Mario Party is not Meet the Spartans

In a recent New York Times piece, Seth Schiesel looks at 2007’s top-selling video games and finds that social and easy-to-pick-up titles are crowding out more complex and critically acclaimed stuff. His basic point — as anyone who has played Wii Tennis at a party could tell you — is pretty reasonable:

Paradoxically, at a moment when technology allows designers to create ever more complex and realistic single-player fantasies, the growth in the now $18 billion gaming market is in simple, user-friendly experiences that families and friends can enjoy together. …Put another way, it may be a sign of the industry’s nascent maturity that as video games become more popular than ever, hard-core gamers and the old-school critics who represent them are becoming an ever smaller part of the audience.

But taking a closer look at the numbers, his argument starts to break down.

Here are the top 10 games of 2007, via Kotaku:

1. Halo 3 (Xbox 360) – 4,820,000
2. Wii Play with Remote (Wii) – 4,120,000
3. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (Xbox 360) – 3,040,000
4. Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock (PS2) – 2,720,000
5. Super Mario Galaxy (Wii) – 2,520,000
6. Pokemon Diamond (DS) – 2,480,000
7. Madden NFL 08 (PS2) – 1,900,000
8. Guitar Hero II (PS2) – 1,890,000
9. Assassin’s Creed (Xbox 360) – 1,870,000
10. Mario Party 8 (Wii) – 1,820,000

Pokemon Diamond doesn’t really apply to his thesis because kids are always nuts for new Pokemon games; likewise with Madden, which is a perennial best-seller (thanks to the Guys Rain Man Gene). Before it was released, Halo 3 — the very top seller, mind you — had hard-core gamers and critics salivating over every screen shot and nugget of information about new weapons. Call of Duty 4 has a Metacritic score of 94 (I’m not a fan of Metacritic, but that’s what Schiesel uses to define what’s “critically acclaimed”), and intense first-person shooters are hardly the stuff of casual and family gamers. Assassin’s Creed, as Schiesel notes, is a one-player adventure game.

So basically he’s talking about Wii Play, Super Mario Galaxy, Guitar Hero II and III, and Mario Party 8. But Mario Galaxy is also a one-player game, and it got a 97 rating on Metacritic. And critics knocked Guitar Hero III for being too difficult — especially given the mass audience it’s attracting — so I’m not even sure that applies.

Right, so now we’re down to Wii Play, Guitar Hero II, and Mario Party 8. Now, the Wii was the top-selling home console of the year, with 6.3 million sold. Plus Wii Play was basically a $10 add-on when you bought an extra Wii controller, which all those millions of people had to do if they wanted to play with their friends and families.

What the top 10 list really seems to show, then, is that hardcore gamers (including Madden fans and Pokemon kiddies) still buy the most games, and that most Wii buyers were content to play Wii Sports, which comes with the system, and Wii Play when they needed a second controller.

Schiesel’s piece has a bigger hole in it. He tries to make the leap that as the mass market takes over, critics are becoming marginalized:

That is not so unusual in other media. In most forms of entertainment there is a divide between what is popular with the masses and what is popular with the critics. Plenty of films get rave reviews but never make it past the art houses. Plenty of blockbusters are panned.

His main support for this is the absence on the top 10 list of atmospheric shooter BioShock, the ambitious sci-fi role-playing-game Mass Effect, and a couple of other “acclaimed” titles. Again, the numbers bely the argument.

Mass Effect sold 1.6 million copies around the world in 2007 (in less than two months!); being conservative, let’s say 800,000 of those were sold in the U.S. BioShock sold 490,000 in its first month, and according to market analysis site Seeking Alpha, it shipped 2 million copies total; again conservatively, let’s say that means 1 million copies sold in the U.S. Sure, they might have missed the top-10 list, but those are pretty strong sales for supposedly “complex” games.

Compare BioShock’s success to an “art house” movie: No Country for Old Men. For the Coen Brothers film to have had the same relative success compared to the top-grossing movie of 2007 — Spider-Man 3, at $337 million — as BioShock had compared to the top-selling game, the movie would had to have grossed $70 million instead of $42 million. There Will Be Blood would needed to have grossed $56 million instead of $22 million to match Mass Effect’s relative success.

So in terms of sales, Schiesel’s critics’ picks are actually doing twice as well as their film counterparts. But even that doesn’t tell the whole story.

Take a look at the 10 best-selling games from 2006:

1. PS2 Madden 07 – 2.8 m
2. NDS New Super Mario Bros. – 2.0 m
3. 360 Gears of War- 1.8 mm
4. PS2 Kingdom Hearts II – 1.7 m
5. PS2 Guitar Hero 2 – 1.3 mm
6. PS2 Final Fantasy XII – 1.3 mm
7. NDS Brain Age – 1.1 m
8. 360 Madden 07 – 1.1mm
9. 360 Ghost Recon – 1.0 m
10. PS2 NCAA Football 07 – 1.0 mm

For one thing, the basic mix is about the same as 2007’s list. Gears of War is like Halo 3, Ghost Recon is like Call of Duty 4; Brain Age and Super Mario Bros. are like Wii Play and Mario Party. But more importantly, maybe BioShock and Mass Effect didn’t make the 2007 list — but they’ve sold as well or nearly as well as half of 2006’s top 10. They didn’t miss 2007’s top 10 because fewer people are buying complex games. They missed out because more people are buying more games of all kinds — including critics favorites.

Schiesel writes, “There is hardly a question that two years ago all of those games [Mass Effect, BioShock, The Orange Box] would have made the list.” But of course that’s in question. Shadow of the Colossus, Psychonauts, Okami — there’s a long list of recent critical darlings that were commercial busts. His art house games are doing so well now because a rising tide is lifting all games.

There’s a more fundamental problem in Schiesel’s attempt to delineate a creative/critical hierarchy of video games. As I’ve argued before, video games have a long way to go before we can truly compare them to movies, TV, books, etc. (Some people argue we shouldn’t compare them to other media at all, but leave that aside for now.) For all their ambition, BioShock and Mass Effect don’t change that reality (exactly how they fall short is a topic for future posts). Moreover, a game like God of War II — another of Schiesel’s poster titles for missing the top 10 — is at best similar to a high-quality B-movie, not equivalent to a P.T. Anderson or Michel Gondry film.

Even as Schiesel is greatly overestimating the “high end” of games, he’s doing something worse to the games at the other end of his imagined hierarchy. He suggests that the success of mass-market titles is a sign that video games are becoming like other media, which have “a highly sophisticated cognoscenti whose tastes have little to do with the mass audiences that still drive those markets.” But there’s a huge difference between lowbrow movies and mass-market video games. Game “critics” don’t like Mario Party 8 because it’s essentially the same as the other seven Mario Parties (never mind that it’ll be new to all those Wii owners who haven’t played video games since Pac-Man or NES). Movie critics hate Meet the Spartans because it’s bad comedy, bad satire, full of bad gay jokes, and otherwise creatively bankrupt.

Mario Party 8 is not Meet the Spartans. Simple, even derivative gameplay in a game that is narrative-free and purely about the experience of playing can’t be compared to lowbrow narrative art. Notice that Schiesel doesn’t address games like Super Mario Galaxy and Rock Band — mass hits that are also critically acclaimed yet have no “high-art” ambition. Or take a game like Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune — a critically hailed action-adventure game. I stopped playing after about half an hour partly because the older explorer guiding me on my jungle trip kept making sexist comments. I’m sure he has a change of heart later in the game after the female reporter character busts some heads, but I didn’t want to hear any more of his nonsense before that change. How does that fit into Schiesel’s hierarchy?

What emerges from his scattershot analysis is the confusion and uncertainty that are part of what’s stunting game criticism — and games themselves. There’s an assumption that all of these games somehow lie on the same spectrum and can be evaluated in the same terms. BioShock and Mass Effect are by default put on one end of the spectrum because of their ambitious worlds and dialogue — regardless of whether the dialogue and ideas are actually well-crafted, unique and intelligent. The quality of their non-gameplay aspects is almost irrelevant; what seems to be important is that those aspects exist at all. Meanwhile games without those qualities, like Mario games, puzzle games, racing games are alternately revered and slimed, depending on — well, it’s not clear on what, exactly.

All the top 10 list really tells us is that lots more people are playing and buying games of all kinds. All Schiesel’s piece really tells us is that we still don’t know exactly how to think about and evaluate the immensely varied world of video games.

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