After many years of obscurity, Christian game makers are trying to hit the mainstream.
Inspired by the cross-over success of increasingly more Christian products, such as this year’s surprise blockbuster Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, game makers are trying to tap into the multi-billion dollar gaming industry. If they are successful, it will mark another entry point for Christian products into the mainstream.
A mere 15 years ago, retailers scorned Christian music as a niche market too specific to be worthwhile. Today, the very same Christian music genre, also known as CCM, has grown to be a billion dollar a year industry. Artists such as Switchfoot and Jaci Velasquez, known as much for their faith as their vocal abilities, have even had their music of faith played on secular radio stations.
Game developers are now hoping that this year’s success of Christian themed music and movies will open the eyes of retailers, providing them a platform on which they can market both existing and future Christian game titles. However, they must move the hearts of the Christian constituency first.
Christians have looked upon computers and the gaming industry with ambivalence. At times, they have appreciated the educational effects of some software. At other times, parents have derided the industry, such as after the Columbine shooting in which violent computer games were partially blamed for the shooters’ anti-social dispositions. Game developers are hoping that rather than fighting games in general, Christians will come instead to embrace a new class of spiritually edifying games.
"Rather than fight it, religious folks are now trying to offer alternative venues for both content and technology," said David Batstone, a theology and ethics professor at the University of San Francisco.
The acceptance of Christian games by the Christian community has shown mixed results. Based on a market survey of the approximately 40 faith-based titles currently available, the PC game Catechumen is the best-selling with 70,000 copies sold in the US. While this is a respectable number copies sold, it pales in stark comparison to the secular blockbusters such as Half-Life, a violent first-person shooter that has sold 3-4 billion titles within a $6.9 billion industry.
There are a few challenges that must be tackled before Christian games can receive wide acceptance. The first challenge is market and retail acceptance. Currently, most Christian titles are sold in Christian bookstores – a place where Christians shop but not where many hard-core gamers will go to look for games.
The second challenge is investment. Christian game developers would currently be happy creating a product that is cherished by parents while bringing in about a million dollars in sales. Needless to say, the budget available for Christian games is significantly smaller than the multi million dollar development budgets for secular games.
Jeff Dotson is the vice president of LifeLine Studios in Lancaster, Texas which develops Christian games for children. One of the games developed features Charlie Church Mouse, who guides children through Bible stories with exercises such as target practice with the sling that slew Goliath. The software is developed by a 3 man team that takes care of programming, artwork, and marketing. They are still relatively unknown.
"The scope of what we're doing is still very small in comparison to multimillion-dollar" mainstream games, Dotson said.
The future of the Christian gaming industry has many people interested, with perhaps industry insiders as the most optimistic proponents. Recently, 100 game developers met in Medford, Oregon, for the Christian Game Developers Conference to discuss game distribution and publishing.
Ralph Bagley, President and founder of N’Lightning Software, says that the group has the same discussion each year, how to increase sales for their titles. But each year, the group realizes that they are fighting uphill against a strong stereotype.
"There's a perception out there - right or wrong, it's there - that because it's a Christian game, it's going to be cheesy," Bagley said. “We’re erasing that image.”
N’Lightning has been one of the Christian game market’s most successful players. Its top two titles, Catechumen and Ominous Horizons have sold a combined 110,000 copies. The success of its titles, according to Bagley, comes because the company has won spots on the shelves of mainstream retailers.
But no matter how much hope game developers, market analysts, and concerned parents have over the genre, success ultimately boils down to one ephemeral variable – whether gamers will adopt them.
Ben Small of North Richland Hills, Texas often stays up nights with friends to play Halo: Combat Evolved on his X-Box console. There is nothing angelic about the game, as it is a bloody shooter restricted to those age 17 or older.
But Small said that he would be willing to try a non-violent alternative. He tersely offers his requirement that the Christian game industry should heed.
“If the game’s fun, I’ll play it” he said.