Spot On: Christian game makers rise to new heights

New studios, growing sales, and bigger budgets mean Christian developers are inching toward the big time--with a somewhat tenuous identity.

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It must be thousands of times a day that holy warriors use the combined forces of prayer and giant hammers to bring the hurt to the forces of evil--but while most gamers are only interested in smiting the devil to get that coveted suit of rare armor, a growing sector of the games industry is taking it a bit further. These new Christian gaming studios are taking the religious undertones of games like Diablo II and bringing them to the forefront of the gaming experience.

For example, in Eternal War: Shadows of Light from Two Guy's Software, players are sent by God to clear out the demons in the mind of a suicidal teenager. Instead of killing the demons, however, main character Mike banishes them in a burst of light. Even more explicit in its religious leanings is Ominous Horizons from developer N'Lightning. The game's story follows a paladin who must recover Gutenberg's Bible and repair his printing press so, as the game's Web site puts it, "the Word of God will be made available to all." The player never kills anybody--smitten forces of evil fall to their knees and pray. Quite a bit different from slaughtering hordes of hell spawn in Painkiller, isn't it?

As unappealing as they might sound to some, Christian games have been posting growing sales numbers in recent years and the industry has received noticeable press. MSNBC, The Boston Globe, the Houston Chronicle, and even The Wall Street Journal have run articles on religious games. Developers are planning more and more Christian titles. And with budgets that are coming closer to being on par with the mainstream industry, these games are even starting to look like their mainstream counterparts.

The Christian Broadcasting Network estimates that one percent of the video games industry is devoted to Christian gaming. That may not seem like much, but with the games industry approaching $10 billion in revenue in the US alone, one percent can be a sizable slice. Analysts concur, estimating the Christian games market to be between $100-200 million.

Yet Christian video games can be hard to define. Says Bill Bean of recently formed studio Digital Praise: "We want to create a game that is fun to play and has a good, positive message; something that has a clear redemptive message." But the studio's Adventures in Odyssey games will be much different from, say, Catechumen (shown above), where Christian warriors battle against Roman soldiers.

Even so, Bean believes that they all fall under the same umbrella. There are varying levels of Christian games, according to Bean. At one end of the spectrum are "soft" games, or games anybody might have played in elementary school that teach Christian morals without any religious references. At the other end are the "strong" games, games such at Catechumen, which sometimes feature overt violence against nonbelievers. Digital Praise's games would fall somewhere in the middle under "subtle," as they include references to scripture and Jesus, but they focus more on a positive message.

Such a spectrum of Christian gaming goes all the way back to the first recognizable Christian developer: Wisdom Tree. The company started making unlicensed games for the NES back in 1989, usually just "skinning" preexisting games to give them a Christian slant. Some Wisdom Tree games would give Bible quizzes to gain special items or just flash scripture on the screen, while others were more subtle, simply adding biblical themes.

(Wisdom tree actually holds a number of odd records concerning video games: Sunday Funday, released in 1995, was the last NES game released in the US, and Super Noah's Ark 3D, a reskin of Wolfenstein 3D, was the only unlicensed SNES game ever made.)

Tim Emmerich, creator of Christian adventure game Jarod's Journey, agrees with Bean's assessment of the games industry. "We are unified by our belief in Christ. As you can imagine, we have quite a variety of specific goals, but all in general want to glorify God through the abilities He has given us."

Emmerich is the organizer of the Christian Game Developers Conference (CGDC), the premiere event for Christian game developers. The conference, held in Oregon and scheduled for July 30-31, is entering its third straight year.

"I had started my game in 1998 and would find another development individual or team about every other month," explains Emmerich. "So, it was obvious that there was a community--and that community needed encouragement and growth."

In 2002, the CGDC had 30 attendees; in 2003 it had 90. Emmerich said he expects groups from England and Australia, as well as a large contingent from Canada, to attend this year's event. Several Christian developers will be announcing new titles at this year's event. Emmerich believes that the growth of the conference over the last few years reflects the growth of the industry. "The quantity of titles has increased steadily, probably growing at 25 to 30 percent. And I'm still learning of more and more teams about ready to ship a project or working on one."

The industry is without a doubt growing. But it is also quickly maturing beyond a couple of guys creating games in their garage. Digital Praise is a landmark case in this regard: It is the first Christian developer to include team members that have large amounts of experience in the secular market. CTO and cofounder Peter Fokos has more than 20 years of experience under his belt creating elementary school classics Carmen Sandiego, Reader Rabbit, and Oregon Trail. Not a bad resume, especially when you add that he also worked on Mechwarrior while he was a game developer at Activision.

According to Bean, when The Learning Company joined edutainment software powerhouse Riverdeep, Fokos brought his entire team, including writers, programmers, and engineers, to Digital Praise. Armed with a recognizable license, including writers and actors from the radio show (one of which they brought out of a four-year retirement), Digital Praise has the ability to create a top-quality game.

But even if Digital Praise does manage to create an excellent game, it will still be in the relatively small children's market. However, Bean is optimistic about the ability of Christian games to hit the big times. "Fundamentally, they have to be fun to play," says Bean. "Whether under a major brand or a private effort, games that are fun to play are played." Emmerich does not seem too concerned either. When asked about the potential for the Christian games industry, he simply replied: "With God, all things are possible."

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