San Anselmo firm offers alternative to violence-filled products
Sick of seeing a video game market dominated by violence and sex, a group of Marin Christians are looking to bring God to gamers.
Virtue Games, a fledgling, San Anselmo-based maker of Christian-themed computer games, hopes to fill a void in the increasingly salacious video game sector, according to company President Rick Tewell. With adventure games that center on Christian stories or allegories with Christian undertones, Virtue hopes to improve what has been a Christian game market mired in mediocrity, he said.
“Instead of sitting back and complaining about the problem, we wanted to do something about it,” Tewell said. “There is absolutely a void in the market for Christian-themed games and we plan to fill it.”
To do so, the company knows it will have to compete with a video game market that has gravitated in recent years to games with mature themes. “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas,” which features pimps, gangsters and a heap of violence, was the best-selling video game of 2004, selling 5.1 million copies as of last December, according to NPD Funworld.
Rattling off a series of popular games that prominently feature extreme wartime and gang-oriented violence, Tewell said game makers need to take more responsibility for the impact of their games.
“How graphic do we want to get with this?” he asks. “Graphics are getting so real that it is indistinguishable from the real thing, and I can do these reprehensible things in these games and I don’t have to go to jail for it.”
But simply offering a violence-free, Christian-themed alternative won’t cut it, according to John Taylor, a video game industry analyst with Arcadia Investment Research in Portland, Ore.
“The core game market is probably not that interested in this stuff,” he said. “At the end of the day the game has to be fun and fulfilling, and so does the story. If it is preachy, it might attract parents wanting to buy it for their kids, but in terms of reaching the kids playing the games, the fun factor is element number one here.”
“I’m looking forward to seeing what kinds of creative ways that they give people the same rush that they get from doing good that they get from doing naughty,” he continued. “People like doing things in the digital world that you’re not allowed to do in the real world, like blowing things up and creating mayhem.”
Tewell said his company is up to the challenge.
“We know that we need to create the same endorphin release that a kid gets when he blows something up in a game,” he said.
Virtue will employ adventure-oriented games with engaging graphics like those seen in movies like “Shrek” and Pixar Animation Studios’ “The Incredibles,” he said.
They’ve already brought on several graphic artists and writers and have enlisted several industry veterans, including some consultants with backgrounds at George Lucas’ San Rafael-based Industrial Light & Magic, as consultants.
“We want to create games that can compete with their secular counterparts,” Tewell said.
The idea for a Christian-themed video game company stemmed from Tewell’s involvement with the Marin Covenant Church in San Rafael.
Married with two children, Tewell has a lengthy background as a software engineer.
A few years after the digital video camcorder technology company he founded was bought by a larger corporation, Tewell launched Thousand Mile Productions as a multimedia company focused on the Christian market. The idea was to create music and publishing firms focused on making Sunday school and Christian day camp curricula more engaging for children.
“I was looking for something that married the technology side with the spiritual side of what I felt like God was calling me to do,” Tewell said. “Most church Sunday school programs are really dry and boring, and all this technology is available now to us to tell a story. We wanted to bring that into the Christian setting.”
Tewell then connected with Cheyenne Woolford, who lives near Yosemite and has for several years made video games targeting Christians. Thousand Mile Productions acquired Woolford’s Virtue Creations and renamed it Virtue Games in January 2004, and the company is beginning to find its legs, Tewell said.
Woolford now serves as the company’s chief game architect. He’s already produced two titles, and is currently at work on a third, “Mayabin,” which Tewell said will be the “the best Christian computer game ever produced.” The game is similar to the story “Chronicles of Narnia” by C.S. Lewis, which will have film and video game versions released later this year.
Tewell said gold status – 500,000 copies sold – is a target for “Mayabin.” Virtue plans to release games following the stories of Joan of Arc and St. Patrick in the next two years.
The company plans to be cash-flow positive by January 2006, and projects revenues between $1.2 million to $3.5 million over the next 12 months.
To help it get there, Virtue just signed a distribution deal with Waterfront Books, a Vermont-based children’s specialty distributor with ties to the Christian Booksellers Association. Tewell said Waterfront will help Virtue get its games on the prized shelves of Wal-Mart, Kmart and Costco.
Taylor noted that big box retailers like Wal-Mart have declined to sell some violent video games, which could work to Virtue’s advantage.
“But at some point it will face the same performance hurdles that any other game would face in trying to get shelf space,” he said. “Retailers just aren’t that patient.”
Tewell is confident the company will be received well by both Christians and mainstream gamers.
“We’re not trying to create games that convert people, but we are a Christian game company,” he said.
And the irony of a Christian-themed video game company sprouting up in a liberal pocket of one of the most liberal counties in the country is not lost on Tewell.
“But the biggest response we’ve gotten has been in the blue states, believe it or not,” he said.