How computer games grew up
THEY USED TO be for kids. Space Invaders, Pong, Doom, some of them were shoot-’em-up fun, others were just, well, fun. But computer games have changed. No longer the preserve of nerdy teens and pre-pubescents, the generation that grew up with computer games has done just that: grown up. And the games have grown with them. Advancing technologies, a widening market and a £9.9 billion industry has meant that the games themselves are now as sophisticated as the twenty-somethings who buy them.
Today sees the release of the latest in the controversial Grand Theft Auto series that was devised by Scottish firm DMA (short for Doesn’t Mean Anything), now Rockstar Games. GTA’s depiction of sex and crime and all things grimey sparked moral outrage in its day, but these days everyone is chasing Rockstar’s tail in the bid to release the steamiest, most grown up games on the block.
"The PlayStation generation that started playing when they were ten or 12 are now out clubbing or being students, something that has propelled the average age of gamers upwards," said Paul Jackson, principal analyst for Forrester Research.
"PC gamers tended to be older, but one of the first games to court controversy on consoles was Grand Theft Auto."
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City did indeed kick off the recent trend. The Scottish-produced franchise was developed by DMA in Dundee in the mid-1990s. After passing through several hands the company is now owned by Rockstar Games in the US. Rockstar will be hoping Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, will push the GTA franchise beyond the 35 million sales it has already made.
The game was, from its inception, an adult one. "We just wanted to make a game that we wanted to play, and we were in our twenties and thirties," says Brian Baglow, who worked on the very first GTA and now runs a games industry publicity firm. "If it was just based on shock value it wouldn’t have lasted."
In 1997 when Grand Theft Auto was released it was a relatively simple, two dimensional game. Its defining moments came with later releases. GTA 3 and GTA: Vice City were the biggest selling games of 2001 and 2002. By the time Vice City was released, sex had joined violence as a central part of the game’s plot and the game hit the headlines across the world. As a car-bound criminal in the game your job is to build a criminal empire. One way to gather cash is to hire a prostitute, pay for sexual favours and then kill the woman, taking her earnings. The sex taboo was broken and publisher Rockstar saw sales soar.
"The industry took a typically knee-jerk reaction. Half of the retail chains took copies of the game off the shelves and the rest were delighted because with all the publicity sales quadrupled," says Jackson. "There is always a delayed cash-in on this kind of success and this year the mode du jour is sexual explicitness, and this is the cash-in," said Jackson. The titles designed to cash in are only hitting the shelves now. An adult version of life strategy game The Sims, called Singles: Flirt Up Your Life is on release, featuring full nudity as you chart your way through a relationship; The Guy Game involves a lot of strip poker, and Dead or Alive: Xtreme Beach Volleyball involves girls in next to nothing playing beach volleyball.
Other publishers have watched the cash roll in to GTA owner Rockstar’s coffers, and their makers don’t care who they offend in playing for a slice of the action. And who can blame them when the sums involved are so astronomical?
The European Leisure Software Publishing Association predicts that total revenue for the games industry will grow from 2003’s 9.9 billion to 11.5bn by 2007. The UK business is worth 1.15bn a year and since 1995 25 million gaming devices have been sold in the UK, enough for one device per household. Gaming has become one of the biggest leisure businesses in the world, its 1.15bn revenue outperforming the box office, which in the UK generates 742 million.
Despite the huge sales figures, publishers have remained shy of cashing in on sex, and only one per cent of games sold in the UK carry an 18+ certificate. But that is starting to shift, thanks to the changing face of gamers, and in the peculiar place that games occupy in society.
"There is still an expectation, especially among tabloids, that games are for children," says Jackson. "People accept it from the movie industry that there is a wide range of films and not everything has to be suitable for everyone."
"It is a huge market, and it needs adult content just as much as it needs child-friendly content," says Baglow. It is not, though, an argument that gets much public airing as frenzy after frenzy surrounds each new taboo that is broken by a new game.
So why are publishers prepared to risk public outrage now? The fact is that gamers are getting older. No longer is your average PlayStation user a spotty teen, he is now more likely to work in marketing and have a mortgage and a car: gamers have grown up.
The average age of a console gamer is now 24, that of a PC gamer 29, according to Michael Rawlinson, deputy director general of the Entertainment and Leisure Software Publishers’ Association. The average age of women gamers is even higher, at between 30 and 35. "There are people who were at the older end of the scale, 15-20, when the industry started and they are now 40, 45, and have children of their own," says Rawlinson. "The industry needs to provide content that stimulates and attracts those mature tastes, and GTA is a classic example of that."
These older gamers want to play games that reflect their interests. They are no longer fascinated by other-worldly, brightly coloured cartoon characters. Now they want football, war and sex. The headline-generating sexual content plays straight into their hands.
"This has seen the rise of the phenomenon known as the casual gamer," says Jackson. "These people will tend to spend more on a game though they are not as dedicated gamers as the 14-year-old who might only be able to afford a game every 3-4 months."
"The casual gamer is more likely to buy a franchise game like FIFA 2005 and not read games magazines, so they’ll buy FIFA even if Mario or something is reviewed as having better game play," said Jackson.
Electronic Arts is the world’s biggest publisher, and it has a policy of avoiding the extremes of sexually and violently explicit content. "[Older gamers want] something richer than just the visual now," says EA’s Glenn O’Connell. "They want something that tells stories in the games and I think you’ll see that a lot now in the future."
"You see people in their thirties buying a lot of football games, and war games," says David Wilson, owner of Edinburgh’s Gamesmasters Games Exchange. "They buy a lot of war games."
Older does not necessarily mean sex-obsessed, though, according to Wilson. "These guys are going retro, they are coming in looking for Mario Brothers, Sonic, buying old Sega Megadrive consoles," he says. "And we have people up to their seventies, old grannies coming in for their Tetris and their Pac Man, loads of them."
For those interested in history, there’s a plethora of strategy games that allow them to take part in anything from World War Two to medieval battles. In one particularly popular game, Total War: Rome, you control your own faction during the heyday of the first Roman Empire, complete with world maps and real-time tactical battles.
Another title, Cossacks II: Napleonic Wars, allows the gamer to play out their very own version of Waterloo.
Opinion is mixed on whether or not the appearance of this autumn’s slew of sexually explicit gaming titles is the beginning of a bigger trend or just a blip.
Certainly, some publishers remain so much in fear of conservative retail outlets, such as Wal-Mart which ban controversial games, they rarely stray from the mainstream. But what is not in doubt is that GTA’s latest incarnation will go straight to number one in this week’s games charts, proving that a little sex mixed with plenty of violence does your sales figures no harm at all.
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