Fun with less sex, violence

Morality: Alarmed by the explicit nature of video games, Christians produce milder ones that still attract players.

January 01, 2004|By Erika D. Smith | Erika D. Smith,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

It didn't come in a vision. It wasn't the promise of a spiritual quest.

No, Shawn Nicholson's motivations were nothing so unworldly.

It was plain, old disgust that drove the 26-year-old from his cushy, video-game programming job in Texas to the uncertain road of a Christian game developer in Tallmadge, Ohio. It was the virtual violence and sexually explicit characters.

Nicholson had had enough.

And he isn't alone.

Nicholson is part of a new breed of Atari-generation programmers who have followed their morals to a sprouting side industry - Christian video games.

But it's not what you think, Nicholson and his brethren say. No Bible trivia, Good Book-wielding warriors or Jesus role-playing games. Only quality titles earn their creators' admission to a loosely organized group of Christian game developers.

"In order for games to succeed, they need to be high quality," said Ralph Bagley, chief executive of N'Lightning Software Development, perhaps the most successful Christian game company. "The last thing the gamer wants when he walks in to buy a game is to be preached at. It's a game first."

The idea, they say, is to create morally sound alternatives to the wave of explicit video games such as Grand Theft Auto III. Only games with slick graphics, complex story lines and riveting action can compete, Bagley said.

Christian games don't have much of the market now; the $100 million in annual sales barely registers on the radar. But Bagley and others say that's about to change as the industry expands from its core audience of Christian bookstores.

The possibilities for profit are endless.

In 2001 and 2002, the video game industry pulled in more dollars than Hollywood. Gaming hardware and software made $9.4 billion domestically in 2001, while U.S. movie box office sales totaled $8.5 billion, according to the market research firm NPD Group Inc. That same year, the music industry made $13.7 billion domestically.

In 2002, worldwide sales of video games reached a record $16 billion. Analysts expected that figure will grow to $18.5 billion by the end of 2003.

"If anything, I think we're about to ride a wave," Nicholson said.

NEI, or Nicholson Entertainment Inc., has a long way to go before its game, Spirits, is ready to sell. The rendering of some characters is unfinished and the background is too dark, Nicholson said from the home he shares with his wife, children, sister and her family.

Nicholson, a veteran of software giant Acclaim Entertainment, has done a lot of the work on Spirits himself. He has 15 employees, all of whom are working without pay until the company can secure operating capital for the next 26 months.

"There's still a massive amount of work to be done," he said. Spirits, when it's finished, will be a story-based, action-adventure game targeted at teens and young adults.

The main character is David, a "discerner of spirits" who can call on angels to kill a family of demons infesting Diamond, Ohio. The demons live to "destroy any good work that would bring glory to God." David also must find his friend, the town pastor, who is missing.

Jim Colledge, pastor of Hudson Community Chapel in Hudson of Ohio, said he's concerned that games like Spirits just put a religious spin on secular violence.

"Does it teach biblical principles in a way that is consistent with the authority of the Bible?" the evangelical conservative asked. "If so, that's great."

Nicholson said he knows that some Christians might find the game disturbing because of the demons. But he said Spirits strikes the right balance between religion and gameplay.

"The game is spiritual warfare," he said.

With the right investments, Nicholson said, his team could finish Spirits in about 18 months and market the game eight months later. But it will cost $3 million to do that, two-thirds of which will go toward development.

The cost is hefty because Spirits, unlike most Christian games, is being developed for Microsoft's Xbox console. It's much cheaper and easier to develop games for personal computers, but the return is much greater in the console market.

A PC title that sells 100,000 copies is considered a success, while low-end sales figures for consoles start around 750,000. In 2002, the top three console makers sold 30 million units. Sony's PlayStations had 74 percent of the market that year, while Nintendo had 14 percent with the GameCube and Microsoft had 12 percent with its Xbox, according to the research firm Screen Digest. But researchers expected Nintendo and Microsoft to catch up to Sony in 2003.

West Nihei, editor in chief of GamePro magazine, said Christian game developers would make more money if they created titles for consoles. But, he said, it's not impossible to make a profit in the PC market.

N'Lightning's Ominous Horizons and Catechumen have proved that. The Oregon company has sold more than 30,000 copies of the former and 70,000 copies of the latter.

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