- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 18, 2005

Video-game developer Ralph Bagley is hoping his products will do for gaming what Christian music has done for the music industry. He sees a market for games that inspire and teach — and even lead players on an action adventure — within the context of Christian values and without gratuitous gore.

The time is right, says Mr. Bagley, chief executive of N’Lightning Software and president of the Christian Game Developers Foundation. So is the culture, in which “The Passion of the Christ” is a mega-hit but so are gory games such as Halo, which sold 1.5 million copies on the day it was released.

“There absolutely is a backlash going on,” Mr. Bagley says. “That’s why I got into [developing games]. You have people praising God in the morning and playing Doom at night. That’s why I began looking at high-quality alternatives.”

The interactive media business is a $10 billion a year industry, according to the NPD Group, a retail research firm. Nearly half of U.S. homes own a gaming system, and a majority have a personal computer. The National Institute on Media and Family reports that 92 percent of children younger than 17 play video games.

Though only 12 percent of all video games are rated M, for mature players, they make up a disproportionate number of the top sellers. Halo 2 and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas were responsible for $245 million in revenue during the first month they were on the market last year, according to GameDaily, a newsletter for the gaming industry.

The National Institute on Media and Family recently issued its 10th annual video-game report card, which gave the industry a grade of D+. David Walsh, president and founder of the group says that “ever more violent and sadistic games are still ending up in the hands of children.”

The answer to that is not banning violent games, but creating high-quality alternatives, Mr. Bagley says.

Mr. Bagley has produced two of the most popular Christian titles: Catechumen and Ominous Horizons.

Catechumen takes place in first-century Rome and takes players through catacombs and battles with demonic foes. Mr. Bagley’s company spent about $830,000 to develop Catechumen, which has sold about 80,000 copies. Ominous Horizons cost $1 million to create and has sold more than 50,000 copies so far.

For Christian games to be a quality alternative, they must be fun — and subtle, Mr. Bagley says. People don’t want to be preached at; they want to play.

Al Menconi, a California minister who helps equip parents to navigate the cultural offerings of the entertainment industry, agrees.

“I would like to say there is a market for games of morality,” Mr. Menconi says. “The games have to be about principles and values, not ‘become a Christian.’”

Raising the profile of Christian gaming is a top priority for Mr. Bagley’s group. He points out that the Christian music industry was in a similar margin until gaining momentum by focusing on quality about 15 years ago. Right now, the Christian gaming industry is small, with titles only made for personal computers and available primarily online and at Christian bookstores.

David Cole, founder of DFC Intelligence, a research firm that analyzes the interactive entertainment industry, says the timing is right for Christian games to capture a segment of the market.

“You can see it in every sport and hobby,” he says. “Christianity is a huge lifestyle interest for a lot of people.”

Tom Bean, chief executive of Digital Praise, a California company that makes and markets several titles — including two aimed at children ages 3 to 6 — says his sales are good.

Recent releases by Digital Praise include Light Rangers: Mending the Maniac Madness, an anime-style adventure in which a group of young superheroes battles villains, and Adventures in Odyssey and the Great Escape, which is based on a Focus on the Family radio show.

“Our first goal is fun,” Mr. Bean says. “If it’s not fun, no one will play. Second goal is a values message. Third is education.”

Troy Lyndon, chief executive of Left Behind Games, is hoping his yet-to-be released titles will be the breakthrough the Christian gaming industry needs. The games, based on the popular teen book series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, have been in the works since 2001.

If just a small portion of the estimated 10 million readers of the Left Behind books buys a game, the games will be a hit, Mr. Lyndon says.

Left Behind Games will introduce its first title in the spring. Left Behind: Eternal Forces is a real-time strategy game set in New York at the End of Days. Gamers will have to choose between the good (Tribulation Forces) and the evil (Global Community Peacekeepers).

“The characters go through the typical mental gymnastics during this time,” Mr. Lyndon says. “They think, ‘Is there a God?’ and ‘What does that mean to me?’ The characters think about eternal forces.”

The good-vs.-evil theme is at the heart of most successful video-game titles, says Mr. Lyndon, who before joining Left Behind Games worked on many mainstream game titles, including Madden NFL.

Mr. Lyndon says that if given the choice, game buyers will appreciate games with a positive moral message.

“You can preach to the choir — Christians — and sell a few games,” Mr. Lyndon says. “Or you can create something that appeals to everyone and sell a lot. Christian rock has done the same thing. The music that has a good beat is going to sell.”

The key to breaking into the mainstream market is getting titles made for TV platforms such as PlayStation and Xbox, which involves more complex partnerships and resources, Mr. Lyndon says.

Another strategy is making titles available at mass-market stores. Mr. Lyndon says he expects Wal-Mart — which has sold more than $100 million worth of Left Behind books — to carry the Left Behind games, creating a synergy that could transform the industry.

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