DENVER (AP) - The streets of New York have never looked so barren.
An occasional taxi or bus motors down a boulevard as people wander aimlessly among eerily vacant buildings. Soon, black helicopters loom overhead and armed soldiers close ranks on the streets below.
This isn't your run-of-the-mill video game: "Left Behind: Eternal Forces" is based on the best-selling "Left Behind" book series about the apocalypse. But it's the apocalypse without dismemberment or graphic bloodshed, though the game has an element of violence that some Christians argue is counter to teachings of the Bible.
The game's creators say they hope to wriggle into the multibillion-dollar mainstream video game market by offering a real-time strategy option for serious gamers. Yet, they believe the faith-based theme is important, too.
"What we've decided to do is embed our message in a game so that it's not overt but it is in the game," Left Behind Games President Jeffrey Frichner said. "We're not ashamed of it. There are Scriptures in the game and we're faithful to those Scriptures."
The overall video game software market, including consoles and portables, was $6.1 billion in 2005, based on U.S. sales, according to The NPD Group research company in Port Washington, N.Y. It does not track sales for Christian video games, which is a tiny niche.
Analyst Michael Pachter, who follows the industry for Wedbush Morgan Securities Inc., has played "Eternal Forces" and said it probably will be well-received.
He estimated it would sell between 250,000 and 1 million units, likely far more than any other Christian video game, because of its high quality.
"They did a nice job," Pachter said. "In order for the game to hit the higher end of that range, I think they have to attract mainstream consumers who just want to play the game because it is a good game.
"The question is, will the game be perceived as too preachy for the mainstream and I just don't know. We'll see."
Set in New York, the game begins with smoldering landscapes, the eerie streets and wandering nonbelievers and evildoers. The object is to convert nonbelievers and ultimately prevent evil forces from taking over the world.
Left Behind marketing manager Greg Bauman won't be specific about how to achieve victory because the game won't be officially released until later this year; however, a demo of the game available free of charge on the company's Web site provides some clues.
Players, as commanders of the forces of good, need to make sure their people are housed and fed, nurtured with prayer and armed to defend themselves for eventual battle.
Players recruit people to battle evil forces while taking control of buildings for medical clinics and housing. They can send people into battle but lose points by killing evil soldiers or by failing to meet the spiritual needs of the troops. Want to ward off evil? Hit the prayer button.
Every person depicted has a name and a history, which emphasizes the human cost of battle, Frichner said.
Along the way, players find clues to Bible mysteries and other information. Christian rock groups provide background music.
In the single-player mode, the player battles evil forces. In the multiplayer mode, players may choose to represent evil or good. Gamers also can play each other online.
The PC-only game cost between $3 million and $5 million to produce. It will sell for $49.99.
The current market for Christian video games is essentially nonexistent, Pachter said, but there is opportunity given the growing popularity of Christian products and the fact parents want nonviolent fare for their children.
"Eternal Forces" is the first effort from Left Behind Games Inc. of Murrieta, Calif., which has a license to develop games based on the "Left Behind" novels by Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye that have sold more than 63 million copies.
The company's mission is to produce products that promote faith-based values but also appeal to the general population. The books and the game are built around those left on Earth after millions of Christian believers ascend to heaven during the Rapture as defined in Christian theology.
Since it was previewed in May at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles, "Eternal Forces" has drawn opposition on Internet sites, in some newspapers and on television from those who contend the violence goes against the Bible.
"It's reprehensible," said Florida attorney Jack Thompson, a critic of video game violence. "They're basically using the phrase — Christian game — to disarm parents into thinking it's going to be OK for our kids."
Left Behind Games co-founder Troy Lyndon has posted a statement on the company's Web site calling the game a classic battle of good and evil. Frichner said it depicts choices people must make when faced with threats.
"Do we just lay down and allow aggressors to kill us, or maim us or pillage us?" Frichner said. "I think most Americans would answer no. We defend ourselves. To remain faithful to the 'Left Behind' series, we couldn't make a game that didn't have that element in it."
Ralph Bagley, chief executive officer of video game maker N'Lightning Software Development, believes there is a market for Christian video games waiting to be tapped, particularly for technically accurate products such as "Eternal Forces."
He's been in the business since 1999, when Christian game developers consisted of a handful of people who made a video game with about $10,000 while top game developers were spending $2 million to $3 million.
"We couldn't stand up to it," Bagley said.
He invested about $800,000 in the design and production of "Catechumen," a nonviolent adventure game that has sold 80,000 copies — a top seller in the Christian video market.
Bagley's other game, "Ominous Horizons, a Paladin's Calling," is set in Germany in the 1400s when Satan steals the first printed Bible and hides pieces of it throughout the world. The player solves puzzles devised by ancient societies to track down the missing pieces. Bagley spent about $1.2 million to develop it.
He predicted demand for Christian video products would continue to grow.
"Even the youth pastor that runs the youth group, when he comes home and wants to play a game he really doesn't want another Bible lesson thrown at him," said Bagley, who is also a spokesman for the Christian Game Developers Foundation. "He just wants to play a game."
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