customers, they've played to the young male audience they see as their base. They have embraced a more selective philosophy when it comes to releases, trimming their slates to the safest bets, the faithful standbys, the evergreen offerings. On investor conference calls and Powerpoint presentations, the strategy is "fewer, bigger, better." In reality, it's closer to "fewer, bigger, bloodier."

"Gaming has found itself in the same cultural ghetto as comics, and escaping that ghetto increases the potential success for everyone, makers of braindead explosion fests included."

And this is why gaming can't shake its cultural stigma. This is why we still have to deal with mainstream media scare pieces like the one from Katie Couric last week. It doesn't matter how much of the industry is older women playing casual games on Facebook. It doesn't matter how much more effective the ESRB ratings are than ratings in other media. These facts are powerless because the people criticizing games for being too violent are not criticizing Facebook games, and they're not criticizing the ESRB for accurately identifying a depraved gorefest as something parents might not want their kids to see.

These parents and politicians cling to their concerns because the industry as they see it has responded to them by obstinately doubling down on exactly the content they oppose and cutting back production on more edifying fare. And then publishers underscore that fact by blowing untold millions of dollars on marketing each one of these games so that everyone who drives a car, turns on a TV, or walks into a mall can't avoid hearing about all the awesome new ways these games let them virtually kill people.

This is a problem of image. And unlike the problems in AAA games, the industry can't shoot its way out of this one. The only way out is for publishers to take a bolder, more varied, and occasionally conscientious approach to the content they produce.

Yes, games are expensive, and yes, trying something new is risky. But it's ultimately a better investment than churning out yet another annualized sequel to a braindead explosion fest. Because gaming has found itself in the same cultural ghetto as comics, and escaping that ghetto increases the potential success for everyone, makers of braindead explosion fests included. A glance at the Iron Man 3 box office numbers versus the actual comic's sales figures should be evidence enough that there's more upside to a mainstream medium than a marginalized one.

Note: The Entertainment Software Association declined to specify how much of the market was made up of M-rated game sales in 2012, but that data is typically released around the Electronic Entertainment Expo each year in the trade group's Essential Facts booklets. The Entertainment Software Rating Board has said that M ratings held steady at 9 percent of the market.

12 Comments

Rick Cody
PBnGames-Board Member

144 14 0.1
Reviewers applaud extreme gore in their reviews. That makes matters worse. It seems it's going to take an Apple or Android television platform to change it

Posted:A year ago

#1

John Bye
Senior Game Designer

480 451 0.9
I'm not entirely convinced by the argument made by this article. As your own chart shows, the percentage of games which were rated M actually dropped over the course of the current console cycle, although there was an upswing in 2011. Without data for last year, it's hard to say whether that's a trend or just a blip.

Also, 2006-2008 covers the boom years of Wii Sports, Wii Fit and Guitar Hero. Wii software sales dropped off a cliff soon after that, and Guitar Hero and Rock Band burnt out at around the same time. Sales of kids' games and TV and movie licenses have fallen off in recent years too, and the entire mid-range gaming sector has been decimated. And let's not forget that 2007-8 was the year that Call of Duty went from being a minor hit to a major blockbuster selling upwards of 10 million units per game. All of which coincides with the rise in M rated game sales as a percentage of total game sales from 2008 onwards.

It's all very well saying publishers are doubling down on violent content while "cutting back production on more edifying fare", but even if it is true, a lot of the kids and casual gaming market and the developers that supported it have moved on to other platforms which aren't tracked by NPD, such as Facebook, downloadable games and mobile, where M rated games are fairly rare and don't often make the top ten. And your chart clearly shows that development of M rated games lagged a couple of years behind sales, rather than leading them. You can't blame publishers for giving people what they want, if the trend in M rated game development continued in 2012. They're not the BBC or PBS, they're there to make money, not edify people.

Posted:A year ago

#2

Ashley Gutierrez
Animator

21 13 0.6
Is it more violence that became popular, or is it more than that?
Just because M-rated sells more, doesn't necessarily mean it's 'depraved gore.'
Most M-rated games that sell really well tend to have great storylines, like Gears of War or Halo.

The sheer overwhelming amount of casual games out there outnumbers M-rated games ten to one.
It's not just 'catering' to the male demographic: it's making games that are a notch above crunching gems to get a high score.

And before you start implying games are to blame for violence in the news, reconsider.
Whoever does that scapegoats the entire industry and is trying to cripple our freedom of speech.

Posted:A year ago

#3

Andrew Jakobs
Lead Programmer

234 94 0.4
Who cares, as long as the games are fun and entertaining to the people who buy and play them... For me, the gorier the better, but I also like non-gory games.. Gore has always been a part of games, but with today's technology it can even be shown much more clearly and in a vibrant way then say 20 years ago...

Posted:A year ago

#4

Art C. Jones
Writer / Blogger

60 91 1.5
Since most games are on mobile, most games aren't rated.
If they were, the % of M-rated titles would be back to normal levels.

Posted:A year ago

#5

Greg Wilcox
Creator, Destroy All Fanboys!

2,178 1,127 0.5
Hmmm... I keep thinking of old games such as Chiller, Waxworks, Harvester and others that were pretty damn brutal for those days. Granted, they weren't as "realistic" as today's games, but still. On the other hand, you can take a whole few hours of footage of super-cute casual, mobile and licensed games and run an entire article on how games are too damn cute.

Maybe someone should have sent a tape like that to Katie Couric before she ran her yellow journalist hack job on gaming. Anything for ratings and making out with tragedy's corpse for the network, I suppose...

Posted:A year ago

#6

Axel Cushing
Writer / Blogger

104 130 1.3
Reviewers applaud extreme gore in their reviews. That makes matters worse.
I can't speak for every reviewer out there, but for myself, I don't try to glorify gore. If I'm playing survival horror games, gore is kind of to be expected, though I much prefer the Silent Hill series for its focus on psychological horror. Consider Fallout 3 and New Vegas. The gore was there, and it was highly detailed, but I never felt it was gratuitous. If anything, it helped underscore the brutal, survival oriented gameplay. For all the whimsical elements in those two games, they were both unquestionably dark, and definitely not for the kiddies. By comparison, one of the small little peeves that I have with games like Battlefield or CoD is the way that the gore is minimized. You don't see the sort of realism you find in films like Saving Private Ryan, and it diminishes the impact of certain moments.

I don't know of a single reviewer who goes, "Ehrmahgehrd! Braynsplehrter!" when addressing the subject of graphic content. For me, if I'm discussing gore, I try to operate from the perspective of "Is this necessary? Does this enhance the game in any fashion?"

Posted:A year ago

#7

Justin Shuard
J - E translator

43 174 4.0
"Yes, games are expensive, and yes, trying something new is risky. But it's ultimately a better investment than churning out yet another annualized sequel to a braindead explosion fest. Because gaming has found itself in the same cultural ghetto as comics, and escaping that ghetto increases the potential success for everyone, makers of braindead explosion fests included. A glance at the Iron Man 3 box office numbers versus the actual comic's sales figures should be evidence enough that there's more upside to a mainstream medium than a marginalized one."

I don't really understand this paragraph at all to be frank. Your arguing that games should be riskier and more inventive to find a mainstream audience? I would've thought violent video games are the mainstream, at least in the AAA console space. I'd love it if more inventive games like Okami, Shadow of the Colossus, Beyond Good and Evil, Psychonauts, Grim Fandango, etc. sold better, but the fact is they just don't. While I'd prefer to see these games, at the end of day they are more of a niche. I can totally understand why a publisher may be hesitant to sign off on tens of millions of dollars to develop these types of games. I'm just not seeing how they would be automatically a "better investment." (If you lowered the budget and adjusted your expectations accordingly, then sure these games would probably make money, but you can't really bank on a breakaway cultural success like Minecraft).

I don't really see how Iron Man 3's box office success really applies to the video game industry either, it's not exactly the most risky creative proposition to make a super hero movie..

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Justin Shuard on 6th May 2013 11:28pm

Posted:A year ago

#8
@Justin I'm arguing games should be more diverse so mainstream audiences identify them as capable of more than adolescent power fantasies. And the point with Iron Man 3 is that more-or-less equivalent content can be hampered or empowered by how accepted its medium is. It doesn't matter how good an Iron Man comic is; most people won't ever consider buying it. But if you put essentially the same content in a medium that isn't culturally stigmatized, all of a sudden it can do a whole lot better. And that's the investment I want publishers to make: an investment in their medium that pays off for everyone in the long run.

Posted:A year ago

#9

Justin Shuard
J - E translator

43 174 4.0
@Brendan

Ah, I see. Thank you for the clarification.

With that being the case I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts on how games could try to diversify in terms of content and still remain financially successful. What I mean is, games like the ones I listed above don't fail because of a lack of quality, they just don't seem to have the same kind of mainstream appeal among gamers. What could a game like Shadow of the Colossus or Mirrors Edge have done to break out into the wider mainstream audience that don't really play games to ensure their success?

Posted:A year ago

#10
@Justin First, get someone with a burgeoning name, like Jenova Chen. Set aside one second-tier-sized budget (like Dead Space 3, maybe?) to make whatever game he wants. Market the hell out of it, sell it to mainstream outlets as EA funding the arts in the gaming industry. Not to single out TGC, but Flower and Journey have bought all the artistic cred EA would need in the eyes of the Wall Street Journal or New York Times. The story tack of an artist who went bankrupt making his last game being given a budget to do whatever he wants with his next game would be more than enough to generate all the press and taste-maker awareness they'd ever need. The mainstream media/thought-leaders are ready and willing to cover those games; they just need the industry to put their money where the artistic ambition is, instead of behind online shooters.

EDIT: Considering it a little more, I'd be curious to see what would happen if Sony just ran a big ad campaign to promote Journey. The game already has all the awards and acclaim they'd want to feature, and it's not like the mainstream audience they're going after cares as much about being there day one.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Brendan Sinclair on 7th May 2013 3:03pm

Posted:A year ago

#11

Justin Shuard
J - E translator

43 174 4.0
@Brendan

Some great ideas! :) Sony definitely did find success with Journey.

I wonder if you would need to limit the game's price tag to $15 though. The mainstream audience that didn't previously have an interest in games might buy in at $15 if they read about something they're interested in, but then might balk at the $60 (or more) price tag that most console AAA games sell at.

Posted:A year ago

#12

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