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Do you buy your electronic games at Wal-Mart? Never mind, doesn't matter. The retail games you buy at GameStop or Best Buy or online are the games Wal-Mart has decided you can buy.
Publisher sales reps inform Wal-Mart buyers of games in development; the games' subjects, titles, artwork and packaging are vetted and sometimes vetoed by Wal-Mart. If Wal-Mart tells a top-end publisher it won't carry a certain game, the publisher kills that game. In short, every triple-A game sold at retail in North America is managed start to finish, top to bottom, with the publisher's gaze fixed squarely on Wal-Mart, and no other.
But how long will that last?
By consolidating many manufacturing sources and optimizing its supply chain, Wal-Mart has shifted the center of business power from manufacturing to retail. This has forced most American industries to move offshore, but the software business, and electronic games in particular, have been less affected this way. Though selected art resources are increasingly outsourced to India and Southeast Asia, games are largely still produced in relatively small, integral domestic groups. Is this because North American creators understand their audience better than overseas coders? Because the creators here are better skilled? Or is it simply that Wal-Mart customers, who unfailingly seek the lowest prices for food and appliances and shampoo and garden hoses, will still pay high prices for top-line computer games?
For whatever reason, the game business has so far resisted most competition from lower-wage workers overseas. Compared to physical manufacturing, software profit margins remain comfortable and can support professional-class salaries. Yet make no mistake, Wal-Mart's effect remains powerful.
Tom Gilleland, with the indie developer BeachWare (which has sold casino games through Wal-Mart), says, "Wal-Mart is working from a very strong position that enables them to dictate the content of their software product line. Wal-Mart tells the distributor/publishers what they want, and the distributor/publisher goes and finds it, or has a developer make it. They certainly know what their customers want, or they wouldn't have been so successful. They also have a very complicated situation in terms of public image, so they avoid controversial products."
Thus, because of the company's influence, nowadays it is practically impossible to market a game that contains nudity. "We're not going to carry any software with any vulgarity or nudity - we're just not going to do it," Wal-Mart spokesman Tom Williams told Reuters in October 2002.
Developers have produced "special Wal-Mart editions" of some games, such as Duke Nukem 3D and Blood, that delete the two principal bugaboos, nudity and excessive gore. Other developers just sanitize their games across the board. As a Ritual Entertainment developer remarked in an online chat promoting their Heavy Metal: F.A.K.K. 2 game (2000), "There's not much nudity other than statues. Wal-Mart is picky about that. When you have to decide between feeding your family or putting nudity in the game, you choose food."
For the U.S. version of Giants: Citizen Kabuto (2000), Planet Moon put a bikini top on Delphi, the game's topless sea-nymph heroine, after Wal-Mart refused to carry the seminude version. In an effort to gain a Teen rating from the Electronic Software Ratings Board (ESRB), Planet Moon also toned down the language and changed the red blood to green - but the game got a Mature rating anyway. (Soon afterward, a patch that removed the changes mysteriously appeared online.)