People in the industry tend to make us all believe that everybody, including women, young children and the elderly, are rattling their videogame controllers these days. Nintendo was the first console manufacturer who specifically tended to the mainstream market, and all the rest followed. But approximately six years after the launch of Nintendo’s DS, and three years after the release of the even more mainstream-oriented Wii home console, games are not nearly as mainstream as people in the industry want to make us all believe. Sure, they’ve become more mainstream. But not as much as you might think.
We, the press in general, have greatly helped out in cultivating the games-gone-mainstream myth. We’ve extensively covered the advent of EyeToy games, Buzz! quizzes, the DS, brain games, the Wii, the fitness game craze, and so on. And we’ve always let videogame business types run their numbers game without taking a good look at the data. For instance, success in the videogame industry has always been defined through revenue numbers. There’s Price Waterhouse Coopers’ well-published estimate that the worldwide videogame industry was worth $52.5 billion in 2009, and will grow to $86.8 billion in 2014. When you read success stories about a certain videogame or a console, the focus is almost always on total revenue generated during a certain period, like first-week sales statements of popular properties, or mentions in annual revenue reports.
They’re mightily relevant numbers when you are trying to make money, in one way or another, from the sale of videogames. They state the fact that the videogame industry is raking in money, so it’s a good industry to be in, right? But those sales numbers do not imply that half of the world is playing videogames these days. It’s not even close.
One easily refutable myth, for example, is the one where the videogame industry is considered larger than the movie industry. It rings true when you only compare it to global box office sales of movies, which amounted to only $29.9 billion in 2009, according to the Motion Picture Association of America. But it’s a much fairer comparison if you add DVD sales to that number: global sales of packaged film media in 2009 were $33 billion, according to consultancy firm Strategy Analytics. The worldwide movie industry, by that standard, is worth $62.9 billion at the moment. That’s 10 billion dollars larger than the videogame industry.
You can’t even consider the sales boom of videogame consoles as evidence that videogames have gone mainstream. The total sales figure for the PlayStation 2, the most successful videogame console to date, wasn’t such a big leap in comparison to the total sales its predecessor generated. The first PlayStation sold 102 million units over its twelve-year lifespan. The PlayStation 2 slid 146 million times on store counters all over the world. That’s less than fifty percent growth: an excellent growth rate, but not the leap that other historical consoles have made over their predecessors. The first PlayStation sold more than double the amount of units the Super NES, which was the most popular console at its time, shipped during the first half of the nineties. The precursor to that console, the iconic NES, shipped approximately 62 million units during its lifecycle, which was again at least double the amount of Atari VCSes sold during the life of that console.
Comparing the unit sales of the PlayStation 3 and its present-generation counterparts to those of another competitor on the home entertainment market, the DVD player, really puts things into perspective. Worldwide DVD player sales, according to marketing consultancy firm Growth for Knowledge, amount to more than 100 million units annually. In comparison, the three current-gen consoles have sold 153.8 million units in their lifetime to date (the Wii leading with 74 million units, followed by the Xbox 360’s 41.7 million and trailed by the PS3, with 38.1 million consoles sold). That means that 1.5 average years of DVD player unit sales outnumber the total number of units sold of all current gen game consoles.
In all fairness, DVD sales are sharply declining, and videogame sales have been on the rise for years. But even total revenues are not really a relevant measure for mainstream success. The only honest way to assess whether or not a game, a movie or any other piece of popular fiction has reached a mainstream audience, is by considering its reach: how many consumers have enjoyed it? A clear picture of this reach is provided by unit sales. By that standard, popular videogames are not nearly as “mainstream” as successful movies are.
Compare the launch of Grand Theft Auto IV in 2008 to the opening weekend of Jon Favreau’s Iron Man at the box office. GTA IV launched a few days prior to Iron Man‘s theatrical release, and industry types were concerned that the game would hurt the movie’s sales; many potential movie visitors would be at home, having reached the McReary Brothers missions, instead of at the movies. The fear wasn’t exactly unfounded. The game made $310 million during its first day, compared to the $38.7 million the movie hauled in globally during its first day in theaters. But divide those numbers by the unit price, and you get a very different picture. Considering an average theater ticket price of $7.18 in 2008, about 5.4 million people saw Iron Man the first day in theaters. Over the course of its theatrical run, that number ran up to 81 million viewers. Grand Theft Auto IV, by comparison, reached 3.5 million people on its first day of sales (assuming $60 pricepoint), and 15 million people in its lifecycle. This estimate doesn’t include used game sales or playing a friend’s copy of the game, but we’re also not including DVD or pay-per-view revenue with Iron Man. For a rough estimate, 81 million viewers is way more than 15 million.
Another example? What about the sales of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, last year, with the box-office success of James Cameron’s Avatar. Modern Warfare 2 made a whopping $ 1 billion in sales, while Avatar grossed $2.73 billion. Divide this by the average unit price of respectively $60 and $7.95 (which is conservative, considering many saw the film in 3D), and you have 343 million people who have watched the movie, while only around 17 million people have played the game.
One of the main reasons why movies are considered a mainstream medium is that the public has relatively inexpensive access to them. That’s not the case with games. You have to buy a console or a gaming-worthy PC in order to run them, and then you have to cough up $40 to $70 for the game itself. The high unit price implies larger revenues, so there’s a certain irony to the videogame industry’s claims, mostly backed by total revenue numbers, that videogames have become mainstream. The industry still thrives on a small number of gamers who pay large sums of money to cultivate their hobby.
Because here’s another thing that industry experts all agree on: casual gamers don’t buy games. Not many, at least. They buy one game, maybe two or three, and keep playing them over and over again. Casual game publishers aim for the so-called “evergreen” effect (they can be popular years after their release and always make money), while all the hype concerns their hardcore counterparts. Casual players don’t go for thrills; their games are time wasters and snack experiences. They sink into their Sims characters for hours at a time, compulsively play Tetris or Bejeweled, or step on their Wii Fit balance board. It doesn’t have a purpose. They’re not after posting PlayStation Trophies or their Xbox Gamerscore on their Facebook account for everyone to see. They just grab something to keep them busy when they’re bored.
So what does that make core gamers? People with an expensive hobby, nothing else. Try raking up a conversation at a party about Grand Theft Auto IV and its wry commentary on the American Dream, or how much BioShock 2‘s finale sucked. One, maximum two, people will know what the hell you’re talking about. Bring up Avatar, and you’ll find much more proof of recognition. Gaming culture has little to no resonance in mainstream culture, and the very numbers that are used to claim gaming’s mainstream breakthrough prove it. We’re still considered freaks, who cough up hundreds of dollars annually to make digital puppets on a screen fight each other. Maybe they’re right. Maybe we are freaks.
The important question is: why should we care? I like being part of something that isn’t mainstream. And I never really bought that “everybody games” spiel in the first place.
Ronald Meeus is a freelance writer residing in a small town near Brussels, Belgium. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org