Christian Game Developers Shine the Light

( [email protected] ) Aug 18, 2004 02:45 PM EDT

Videos games today are increasingly becoming more violent and containing more explicit content that parents often do not want their children to see. In this darkening segment of culture however, there is a ray of hope – against all odds, Christian game developers are creating wholesome and biblical games in hopes to draw gamers away from inappropriate content.

Developers are banking on the success of religious entertainment -- the Left Behind books and Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ -- to open retailers' eyes to their market.

"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 early results are mixed in a market of about 40 faith-based titles. The PC game Catechumen, one of the best-selling Christian titles, has moved 70,000 copies of the $19.95 game.

By comparison, a blockbuster such as Half-Life, a violent first-person shooter game, has sold more than 3 million copies in a $6.9 billion industry, said William Harms, senior editor for PC Gamer, a magazine that reports on and reviews games.

But many faith-based game companies believe they can be the next crossover success. A Left Behind game, for instance, is set to be released in 2006, a publicist said. Others are decidedly niche. Jewish Software produces the educational game Matzah Man, which combines the Torah with the classic Pac-Man arcade game.

"Christian music was in the same place 15 years ago" when it was shunned by retailers, said Jeff Dotson, vice president of LifeLine Studios in Lancaster, which develops Christian games for children. "Today it's a booming industry. Christian gaming is going to go that way as well."

One challenge is that many religious titles are available only in Christian bookstores -- not a place where most hard-core gamers shop.

Another is the amount of cash available for development and marketing, Dotson said.

Dotson's video game, developed and marketed entirely by a three-man team, features Charlie Church Mouse, who guides children through Bible stories and, occasionally, target practice with the sling that slew Goliath.

The game is sold in the United States, Australia and England. But it is largely unknown.

"The scope of what we're doing is still very small in comparison to multimillion-dollar" mainstream games, Dotson said.

But faith-based software developers continue to search for new ways to enter the mainstream market. Last month, about 100 developers met at the Christian Game Developers Conference in Portland, Ore., to discuss distribution and publishing of games.

Ralph Bagley, president and founder of N'Lightning Software in Medford, Ore., said developers have the same discussion every year: how to get their games sold. He said Christian game developers are working against a 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's offerings have been among the best-received Christian games. Its first title, Catechumen, and a second, Ominous Horizons, have sold a combined 110,000 copies. N'Lightning's success may soon earn the company a spot on mainstream retailers' shelves, Bagley said.

But the true test of a game's success will come down to players such as Ben Small of North Richland Hills.

Small, 16, said he would be willing to try a vice-free video game that has no blood, no ammo, no fatalities.

But for now, Small often huddles with a group of his friends playing Halo: Combat Evolved, an Xbox game that has nothing to do with angels.

Small and his friends sometimes stay up all night playing Halo, a game for sale only to those 17 and older. But Small says he would give a non-violent alternative a shot.

"If the game's fun," he said, "I'll play it."