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The Death of 'Teen'
Posted on Friday, February 3 2012 @ 08:48:29 Eastern

One brisk August day in 1992, a former amusement park manufacturer turned game publisher rolled a brand new cabinet into video arcades across America. It was a two-player black upright, bound with bright red bordering and sporting a generic combat graphic emblazoned on the wood siding. As commercial electricity coursed through the cabinet’s wiring for the first time, a cathode ray tube began firing electrons one line at a time against a fluorescent screen, painting a pixilated logo into existence on the monitor. From the speakers, a deep announcing voice boomed out to join the hundreds of sirens, bleeps, and explosions from similar cabinets lining the arcade hall.

And then a twelve-year old child, unaware that his actions would come to define an entire industry and its customers for over a decade, tore out the gore-covered spine of his opponent and watched blood drip down the vertibrae and onto the freshly shucked corpse crumpled at his feet.

The cabinet’s marquee, backlit by two bulbs, read brightly against the ambiance of the arcade hall: Mortal Kombat.

Two months later, Konami released Lethal Enforcers, an arcade light gun game in which the player, a police officer on break at the local donut shop, receives a distress call and proceeds to kill more criminals, Triad gang members, militant soldiers, and drug dealers than Jack Bauer and Robocop combined. One DAY after that, Sega released Night Trap, a live-action video game in which the player saves female slumber party participants from Augers and Vampires by triggering traps. At night. Mortal Kombat and Lethal Enforcers would soon also make their way to home consoles.

These three games, two violent and one not really trying as hard as it could have, were almost single-handedly responsible for the US Senate hearings on video game violence in 1992 and 1993. During the December 9th hearings in 1993, Joseph Lieberman denounced Night trap as a disgusting, violent game that encouraged players to “trap and kill women,” cementing his place in video game political history as one of the first politicians to have no understanding of the issues he was campaigning against.

The video game industry teetered at a precipice. And then John Carmack, possibly furious at Wolfenstein’s absence from the hearings despite predating Mortal Kombat by three months, said, “Boy, this would be a great time to unleash that game about shooting thousands of demons in Hell.” On December 10th, 1993, Doom was released. Nine months later, the ESRB was established to oversee video game content ratings.

It wasn’t until the 32-bit era, however, that the effect of ESRB ratings on game design moved to the forefront. With the ability to express violence becoming less and less hardware-restricted, a game’s target rating became part of every early-stage design document. In a similar vein to PG-13 blockbusters, ‘Teen’ became the de facto standard for big budget console games that wanted the benefits of combat-based gameplay and adult story elements but were afraid to alienate a major portion of their largely under 18 audience (PC gamers, a traditionally much older audience, were never particularly impacted by ESRB activities). This had the somewhat unintended consequence of turning the ‘Mature’ rating into a call sign for poor quality and exploitative gameplay.

Then came Halo. Is there anything this freaking game didn’t do? In our context, it proved that a ‘Mature’ game could launch as a flagship property and be wildly successful. Whether gamers were getting older or parents more jaded, the success of Halo was a watershed moment in publishers’ understanding of how ratings affected sales.

These days, the ESRB is supposed to promote education and understanding about video games. But in public appearances, they pretty much act as apologists for mature games. Their argument is less “mature games have their place” and more “the majority of games are not rated mature please ignore those bad mature games.” One of their favorite statistics to bandy about in interviews is the percentage of rated games that receive a ‘Mature’ rating. Here are copies of their ‘Rating Category Breakdown’ report for 2010 and 2011.

http://i34.photobucket.com/albums/d101/sliverslash/ESRBratings.jpg

Compelling data. Let’s say that half the games rated in 2010 and half rated in 2011 were actually released in 2011. That makes 1,485 games released in 2011, with 23.2% rated ‘Teen’ and 6.8% rated ‘Mature’. With publishing ratios like those, ‘Teen’ games will be outselling ‘Mature’ games until our sun becomes something Interstellar Santa stuffs in the stockings of Milky Way alien spawn.

Except ‘Mature’ games already outsell ‘Teen’ games in the United States.

Among the top 100 games, they’ve been doing it for half a decade:

http://i34.photobucket.com/albums/d101/sliverslash/Graph1VGRate.jpg
Data source: VGChartz.com

What is startling about this trend is not that ‘Mature’ games are selling more, but the RATE at which 'Mature' games are capturing market share. In 2006, ‘Mature’ games owned 19.6% of the top 100 software sales and ‘Teen’ games owned 22.2%. Six years later, ‘Mature’ market share has more than DOUBLED to 40.6%, while ‘Teen’ game sales have fallen by over half to 9.3%, buoyed up from 7.4% in 2010 by the release of Uncharted 3 and Batman: Arkham City.

“Not so fast, assface! All those ‘Mature’ game sales are coming from two or three big-name games. The majority of games on that top 100 list are still ‘Teen’!”

That’s a great point, Mr. Strawman. Let’s look at only the count of top 100-selling software, instead:
                http://i34.photobucket.com/albums/d101/sliverslash/Graph2VGRate.jpg
Data source: VGChartz.com

Surprise! Not only are ‘Mature’ games outselling ‘Teen’ games, but publishers are investing in more AAA ‘Mature’ games than ever before.

“Fine, dickhead! Then the reverse is true: All those ‘Mature’ games are making the sales number look higher, but on a per-game basis, ‘Teen’ games still outsell ‘Mature’ games!”

Hi-yah:
                http://i34.photobucket.com/albums/d101/sliverslash/Graph3VGRate.jpg
Data source: VGChartz.com

So not only are there more ‘Mature’ games, but on average these games are more profitable than ‘Teen’ games. Yikes.

“Fuck you, scrotumjowls! Then this entire comparison is worthless, because the top 100 games only represent a small portion of total software sales!”

Wrong again… sort of. In 2011, VGChartz estimated total US software sales to be 291.85 million units. At 115.19 million units, the top 100 games make up 39.5% of the total games market, with the other estimated 1,300 games making up the remainder (I would expect that this number overestimates the total games that VGChartz actually forecasts). Not exactly an insignificant chunk of the market.

However, because VGChartz’ top 100 software list counts a release on each console as a separate game, we are more likely to see big releases appear multiple times (once for PS3 and once for Xbox360); this magnifies the impact of AAA titles while pushing others off the list. In fact, our top 100 software list in 2011 is composed of just 78 unique games due to this double-counting. We can use 2010 data from the NPD group, published by the ESA, to view the entire game marketplace and confirm that the trend is still applicable, albeit watered-down:
                http://i34.photobucket.com/albums/d101/sliverslash/NPDGroup.jpg

Seeing the discrepancy between total market and top 100 numbers, it is important to recognize what makes the top 100 list so much more interesting to look at: these are the games receiving the most development and marketing dollars per year. No publisher is going to arbitrarily accept whatever rating the ESRB spits out—if a top 100 game is rated ‘Mature’, it is rated so because the publisher believes that this will help to increase sales.

One of the best ways to see the intentional trend towards ‘Mature’ games is to look at major franchises and how their ratings have shifted over time. Battlefield is the prime example: the franchise began with ‘Teen’ rated Battlefield 1942 in 2002 and stayed ‘Teen’ throughout all its major releases, including Battlefield 2 in 2005, Battlefield 2142 in 2006, Battlefield: Bad Company in 2008, and Battlefield 1943 in July 2009.

And then, in March 2010, came Battlefield: Bad Company 2. Releasing on the heels November 2009’s CoD: Modern Warfare 2, a competing, ‘Mature’ war FPS franchise that broke most major video game sales records on release, Bad Company 2 signaled a significant change in presentation for the Battlefield series. The game violence was ramped up to a ‘Mature’ rating, and the packaging was reworked to feature an imposing, heavily shadowed infantryman in the foreground, with the series’ signature vehicles taking a backseat. Battlefield 3 continued with both trends in its 2011 release.

In speaking of Call of Duty, the original began as a ‘Teen’ wartime FPS in 2003, continuing as such through Call of Duty 2 in 2006 and Call of Duty 3 in 2007. And then came Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare in 2008. The series bumped up the violence to ‘Mature’ and the packaging shifted from wartime murals to an imposing, heavily shadowed infantryman. The series has been ‘Mature’ ever since.

In fact, the only time we see a ‘Mature’ series lower its rating to ‘Teen’ is when a console franchise is being ported to handhelds (or in the case of a massive stylistic failure, as with Prince of Persia—in which the forced move to ‘Mature’ in 2004 robbed the game of its wondrous charm and added very little in return).

So if companies are pushing major ‘Mature’ title releases more than ever, why are consumers responding? This is, unfortunately, the much harder question to answer. The age old claim that “gamers are getting older” likely has some merit, but the data isn’t clear enough to make a judgment. For example, the ESA tells us that in 2011 the average game player is 37, with just 18% of gamers under the age of 18. However, these numbers are inclusive of ALL gaming and can’t be applied directly to the core consoles that compose our top 100 software list. How many of that number are 60 year olds playing Bookworm Adventures or Bejeweled on their Amiga smartphones?

Are Americans becoming more desensitized to violence, therefore in need of greater and more visceral quantities to stimulate them? Certainly the darling explanation for major media outlets, and we did see growth in ‘Mature’ games rated by the ESRB as a percent of the whole in 2011 vs. 2010. But two data points form a line, not a trend—the jury is still out on this one.

As a final attempt, let’s take one more slice of our ‘Mature’ vs. ‘Teen’ by release sales data, this time by major platform. We’ll take the percent excess sales of the average ‘Mature’ game vs. the average ‘Teen’ game: a rating above zero means that the average ‘Mature’ title on the platform sold better, and a rating below zero means that the average ‘Teen’ title sold better. A missing data point signifies that one or both type of game was not present on the top 100 list for that year:

http://i34.photobucket.com/albums/d101/sliverslash/Graph5VGRate.jpg
Data source: VGChartz.com

Now that is interesting. ‘Teen’ games performed better on the Wii, while ‘Mature’ games were superior on the PS3 and Xbox360. Could this imply something about differentiated user bases?

Unfortunately, the top 100 list becomes our enemy in this instance. The Wii is underperforming its compatriots in 2007 and 2009 because the entire Wii ‘Mature’ category contains a single game in both years. In 2007, the game is Resident Evil 4, Wii Edition, a title that had been released two years earlier on every major console. In 2009, the game was Call of Duty: Modern Warefare: Reflex Edition, a game that was released in conjunction with strictly superior product offerings on both the PS3 and Xbox360. Not really enough data to draw a strong conclusion.

And sadly, this is where the trail grows cold, at least for now. There are many reasons that the shift towards ‘Mature’ games might be happening, but to claim I had the answer would be to slap you in the face with argumentative phalluses. I can only say with certainty that this cultural shift is happening, HAS happened, and is almost certainly here to stay.

So I turn the question over to you: With games like Uncharted and Batman: Arkham City showing that it is possible to create a rich, uncompromising experience at a ‘Teen’ rating (frankly, the latter game is darker and more gruesome than most so-called ‘Mature’ titles), why do you think we are seeing this continued push towards the big ‘M’? Can you name any other franchises that have undergone the ‘Mature’ shuffle?
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