July 25, 2005

Video Game Biz Converting to Christianity

LOS ANGELES -- While such Mature-rated games as "Resident Evil 4," "Doom 3" and "Halo 2" are widely known for raking in millions for the video game industry, a small but growing number of game developers are creating titles for Christian gamers.

That emerging market segment will be in focus at the fourth annual Christian Game Developers Conference (July 28-30, Portland, Ore.), which hands out awards for the best Christian games of the year and looks to "equip game developers to glorify God."

Sector insiders suggest that like the Christian music market, the religious gaming market has strong potential.

N'Lightning Software CEO Ralph Bagley believes half of the video game crowd is Christian. His company was the first of about 100 Christian game developers to invest in the creation of PC games. Its first title, "Catechumen," cost $830,000 to develop and has sold about 80,000 copies worldwide since its 2001 release, according to the company. The second game, "Ominous Horizons," cost $1 million to create and has sold more than 50,000 copies, it said.

"Fifteen years ago, the Christian music world looked like Christian games today," Bagley said. "It wasn't until the Christian music companies came together as a group and focused on quality that they were able to achieve success."

Go Play Research video game analyst Billy Pidgeon said "socially conservative Christians may not want their children to play games at all. . . . On the other hand, when kids are asking to play video games, Christian parents may find these games an acceptable way to promote their values, while keeping their children entertained."

There are several factors in motion that should grow the Christian games market this year and beyond.

Crave Entertainment, a traditional value-priced game publisher with titles like "World Championship Poker," in November will ship "The Bible Game" for PlayStation 2 and Game Boy Advance for $20.

Christian games traditionally have been the domain of the PC, which allows many developers to sell games online to their target audience. But with the first console game coming out, the industry will be reaching the mass-market audience that shops at Wal-Mart.

"The Bible Game" is a trivia game with 1,500 Old Testament questions on the PS2 and an action-adventure game that blends questions from the Old and New Testament into the gameplay on GBA.

Another major factor is the unveiling of the first PC release from Left Behind Games, which will translate content from a 13-volume book series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins that has sold more than 63 million copies.

"Left Behind: Eternal Forces" is a real-time strategy game set in New York during the End of Days, which will allow gamers to choose between the angelic Tribulation Forces and the demonic Global Community Peacekeepers in a multiplayer online mode. The game is set to ship before Easter.

Left Behind CEO Troy Lyndon said the books have a diverse loyal reader base of more than 10 million parents, single adults, teens and kids. He said the company, which was founded in October 2001, will invest more money and resources into its first game than any Christian game has ever seen. Lyndon also said his games will be sold at Wal-Mart, which accounts for about 25% of all game sales.

"If only 10% of the readership buys our game, it will be a top hit, selling more than 1 million units," Lyndon said.

Pidgeon said that while a game success on the level of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" movie might be possible down the road with a big franchise like "Left Behind," films are still much more accessible to the Christian demographic than video games.

"'Left Behind' will not likely convert gamers to Christianity, but will need to convert Christians (the books' fan base) to video gaming," Pidgeon said.

Christian Game Developers Conference founder Tim Emmerich of GraceWorks Interactive believes that the PC platform is ripe for Christian games, just as educational games continue to succeed on the PC. Big Idea has been able to combine children's games that teach Christian values with its "VeggieTales" PC games, which have sold more than 750,000 units in the U.S. since October 2002, the NPD Group said.

Bagley helped found the Christian Game Developers Foundation, a nonprofit organization that promotes Christian games and has raised enough money to start developing two next-generation games for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 within the next 12 months. Bagley said the first game could hit retail as early as fall 2007.

"The challenge for Christian game developers has always been delivering a quality game experience," Bagley said. "The last thing we want to do is preach to people."

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter