Thursday, January 29, 2009

Did Family-Friendly Games "Dominate" in 2008?

Coverage of the newest NPD press release on 2008 videogame sales has been circulating this week, in which the market research firm makes the claim that family-friendly games dominated the market in 2008. For example, Kidscreen's Emily Claire Afan writes:
With computer and video game industry hardware, software and peripheral sales hitting a whopping US$22 billion in 2008 - and entertainment software sales responsible for US$11.7 billion of that - the Entertainment Software Association and researcher The NPD Group has also found family-friendly titles topping the market.

Games with an E10+ and lower rating from the Entertainment Software Rating Board accounted for more than half of all sales, according to NPD data, with 45.3% of games rated E and 12.1% rated E10+. The family entertainment category rang in as the most popular game genre with more than 19% of all sales.

The US$22 billion figure is a 22.9% increase over the previous year and the NPD found that December 2008 sales set a new record, with industry revenue broke the US$5 billion mark (US$5.3) for the first time in any single month. Industry analyst Anita Frazier says that there's been an increase of sales by a select group of titles - the top 20 games account for 15% of total unit sales, whereas in 2006, it accounted for only 9%.

On the console software side in 2008, total US reached US$8.9 billion (189 million units), PC game sales broke US$701.4 million (29.1 million units) and portable software beat last year's record sales with US$2.1 billion (79.5 million units) in revenue. Overall, approximately 297.6 million computer and video games were sold at retail last year.

The press release doesn't appear to provide a listing of the games themselves, so I did a bit of digging to find out if "family-friendly" simply meant rated "E" (e.g. most sports games are rated "E", but aren't necessarily targeted to kids and families). I found the following list at Nintendo World Report, which certainly does reflect NPD's claim, particularly if you count the Guitar Hero and Rock Band games...which I would definitely include in the "family-friendly" category despite their "T" rating (a rating earned primarily because of the song lyrics, of all things):
Nintendo World's 2008 Top Ten U.S. Software Sales (by Revenue)

1. Wii Fit (Wii) Rated "E"
2. Guitar Hero: World Tour (Wii) Rated "T"
3. Wii Play w/ Remote (Wii) Rated "E"
4. Call of Duty: World at War (X360) Rated "M"
5. Mario Kart (Wii) Rated "E"
6. Gears of War 2 (X360) Rated "M"
7. Rock Band 2 (X360) Rated "T"
8. Left 4 Dead (X360) Rated "M"
9. Call of Duty: World at War (PS3) Rated "M"
10. Rock Band 2 (Wii) Rated "T"

The figures change somewhat when total software sales (not just revenue earned) are taken into consideration, and when titles are counted across systems (as opposed to broken up as in the list above). According to GamesIndustry, the US sales for game software in 2008 looked more like this (below), but as you can see, although "family-friendly" Wii titles still make up the top 3 best selling, the list is now predominated by "M"-rated blockbuster hits like GTA as well:
1. Wii Play (Nintendo, Wii), Rated "E" = $5.28 million
2. Mario Kart Wii (Nintendo, Wii), Rated "E" = $5.00 million
3. Wii Fit (Nintendo, Wii), Rated "E" = $4.53 million
4. Super Smash Bros. Brawl (Nintendo, Wii), Rated "T" = $4.17 million
5. Grand Theft Auto IV (Take-Two, Xbox 360), Rated "M" = $3.29 million
6. Call of Duty: World at War (Activision, Xbox 360), Rated "M" = $2.75 million
7. Gears of War 2 (Microsoft, Xbox 360), Rated "M" = $2.31 million
8. Grand Theft Auto IV (Take-Two, PS3), Rated "M" = $1.89 million
9. Madden NFL 09 (EA, Xbox 360), Rated "E" = $1.87 million [**though I'm not convinced that this game is really for kids or families, I'll count it anyway]
10. Mario Kart DS (Nintendo, NDS), Rated "E" = $1.65 million

Both sources have the same list for the top software sales in December 2008, which leads me to believe that their initial figures were probably the same as well, before they were reinterpreted to reflect "revenue earned" by each individual (and platform-specific) title. Here's the December list, FYI:
December 2008 U.S. Top 20 Software Sales
1. Wii Play (Wii) (1.46m units): Rated "E"
2. Call of Duty: World at War (X360) (1.33m): Rated "M"
3. Wii Fit (Wii) (999k): Rated "E"
4. Mario Kart Wii (Wii) (878k): Rated "E"
5. Guitar Hero: World Tour (Wii) (859k): Rated "T"
6. Gears of War 2 (X360) (745k): Rated "M"
7. Left 4 Dead (X360) (629k): Rated "M"
8. Mario Kart DS (DS) (540k): Rated "E"
9. Call of Duty: World at War (PS3) (533k): Rated "M"
10. Animal Crossing: City Folk (Wii) (497k): Rated "E"
11. Wii Music (Wii) (487k): Rated "E"
12. New Super Mario Bros. (DS) (255k-487k): Rated "E"
13. Personal Trainer: Cooking (DS) (255k-487k): Rated "E"
14. Fallout 3 (X360) (255k-487k): Rated "M"
15. Club Penguin: Elite Penguin Force (DS) (255k-487k): Rated "E"
16. Link's Crossbow Training (Wii) (255k-487k): Rated "T"
17. Guitar Hero: World Tour (PS2) (255k-487k): Rated "T"
18. Madden NFL 09 (X360) (255k-487k): Rated "E" [**Is football really less violent than Crossbow Training?]
19. Call of Duty: World at War (Wii) (255k-487k): Rated "M"
20. Shaun White Snowboarding: Road Trip (Wii) (255k-487k): Rated "E10+"

So what does this all mean? While NPD is certainly correct in its claim that a lot of the top-selling titles in 2008 were games targeted to/designed for children and families -- thanks in no small part to Nintendo! -- I would hesitate to say that these titles "dominated" the market - which is still surprisingly evenly split between family-friendly games like Wii Play and Mario Kart on one side, and very mature titles like Call of Duty: World at War and Gears of War 2 on the other. It seems that as long as the videogames market (and culture!) is maligned by the media and politicians by its more violent, adult-themed offerings, the industry will continue to put all the emphasis on its E-rated successes to prove its cultural worthiness. But what I see here is an extremely diversified market, hitting all age groups and genres, with a noticeable tendency to cluster around its own extremes. Just try putting that in a headline or sound bite, though.

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