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.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Guest Post on IP Osgoode

Check out my guest post over at IP Osgoode (the Osgoode Hall Law School blog), where I argue that UGC games such as Little Big Planet are opening up virtual IP issues and debates to the mainstream gamer market. Here's an excerpt:
Digital games have evolved considerably in recent years, but from an IP perspective, one of the most interesting and significant shifts has been the introduction of user-generated content (UGC) into corporately-owned digital games and virtual worlds. Early evidence of the legal implications of UGC (also referred to as “user created” and “user contributed” content) first emerged in the form of a debate about ongoing (and as yet unresolved) conflicts between game operators and game players over who could legally (and ethically) claim ownership over virtual items and characters (avatars) produced by players within massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs). While this debate and the questions it raised attracted a lot of interest from legal scholars and academics (see, for example, Terra Nova’s “Virtual Law Bibliography”), the conflicts themselves really only directly impacted the small proportion of gamers who both played MMOGs and engaged in virtual item exchange.

Today, however, tools for social networking and collaborative cultural production are being integrated into a much wider diversity of titles and game genres, and UGC is quickly spreading from niche markets made up of MMOG players and hobbyist programmers into “mainstream” markets as well. In some cases, even “casual players” can now produce and distribute their own game content. Accordingly, questions and concerns about IP rights and the legal status of UGC, as well as how players‘ rights will be articulated and protected within predominantly corporately-defined virtual game environments, are attaining a much broader relevance - both within the entertainment software industry and among the increasingly large segment of the population that plays digital games.

You can read the whole post here. Thanks again to Rex Shoyama for giving me the opportunity to contribute to this excellent new resource on all things IP and technology.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Crayon Physics, Dangerous High School Girls, and the World of Goo

Those of you interested in awesome, innovative, independent and kid-friendly games will want to check out Jordan Deam's (of The Escapist) recent review of Petri Purho's Crayon Physics. The game was the grand prize winner of last year's (2008) Independent Games Festival and is a mind-blowingly cool puzzle game that lets you draw in your own solutions...crayon-style. Here's an excerpt from Deam's review:
Crayon Physics is part physics engine, part MS Paint: Every object you draw behaves (more or less) according to Newton's laws of motion. Like so many of the best indie game designers of the last few years, Purho takes this simple concept and develops it into a thought-provoking, charming and completely unique experience.

Crayon Physics' "story mode," consisting of 76 individual puzzles created by Purho, introduces you to the game's core mechanics. The objective is always the same: Guide a red ball into a yellow star through whatever means you can dream up. The game slowly ramps up the difficulty by introducing new construction elements to the equation - you start out drawing basic ramps and platforms, but it won't be long before you're building horrendously complex networks of levers and pulleys to carry your payload across the field.

You can also design your own levels, using the same tools that Purho used to construct the original 76 puzzles, and upload your creations to an online UGC community, the Crayon Physics Playground. The game sounds a lot like the next (though smaller) Little Big Planet - Deam makes the comparison in his review, and the game's description seems to follow the LBP formula of sandbox + UGC + puzzles + cuteness.

The independent games market is really heating up, and producing some absolutely wonderful and unbelievably sophisticated new titles. From DigiPen's Narbacular Drop (the inspiration of last year's dark horse Portal), to Jenova Chen's deeply influential fl0w, to the PixelJunk titles and the plethora of new independent titles coming available via WiiWare, Xbox Live Community Games, Steam and other channels, a growing number of the most highly revered and innovative games out there have been independently designed and/or produced (or inspired by an indy game).

For instance, I just finished playing yet another big indy hit that came out in 2008 (also an Independent Game Festival winner) World of Goo (downloaded via WiiWare) -- a unique, challenging yet intuitive game that allows for casual play, creative problem-solving and fun with physics, all within the very stretchy confines of an appealing game environment populated by tiny adorable gobs of Goo. The game has been getting rave reviews since it first previewed at last year's Nintendo Media Summit, and ends with a not-so-subtle hint of a sequel.

Another example is Mousechief's Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble, a PC game/digital board game/interactive "choose-your-own-adventure" style story that was initially launched last year. Since then, the game has been revamped, and its creator Keith Nemitz has been nominated in the second annual Writers Guild of America awards for games. You can find out more about the game over at Leigh Alexander's SexyVideogameLand, which has been following Dangerous High School Girls... since it first came out (it's also where I first found out about it). The game skews a bit older than Crayon Physics or World of Goo (it's rated Teen by the TIGRS, but in a very tongue-in-cheek, funny, cute and subversive way.

Yay for indy game developers, and yay for enabling emerging designers to share their creations with the rest of the world. And yay for free demos, which you can download following these links:
World of Goo (Available for PC and Mac)
Crayon Physics Deluxe (Available on PC only, unfortunately)
Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble (Available for PC and Mac)

Thursday, January 15, 2009

CN's Fusion Fall Launches

The kid's media blogosphere is all abuzz this week with news and previews of the newly (finally) launched Fusion Fall -- a big, branded MMOG for kids (and cartoon fans) centered around popular Cartoon Network media brands/characters. For example, as Izzy Neis writes,
Well, ladies & gents, the time has finally come for CN briiiiziiiiliant minds to release their much anticipated MMO of ginormity. And ya know what? Gorgeous.

I was lucky enough to sneak several peeks in the past, but didn’t feel right spilling any beans.

I do have a lot to say about this monster of a project (and it’s good), but I encourage you to go check it out for yourself first. Carve out a bit of time, because the tutorial & the registration take more than the average 2 minutes, and I would recommend spending the time watching the videos that promo along the way.

The game itself will retail at around $20, with a $5.94/month subscription fee. A free version is also (currently) available through the Fusion Fall website, where players can create an avatar and at least start completing quests and collecting items. Players create their own custom avatar - a manga-style human child, in keeping with the design of the Fusion Fall MMOG environment. Through gameplay and cut scenes, players encounter various characters from popular CN television shows - Ben 10 Alien Force, Dexter's Laboratory, Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends, The Powerpuff Girls, Kids Next Door and Samurai Jack (with more to come later on). While some of the characters are voiced by the original TV show talent, all the characters have been redesigned to fit the game's manga/anime aesthetic. The overall objective is to help the CN characters save the world from "Fuse", an evil alien force that invades through appropriation, fusing itself to planets and living things, transforming landscapes into toxic landfills, and producing evil doppelgangers of their inhabitants. Players team up with both other players and NPC characters to complete missions, which includes building a personal army of "Nanos" - miniature versions of CN characters that are "rescued" by defeating the evil doppelgangers.

One of the first things I noticed about the game was the interesting, intertextual and subtly reflexive way it plays with the idea of different versions of the same character. For example, in the first level of the game, Buttercup (of the Powerpuff Girls) sends you on a mission to save Dexter from "Fusion Buttercup" (the evil, Fuse doppelganger) who you then transform into Nano Buttercup (by defeating her), who then becomes your ally. This fluidity and intertextuality both refers to the way that children experience media branded characters in their own lives -- as television characters, as many different incarnations of toys, as videogame avatars, and as the endless variations thereof the children themselves produce during imaginative play.

But the originality of the characters is soon overshadowed by the clunky game design. My first hour of play was plagued by server overcrowding, a bug that made it impossible to finish a specific quest, and full on browser crashes that repeatedly wiped out all of my progress in a particular level. This is likely more prevalent in the online free version than in the full-fledged software + subscription version that the free site promotes, but if CN wants to attract long-term subscribers, the trial version is going to have to run a lot smoother than it does right now. On the other hand, kids have been waiting so long for this game that it might not matter so much in the short term. Not to mention the fact that since so many of the other MMOGs for kids already on the market are similarly full of bugs and clunky-ness (I'm still looking at YOU Pirates of the Caribbean Online), the standards (and player expectations) among this demographic might not be all that high. According to Emily Claire Afan over at Kidscreen, more than 2.5 million accounts were created during the beta stage -- so at least we'll have a yardstick to measure its popularity against now that the game is live and running.

The (software + subscription version) game is being heavily promoted as a safe haven, family friendly space. I'll have to find out more about the safety features, but the game does incorporate a pretty limited pre-selected chat system. It also offers a family plan of four connected accounts for US$9.95 per month, through which I imagine players in the same household can chat more freely.

More to come once I have a chance to play the full version and compare, or at least find some good coverage and/or more detailed reviews. Unfortunately, I'm too far along in the dissertation writing to include this in my PhD research, but it might be an interesting example of the next generation of MMOGs for kids...if not an example of "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss."

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Lost Leisure Time

A new study by Harris Interactive has revealed that the average amount of leisure time enjoyed in the US took a dive in 2008, plummeting by 20% to hit a low of 16 hours per week. This contrasts to 20 hours/week in 2007, and to the whopping 26 hours/week Americans claimed back in 1973 when tracking first began. Here's the excerpt:
In a seemingly paradoxical situation, the research shows that Americans increased their work week one hour, yet claim to have lost four hours of leisure time. Harris conjectures that this “grey area” can be explained because the extra time is time spent “just checking in” via computer or wireless devices.

“While our respondents didn’t consider this as time spent working, they also didn’t count it as leisure time,” Harris said.

Also, as leisure time shrinks, Americans appear to be indulging more in solo activities, Harris found. Four of this year’s top five choices are typically done alone: reading, watching TV, exercising, and computer activities. Reading [up 1 point], watching TV [up 6 points] and exercising [up 3 points] all increased this year, while computer activities dropped 2 points. Though this may again seem counterintuitive, Harris said this can possibly be explained by the theory that Americans are spending just as much or more time on computer activities, yet are considering this time as neither work nor leisure.

Some additional findings of interest include:

* Spending time with family and kids is up 3 points from last year, and 5 points since 1995.

* There are some interesting changes in people's exercise patterns since 1995, including spending more leisure time exercising ( which is up 6 points since 1996) but less time swimming (which is down 5 points).

* In terms of "favorite" leisure activities, 30% list reading (up from 29% in 2007), 24% say it is TV watching and 17% say it is spending time with family and kids (up from 14% in 2007). 8% list exercise (8%) as their favorite leisure activity, while 7% list computer activities and 7% list fishing.

* The median amount of time spent working is now at 46 hours per week, a figure that includes non-traditional labour such as housekeeping and studying. This is up from 45 hours in 2007 and 41 hours a week back in 1973. However, because it's a median and because it includes Americans of all ages (including retirees, and I would assume children) 46 hours is actually an underestimate for most working adults. Americans in all three "worker" demographics on average clock in more than 50 hours a week:
- Generation Xers (those aged 32-43) currently work 55 hours each week.
- "Echo Boomers" (or Gen Y or Millenials, aged 18-31) put in 50 hours each week.
- Baby Boomers (aged 44-62) continue to work an average 50 hours a week.

I'm very happy to see that exercise and spending time with family and kids is on the rise, but the overall trend of less and less time for leisure (compounded with the average 50+ hour work week), while surely at least in part a reflection of the recent economic downturn, is also really too bad. I'm also intrigued by this concept of "just checking in", which I know takes up a huge amount of my time...but I have no problem whatsoever identifying it as labour. The idea that Americans are expressing a need for a third category between work and leisure is also fascinating. More evidence of the slippage between work and play?

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Pink Aisle Politics

Interesting story out of the UK this past weekend, about the pervasiveness of colour-coding within children's - and particularly girls' - culture. As reported by Sarah Harris in the Mail Online, Sue Palmer - educator and author of Toxic Childhood, is trying to raise awareness about the massive gender segregation that continues to occur within toy aisles and children's product design. Calling it a "pink plague", Palmer and other child experts question the hyper-feminine ideals that underlie girls' toys and consumer goods...from lip-glosses to princess dresses, to pencil cases emblazoned with the Playboy logo (yikes!). Looks like a much-needed attempt to revive an old, but still extremely pertinent, issue. Here's an excerpt:
Stores have been accused of pandering to stereotypes by making girls' products almost exclusively pink. Experts claim a 'pink plague' on the High Street is deliberately widening the gap between the sexes by putting undue pressure on youngsters to conform to traditional roles. Many are becoming 'hooked on the girl colour' from a young age and are being duped into buying products that encourage them to grow up too quickly, such as lip-glosses and Playboy pencil cases.

As a result, young girls are discouraged from thinking for themselves or rebelling against the 'princess role', according to Sue Palmer, a literacy consultant and author of Toxic Childhood. She said the marketing drive to force the colour on girls has been so successful that speech therapists in Durham report that children can easily identify the colour blue, but say 'Barbie' when shown something pink.

'I'm worried about the "pink plague",' she said. 'You can't find girls past the age of three who aren't obsessed with the colour.

'It's just so insidious and it shows how commercial forces can get under their skin even by that age. You can't seem to get anything that's not pink for girls, whether it's clothes, books or toys.

'To me, the real danger is the extent to which marketers influence and infiltrate young children's minds. They have managed to infiltrate playground culture where peer pressure is so strong.'

Harris also describes that a "fierce debate" about the role of "pink" within girls' culture is currently unfolding on parenting websites such as Mumsnet (see here for example).

The article goes on to describe that the association of pink with girls is a fairly new (post-WWII) phenomenon - as a shade of red, pink was historically considered to be a "masculine" colour. On the other hand, a recent study conducted out of Newcastle University found that girls and women from various cultures around the world demonstrate a shared preference for reds, which extends to pink and reddish blues. Meanwhile, the universal favourite colour is apparently blue. Not that I promote biological determinism, but even if girls do have some sort of natural affinity for pink (I know I always have), that hardly excuses the children's industries' decision to consistently limit girls' culture to a pink monotone. The lack of variation (lack of alternatives, lack of diversity, lack of colour!!!) alone is a valid reason for concern about the state of girls' commercial culture.

The story also reminds me of The Pink & Blue Project by JeongMee Yoon. Her pictures are pretty consistent with Palmer's argument that the pervasiveness of pink within girls' culture extends far beyond the toy aisle, becoming such an ingrained part of children's lives that it becomes impossible to believe that this isn't a commercially-induced phenomenon.

Friday, January 02, 2009

CFP: Youth Studies Conference in Ireland

Happy New Year! Looking forward to all the exciting events and opportunities coming up in 2009, I thought that some of you might be interested in the following CFP for an upcoming conference on young people and media markets, which will be held in Maynooth, Ireland this summer. Here are the details:
"All Change for Young People"? Mobility, Markets, Media, Models of Practice

An international youth studies conference at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth (NUIM)

Thursday 25th - Sunday 28th June, 2009

hosted by the Department of Applied Social Studies, NUIM

in association with the Research Committee on Youth of the International Sociological Association ( RC34 )

and

Youth Studies Ireland

Contributions are invited on all of the conference’s sub-themes (mobility, markets, media, models of practice) as they relate to young people. Diversity of cultural, disciplinary and professional perspectives is welcome, as are approaches which interrogate the key terms and concepts. Contributions which make links between theory, research, policy and practice are particularly welcome.

Deadline for submission of abstracts (no more than 200 words): 27th February, 2009

A conference website will be available shortly.

In the meantime for further information contact: maurice.devlin@nuim.ie