This fall, the Comparative Media Studies program and the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab are proud to welcome back Dr. Mia Consalvo as a visiting associate professor. GAMBIT researcher and communications director Geoffrey Long recently sat down with her to welcome her to campus and to discover what she plans to accomplish during her stay at MIT.
Geoffrey Long: First of all, welcome! Where are you coming from?
Mia Consalvo: I’m coming from Davis Square, but I most recently come from Ohio University’s School of Media Arts and Studies. I’m an associate professor there, and I teach classes in new media, media criticism and analysis, and videogame studies. I wrote a book with MIT Press in 2007 about cheating in videogames, and right now I have two big projects going. One is on the role of Japan in the formation of the game industry and its status now, and the other relates to casual games and casual game players and casual game player culture and those kinds of things.
GL: What stage are you in with these projects?
MC: I’ve written a few smaller pieces that have been articles or chapters for other things that are eventually going to be collected into a book. One of the pieces, which I wrote when I was here at MIT last summer as a visiting scholar, was on the business aspect of Japanese videogame industries and how they’re trying to push more for globalization.
Interestingly, even though Nintendo kind of resurrected the videogame industry in the 1980s after it went bust, and most Western kids grew up playing Nintendo, once Western companies got back up and going there was a decline in sales of Japanese games, so that now Japanese games aren’t quite as dominant in the West. In Japan, it’s still almost completely Japanese games on the top sellers list, but in North America and Europe it’s much more split, and you see Japanese companies trying to figure out how to get that global dominance back. They have plans for different kinds of localization, transnational products, those kinds of things.
GL: When you’re talking about the East and the West, you’re not talking about just Japan and the United States. What is the game sale breakdown like in the rest of the world?
MC: There are three major game markets that companies look at: North America, Europe (and mostly that’s Western Europe) and Japan. Korea has its own special thing with online games, but otherwise they’re kind of too small. North American bestseller lists are clearly mixed as to what games are made where, and Europe is the same. There are few local European products that wouldn’t sell somewhere else, like football games, and the Germans prefer PC games over console games, particularly strategy games.
In Japan, there’s been this dominance of Japanese companies. When I was there in 2005 for a few months, it took me a while to realize, looking at the bestseller lists, “Wait a minute, there are no Western games here!” There were a few, like Halo and The Sims, but it was almost completely dominated by Japanese game developers. Now, because of the downturn in the economy and the declining birth rate in Japan, they’ve seen some declines in their sales, and Japanese companies are more motivated to look globally for other markets.
GL: Why has the West had such a hard time getting into the Japanese bestseller lists?
MC: There are a few reasons. One is that globalization is challenging to do well, and if you have something that’s produced by natives and something that’s produced by foreign-born speakers, you’re going to have an advantage if you’re a company from that country. It’s not just language but things like interests in play styles and play difficulty and genres of games. I think the North American market has always been big enough, especially when combined with Europe, that some Western developers haven’t seen the need to try.
Another reason is that Japan is a lot more tightly organized in terms of distribution and advertising. In major Japanese videogame magazines, you rarely see an ad for a Western game. You can go online and find information if you’re really motivated to, but the Japanese market has what Mimi Ito calls the media mix–a lot of games are spun off from manga and anime and things like that, and the Western products don’t have those easy tie-ins.
A third reason is that some of the big, big games that might have the budget to cross over easily are things that don’t translate well, like the Madden games. First person shooters like Halo don’t go over well. The first Xbox did terribly. For the second one, Microsoft got smarter and got Hironobu Sakaguchi to do games for it. It’s getting better, but it’s still a tough nut to crack.
GL: How many copies have to move to get onto a Japanese bestseller chart versus an American bestseller chart?
MC: It depends on what chart you’re talking about, because NPD has their weekly releases, monthly, yearly and all time. Summer is an easier time to get on the charts due to the seasonal slowdown, but in both regions right before Christmas is the big time to sell stuff. You’re talking about at least several hundred thousand units to several million units in both markets. Japan is a smaller market in total size, but publishers there still expect similar numbers of units sold. When developers talk about a AAA title, they’re talking about 2-3 million at least.
GL: Does the sheer size of one market motivate one side to go over to the other, as opposed to the other way around?
MC: I think developers are really careful. I went to a localization seminar at the Game Developers Conference this past year and it was mostly for Western developers looking to localize for other markets. They can do some pretty sophisticated cost-benefit analysis supermath to figure out if it’s worth it, what are the projected sales based on similar genres and titles in those markets based on what’s done well in the past, what production costs are going to be, and so on. They’re increasingly moving toward what they call sim-ship, or simultaneous shipping, so that everything releases on the same day globally. Some of them are releasing simultaneously in over 20 countries.
GL: So what’s the perceived market in China?
MC: It’s huge. Because China has such a huge population, even a small percentage of households with game systems means a large number of potential players. The problems are the government controlling access for people, and piracy is still a real problem. You don’t want to sell a boxed game, because you can get the copied one for free, so developers have to figure out ways to get monthly revenue from online games. Console makers are trying to figure that one out. I think China is also a little bit like Korea, which has internet cafés as opposed to people having consoles in their houses.
Like I said, the Chinese government is also pretty strict. You’ll get in trouble if your game asks the player what region they’re in, and it includes Taiwan as a country. They’re kind of touchy on that subject.
GL: You mentioned two books. Is the state of the transnational games industry the main thrust of your research while you’re here, or is there something else you’re working on?
MC: The other thing is the casual game stuff. That started when I was visiting here last December, just hanging out due to the quarter system in Ohio, and I decided to write a paper on the game culture surrounding this casual game called Mystery Case Files: Return to Ravenhearst. Lots of people figure that most casual game players are very casual in how they play, that casual games are supposed to be easy to pick up and easy to put down with no real sense of commitment, but I saw this really intense, interesting activity surrounding the release of this game. I presented that paper at the Foundations of Digital Games Conference this past April.
Since then I’ve started on a couple of other small projects, one of which is looking at hidden object games. A developer mentioned to me that hidden object games are the romance novels of videogames, by which he meant that they’re eagerly and quickly consumed, but their replay or reread value is very low. You go through it, you find the stuff, you figure out who did it (they’re very often mysteries), and then you go on to the next one, which for game developers is awesome because it’s not like Civilization where people buy it and then just play that one game forever. I’m playing the games to figure out if this holds up or if there’s another layer of analysis to make. It was a detour based on some of the games I was playing. I’m not sure if that’s going to be anything bigger, or if it’s just going to be a series of small projects.
GL: Have you noticed how casual games are fitting into larger franchises?
MC: More television shows of various sorts are trying to do it. Top Chef has a game, Hell’s Kitchen had a game. Syfy said that they’re redoing the whole games section of their website, which will definitely be more casual game-related. There’s all this spillover right now as people are trying to figure things out, like what’s a casual game versus what’s a social game. There’s a lot of interest and excitement and people aren’t quite sure what’s going to happen or how they’re going to make money.
Places like Big Fish succeed because they’re a publisher that releases a game every day on their portal, in addition to developing a few high production value games of their own. Increasingly you hear publishers talking about how they buy these games that are produced by developers or development teams in Eastern Europe who can produce them a lot more cheaply than westerners can, and we’ve seen the price point go down too, so that those games now cost seven dollars. So how do you make money?
You see these interesting crossovers, too. Frank Lantz’s Area/Code did the alternate reality game for CBS’s TV show Numb3rs. As part of it, they produced a minigame called Drop 7, which then took on a life of its own. You can buy it now for the iPhone, and it’s pretty addictive. Looking back, I think the Drop 7 game was the most successful part of the whole thing.
GL: Are you planning on teaching while you’re here?
MC: Yep. I’ll be teaching a class in the fall and a couple in the spring. One will be on gender and the Internet, and hopefully at least one of the others will be game studies related.
GL: Are you looking at gender in games?
MC: As part of it, yes. I’ve been trying to stay away from a specifically gendered analysis this time because I’ve done a lot of work on women in games before, including a paper on women MMO players and their attitudes towards avatars and gear. What everyone forgets is that men have a gender too. I haven’t seen a lot of interesting research yet on masculinity and videogames.
My early work also explored various links between gender and popular culture. I did my Ph.D. at the University of Iowa, in their department of Mass Communication. I didn’t do anything related to videogames at that point; instead I wrote about relationships between the body, technology and gender in popular culture. Really, I studied the Borg. My geek credentials go way back.