April 17th, 2006

How Wal-Mart Designs the Games You Play

The anti-game conspiracy theories coming out of Miami and elsewhere these days generally go something like this: video game retailers don't care if they push sex and violence at children as long as the cash registers keep ringing.

That formula, however, conveniently ignores the impact that mega-retailer Wal-Mart's family-friendly policy has had on video game content in recent years. The latest issue of The Escapist examines the profound - and in some ways rather scary - amount of influence that founder Sam Walton's company has on the games we buy.

Increasingly, Wal-Mart's market dominance has led to a shift in creative control over video game content from the hands of developers to those of the giant retailer. While no doubt frustrating to game designers, hard business facts are at play. If the largest chain of stores in the world won't carry a game, is it worth making? Author Charles Fishman, dubs this the The Wal-Mart Effect, and chose that term as the title for his new book.

Initially, game companies reacted to Wal-Mart's growing influence by publishing alternative versions of certain games. Wal-Mart friendly editions were sanitized in order to meet the family values standard espoused by the retail monolith. Duke Nukem 3D & Blood had the naughtiest bits removed, for example. Heavy Metal: F.A.K.K 2 was designed from the ground up with the idea of grabbing Wal-Mart shelf space. The U.S. version of Giants: Citizen Kabuto had some minor nudity covered up before Wal-Mart would even consider carrying it.

Wal-Mart's influence, however, hasn't been just on content nor has it always been pernicious. Remember the days of huge PC game boxes, when consumers received 90% air, along with a tiny manual & CD-ROM? Wasted space, and only Wal-Mart was able to do something about it. The company pressured game publishers to downsize the boxes in an effort to cram more titles onto its shelves. The result was a boon not only for retailers, but for the environment as well, since the amount of packaging needed was reduced. Game publishers made out okay on the deal too, since smaller boxes cost less.
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