Adult Gaming on the DS: The Chinatown ConundrumS

With 100 million DS and DSi in the hands of gamers worldwide, Nintendo's portable is a mighty tempting platform for developers. So why are only seven of the nearly 1,100 games for the DS rated Mature?

A popular argument is that Nintendo's portable is for kids and soccer moms only, something that the Japanese developer and publisher has spent years now fighting to disprove.

Last month Rockstar Games, the developer known as much for the adult themes of their games as they are for the quality of their superb titles, took a gamble to disprove that notion, releasing Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars for the DS.

Expectations for the open-world, high-production value game ran high with analysts predicting 200,000 to 450,000 in sales in the first month. But instead the game moved a paltry 89,000, according to the NPD Group.

Proof that the DS isn't a good fit for hardcore gaming? It's a bit more complicated than that.

"Chinatown Wars received critical acclaim and is the highest rated DS title of all time," said Alan Lewis, vice president of corporate communications for Take-Two, which owns Rockstar Games. "In terms of performance, we think it is performing in line with other triple-A games on the platform."

Lewis points out that the game was only on sale for 19 days in March, adding that the game is the highest unit selling M rated title in its launch month and already the second highest selling M rated title on the DS.

"We are very confident in Chinatown Wars long-term potential for success," he said. "We think it will have a long life in the market."

Analysts agree that Chinatown Wars' potential success will be measured over the long haul, rather than the short one. Though Wedbush Morgan's Michael Pachter thinks that the early low sales could mean it will be quite awhile before we see another deep game developed for adults on the DS.

"It's shocking that sales were 89,000 because it is a really well known franchise, a really high rated game," Pachter said. "There is no way you can say it didn't do well because people didn't know about it or it's bad."

What that leaves, Pachter says, is evidence that either the DS audience is too young or disinterested in deeper, longer games to play on the DS.

"This is really the first hardcore, mature game for the DS," he said. "I think there certainly won't be another for the next two or three years. It will take a bold publisher to put something else like this out there."

EEDAR analyst Jesse Divnich says he wasn't surprised by Chinatown Wars initial low sales numbers.

"When you release a big DS game like this, it's for the long term," he said. "It's not like an in and out thing, like you would see for the console. With the DS, games have a lot longer legs than any other

Nintendo seems to agree.

"Remember that many games for Nintendo DS have a nontraditional sales pattern," said Denise Kaigler, Nintendo of America's vice president of corporate affairs. "The trend is toward ‘evergreen' games that sell well over an extended period of time instead of in a one-month spike. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare for Nintendo DS is a good example. In its first month (November 2007), it sold only 36,000. To date, it has sold through nearly 500,000. Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars is a great game that has received tremendous reviews. We expect that with continued backing, it will follow the same long-tail/evergreen sales route that other top sellers have taken."

Divnich says that like Nintendo he expects Chinatown Wars will see similarly big numbers in the long run, but recognizes that the game faces an uphill battle compared to something like Pokémon. Pokémon Platinum was the second highest selling game in March, with 805,000 copies sold.

"It's really an apple to oranges comparison," Divnich said. "You are targeting two different markets. The people who buy Pokémon, that's the main consumer for the DS."

And that's sort of the point that it seems Rockstar was trying to disprove. The question now is, will Rockstar and other third-party publishers still be willing to wait for long-term sales on future deep, adult games or will they instead move back to the casual and the kiddy for the DS.

"We have and we will continue to support the platform," Take-Two's Lewis told me. "We think the mature segment of the DS market is growing."

Well Played is a weekly opinion column about the big news of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Feel free to join in the discussion.