Videogames are perpetually linked to violence - yet in terms of the highest sales figures ever achieved, violence is not enormously in evidence. Have we overestimated the importance of violence to the games industry?
Before proceeding, it is necessary to be clear what we mean by "violence", since this could mean a great many different things. Super Mario Bros., the best selling game of all time (with some 40 million units sold, albeit on the back of bundling with the NES) contains a form of violence, in so much that one can prevail against opponents by attacking them, but this cartoon violence is very distinct from the violence of, say, a Grand Theft Auto game. For the purposes of this discussion, therefore, let us consider "realistic" (or film-like) violence to be separate from "Cartoon violence" of the kind found in a Mario or Pokémon game.
As a means of exploring the issue of the market value of violence, let us sum the unit sales of the best selling games according to whether they are based around violence, cartoon violence or non-violence. This is a coarse yardstick, and hugely open to interpretation, but nonetheless... The results are as follows:
- 54% (172 million units) belong to games featuring cartoon violence - principally various Mario games and various Pokémon games.
- 31% (98 million uints) belong to non-violent games - namely, The Sims and its sequel (16 and 13 million units respectively, Nintendogs (which may yet overtake The Sims as it is rapidly approaching 15 million units), plus two Gran Turismo games (about 11 million each).
- Just 15% (50 million units) of the unit sales from the Top 20 belong to games featuring violence. The games in question are the last three major Grand Theft Auto titles, and World or Warcraft (which by itself is responsible for about 4%).
It transpires upon analysis that although violent games are a staple purchase of the gamer hobbyist and dedicated FPS player, they are something of a niche in the context of the industry as a whole. Although the most successful first person shooter titles (Goldeneye 007, Half-Life and Halo 2 have all sold 8 million units) do make a stir, the reach of this kind of game in general is still quite weak. Doom 3, for instance, only managed 3.5 million units. Now that's perfectly healthy, but it's also quite small compared to the size of the market as a whole - certainly compared to the coverage the game received in the specialist press. Quake appears to have sold only 1.7 million units.
Is the games industry crazy? Despite the relatively modest success of FPS titles (which are dominated by the mega-hits which can muster the greatest marketing), a great deal of money is invested every year into more and more first person shooter titles (or third person shooter titles, which are fundamentally similar). My suspicion is the popularity of the FPS title with game developers is the reason for their ubiquity.
Of course, the success of non-violent titles such as The Sims and Nintendogs doubtless owe their enormous sales figures in part to the scarcity of non-violent titles to compete with them. Publishers then and now are reluctant to pursue a title similar to The Sims in any shape or form as a result of a quite sensible desire to avoid going head-to-head with EA. Excessive caution thus strangles a viable market.
And what of cartoon violence, which seems to have been even more successful? The staple of this kind of violence is the platform game, which has become something of a dead genre perhaps in part as a result of the flagship platform titles being gradually geared towards gun violence. Both Jak and Daxter and Ratchet & Clank gradually emphasised guns and de-emphasised traditional platforming, perhaps in an attempt to regain the support of the core gaming market. It does not seem that this attempt was particularly successful, but it has effectively destroyed publishers faith in the market value of platform games, which now seem to be off the menu. It's certainly going to be interesting to see whether Mario Galaxy has got what it takes to reverse this trend.
With many publishers following the lead of EA and restructuring to consider how they can get a slice of the highly lucrative "casual" market, will we see more of an effort to design games with non-violent content? I'm somewhat doubtful. For a start, designing for non-violence often involves genuinely difficult design problems. It is simply easier to make games with guns and violence by following proven design patterns than it is to innovate new approaches. Nonetheless, as the Wii and DS open the games market up to a new and wider audience the potential for market-successful non-violent games has never been more promising, not to mention the remarkable impact of non-violent massively multiplayer games such as Habbo Hotel and Club Penguin.
It is dangerous to draw conclusions from a brief and crude analysis such as this one, yet it seems certain that there is market value in non-violence, and in cartoon violence. Yet violence - conventional blood and guts, guns and ammo violence - remains inextricably linked to videogames, and investment in games of this kind remains high. It is my suspicion that this reflects the playing habits of the people who work in the games industry more than a fair assessment of the market as a whole.
The opening image is taken from IGN, and is used without permission. No copyright infringement is implied, and I will take the image down if asked.