Monday, April 28, 2008

Videogames: Ratings, Profits and Players

One of the most significant trends in the past three years, not in numbers but in importance, is that the number of mature-rated videogames has decreased. In 2007, the Entertainment Software Ratings Board assigned only 6 percent of videogames a Mature rating.

In 2006, 8 percent of videogames were rated for mature audiences, while in 2005, 12 percent of games were stamped with an “M” on the box.

In terms of sales, in the twelve months between March 2007 and March 2008, three of the top 10 games were rated Mature: Call of Duty 4, Halo 3 and Assassin’s Creed. There were 17 games rated “M” from the top 100 games sold in that one year.

Ben Lutz, Au Gres freshman, suspects that since Halo 3 is part of a series, gamers are familiar with the title and that helped it sell better.

“The ending to Halo 2 was a disappointment,” said Lutz. “Having to wait for another release to see the ending of the story is the main reason the third game sold so well.”

Only three games in the top 20 console games of all time are rated “M” for mature audiences, and each of them belong to the Grand Theft Auto franchise. Half of this list belongs to two franchises that are rated “E” for everyone: the Super Mario series and Pokemon.

In 2006, only one game from the top 10, Gears of War, was rated Mature, while for the entire top 100 (like in 2007) there were 17 games rated Mature.

To look forward and guess which games will sell the best for 2008 is almost impossible, considering the recent releases of Grand Theft Auto IV and Mario Kart Wii, the upcoming release of Wii Fit, and the release of Super Smash Bros. Brawl in March. These four games are only taking into account the first half of the year.

The second-half of 2008 will boast sequels to popular franchises and can almost guarantee to sell more than their predecessor. These games include Metal Gear Solid 4, Gears of War 2, Fable 2, Killzone 2, and Resistance 2; all of which will most likely be rated Mature like their forerunners.

A trend shows that game sales has gone up in the past years also. Sales have soared so much, in fact, that the Entertainment Software Association reports that “US computer and video game software sales grew six percent in 2007 to $9.5 billion – more than tripling industry software sales since 1996.”

“Advertising is big for me,” said Lutz, who likes to see or even play the game before he buys it. “Word of mouth and reviews help, but if the company is well known people will probably go for it. A game is more likely to be sold if people do not feel like taking a risk when buying it.”

The sales of videogames are also closely monitored, especially ones with the mature rating given to it. Codes are in place that try to prevent the sales of Mature-rated games to those under 17 years old without the permission of a parent or guardian, and sales of games rated “Adult Only” are forbidden to those under 18 years old.

“I think the ratings system is more of a guideline,” said Lutz. “There are so many games you could take differently.”

The ESRB set up a Retail Council that would help educate and enforce these codes in November 2005, and consists of large chains such as Wal-Mart, Target and Best Buy. From November 2006 to November 2007, store enforcement of these codes has gone up by more than 10 percent.

Two years ago the Federal Trade Commission released results from a nationwide undercover shop survey which showed a decrease in sales of M-rated games to minors. In 2005, only 42 percent of shoppers were able to buy a mature-rated game, which is under half of the 85 percent that were able to purchase mature game in 2000.

The latest numbers from the FTC also say that more stores are providing information on the ratings to its shoppers and half of the stores’ cashiers ask the age of children who want to buy a mature-rated game.

“What do you really define as mature?” questions Lutz, an experienced gamer that has been exposed to many different degrees of violence in videogames. “There are other themes rated at a lower level.”

Parents do look at the ratings when choosing what is suitable for their children to play. For the past couple of years, parents, politicians and the media have argued that violent content leads to violent behavior, and studies have been conducted to show that both sides of the matter hold true in some circumstances.

“I am a pretty relaxed guy,” said Lutz about any anger issues he might experience from playing games. He says that he has never emulated anything he has seen or performed while gaming.

“Unless aliens attack Earth, I don’t plan on it.”

It was only three years ago that the ESRB voluntarily added a new rating to its system, “E10+,” which means that the game may be suitable for everyone over the age of 10 years. This rating was introduced so consumers could make easier decisions on what games were more suitable for their family.

While such focus is strongly on the youth members of the gaming community, such gamers are not the ones that hold a majority. The ESA found in their 2006 “Essential Facts” report that the average age of a gamer is 33 years old, and that there are almost as many gamers over the age of 50 than there are gamers under the age of 18.

While the stereotypical image of a gamer may be a teenage male, that idea is challenged by the fact that there are more women over the age of 18 playing videogames than there are males 17 years old or younger.

Gamers are also not entirely fixated to their controllers, either. The ESA report also says that “79 percent of game players of all ages report exercising or playing sports an average of 20 hours a month.”