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January 2010

Someone's Doing My Brain Research

19549_rel Not that long ago, I suggested that studying the size of brain regions would be a valuable way of exploring the neurobiology of play, a conclusion I reached after learning that one of the hippocampi of taxi drivers is bigger than those of a control group. And this research, I'm pleased to say, is taking place. Via Raph Koster (thanks Raph!), I learned today of a new study exploring the size of the nucleus accumbens (pleasure centre) and two key structures in the striatum (the limbic system's link to the decision centre) - two of several brain features I'm interested in.

The research is by Art Kramer (pictured above, left) at Illinois, Ann Graybiel of MIT (centre), and Kirk Erickson of the University of Pittsburgh (right). The short form of their findings is as follows:

  • Players with a larger pleasure centre (nucleus accumbens) did better in the early stages of the study i.e. began learning more quickly. This suggests that a large pleasure centre increases motivation to perform (an expected result).
  • Players with a larger caudate nucleus and putamen, two key features of the striatum (the limbic system-end of the decision centre) performed better at variable priority training i.e. practising and learning different skills dynamically, within the framework of the overall goal. (This is also an expected result, but is less well studied).

The striatum is beginning to emerge as a key part of adaptation in learning. Whereas both the pleasure centre and the striatum are involved in learning, the former drives habit formation, while the latter seems to be more involved in adaptability and dynamic response. Furthermore, the striatum appears to be directly involved in executive function (i.e. it links to the orbito-frontal cortex - the decision centre). There is much less research on the latter than the former, which is one of the reasons this new study is particularly interesting.

This research requires me to make a slight change in my hypothetical research programme - I had been thinking in terms of a bigger decision centre (orbitofrontal cortex) for strategically minded players, but this could be hard to detect. The striatum, which links the decision centre to the limbic system (the "reptile brain"), is a more obvious place to look for changes in volume. Now I can confidently predict that people who test Rational on Temperament-style personality tests, university science students, and players who enjoy complex strategy games, will show a statistical prevalence for dorsal striatum that are larger than the mean size. (And also, that those three groupings I cite will cross-correlate reasonably well).

Unsurprisingly, this new research supports the "games as learning" model because the focus of this study are the brain centres involved in the dopamine/learning system. However, it would be premature to use this as evidence that learning will provide a complete theory of play or fun - I believe it is already clear that it cannot, since Biederman and Vessel's research on interest and curiosity is memory-focused, not learning focussed (although still links to the pleasure centre). Furthermore, there is still little or no neuroscience providing for a model of imagination, and without this (and more besides!) there can be no complete theory of games. What we can be confident of - and what Koster correctly predicted - is that any complete theory of games and fun must feature learning as a key part of the story. What the new research does suggest is that learning may be more important in the play of people with larger dorsal striatum - such as the three groupings I suggested above.

However, we should be careful of jumping to the assumption that what is implied here in terms of differences in brain structure sizes is wholly genetic - it certainly wasn't in the case of taxi drivers, and I doubt it is here. Genetics and environment probably both have a role, but the taxi driver study suggests what we do is more important than our genetic blueprint when it comes to the size of brain regions. I find this aspect of the current brain research to be encouraging, as it maintains an important role for the self in discovering and inventing who we shall become.

Gold, Platinum and Diamond Games

Gold Record What if there were a system for certifying game sales like the ones used in the record industry – Gold, Platinum and Diamond games?

Let's suppose there is such a system, and unlike record sales it is based on global aggregate sales, not just regional sales. There's not much of a pattern in the recording sales certifications, which have typical ratios ranging between 1:2:3 and 1:2:20, depending on the size of the territory involved, so let's define the boundaries of our pseudo-certifications on a 1:2:4 pattern, as follows:

  • Gold Games sell 5,000,000 units globally

  • Platinum Games sell 10,000,000 units globally

  • Diamond Games sell 20,000,000 units globally

Which titles have enjoyed these degrees of success, and can we begin to venture why?

What follows is breakdown of games that clear these boundaries (based principally on the figures provided in the Wikipedia and at Vgchartz, which admittedly may not be wholly accurate). Game SKUs which are substantially the same are considered as identical for the purposes of calculating sales in this list, including when versions on two different consoles contain minor variations or have a slightly different title. This is absolutely not an attempt to suggest that sales are the only way of assessing the value of a videogame – the few artistically interesting videogames did not sell very well, unsurprisingly. The focus here is on a sober examination of the market economics of blockbuster videogames.

Gold Games (43 titles)

Final Fantasy VII (Playstation) 9.8 million
Gran Turismo 2
(Playstation)9.37 million
(PC) – 9.3 million
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City
(PS2) – 9.21 million
Mario Kart 64
(N64) – 8.47 million
Halo 2 (Xbox) –
8.46 million
Super Smash Bros. Brawl
(Wii) – 8.43 million
Halo 3 (Xbox 360) –
8.1 million
Super Mario Galaxy
(Wii) – 8.02 million
Donkey Kong Country
(SNES) – 8 million
GoldenEye 007
(N64) – 8 million
Super Mario Kart
(SNES) – 8 million
Tomb Raider II (Playstation) – 8 million
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
(N64) – 7.6 million
Grand Theft Auto III
(PS2) – 7.509 million
Super Mario 64 DS (DS) –
7.5 million
Super Smash Bros. Melee
(GameCube) – 7.09 million
Metal Gear Solid
(Playstation) 7 million
Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty
(PS2) – 7 million
(Atari 2600) – 7 million
Tomb Raider
(Playstation)7 million
Crash Bandicoot
(Playstation)6.8 million
Mario Party 8
(Wii) – 6.72 million
Final Fantasy X
(PS2) – 6.6 million
The Legend of Zelda
(NES) – 6.51 million
Half-Life 2
(PC) – 6.5 million
Street Fighter II: The World Warrior
(SNES) – 6.3 million
The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening
(GameBoy) – 6.05 million
Final Fantasy VIII
(Playstation)6 million
Guild Wars
(PC) – 6 million
(PC) – 6 million
Sonic the Hedgehog 2
(Megadrive/Genesis) – 6 million
Mario Party DS (DS) –
5.85 million
Crash Bandicoot 3: Warped
(Playstation) – 5.7 million
The Sims 2: Pets
(PC) – 5.6 million
Super Mario Sunshine!
(GameCube) – 5.5 million
Final Fantasy IX
(Playstation) – 5.30million
Final Fantasy XII
(PS2) – 5.2 million
Big Brain Academy (DS) –
5.01 million
(PC) – 5 million
Gears of War (Xbox 360) – 5 million*
Gears of War 2
(Xbox 360) – 5 million
Halo: Combat Evolved (Xbox) – 5 million*

Platinum Games (25 titles)

Brain Age: Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day! (DS) – 18.73 million
Super Mario Bros. 3
(NES) – 18 million
Pokémon Ruby, Sapphire & Emerald
(GBA) – 19.32 million
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (PS2) –
Mario Kart DS
(DS) - 16.09 million
The Sims
(PC) – 16 million
Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock (PS3/Xbox 360/Wii/PS2)
– 15.32 million[+][Jseakle]
Pokémon Gold and Silver
(GameBoy) – 15.2 million
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2
(PS3/Xbox 360) – 14.9 million**
Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec
(PS2) – 14.89 million
Super Mario Land
(GameBoy) – 14 million
Brain Age 2: More Training in Minutes a Day!
(DS) - 13.71 million
Grand Theft Auto 4
(PS3/Xbox 360) – 13 million
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
(PS3/Xbox 360) – 13 million
The Sims 2
(PC) – 13 million
Wii Sports Resport
(Wii) – 12.33 million
Pokémon FireRed and LeafGreen
(GBA) – 11.82 million
World of Warcraft
(PC) – 11.5 million***
(PC) – 11 million
Super Mario 64
(N64) – 11 million*
Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins
(GameBoy) – 11 million
Gran Turismo
(Playstation) – 10.85 million
Animal Crossing: Wild World
(DS) - 10.79 million
Gran Turismo 4
(PS2) – 10.76 million
New Super Mario Bros. Wii
(Wii) – 10.19 million**
Super Mario Bros. 2
(NES) – 10 million

Diamond Games (11 titles)

Wii Sports (Wii) – 50.54 million*
Super Mario Bros.
(NES) – 40.23 million*
(GameBoy) – 35 million*
Pokémon Red, Blue, Green & Yellow
(GameBoy) - 29.54 million
Wii Play
(Wii) – 24.43 million
Pokémon Diamond, Pearl & Platinum
(DS) – 23.2 million
Wii Fit
(Wii) – 22.5 million
Nintendogs (DS) –
22.27 million
New Super Mario Bros.
(DS) – 20.89 million
Mario Kart Wii
(Wii) – 20.48 million
Super Mario World
(SNES) – 20 million*

*sales include units bundled with hardware.
**sales still growing rapidly.
***revenue generated exceeds units sold (because of subscription fees)

[+] title added after the post was originally written, name of addendum provider is given
Please note that titles marked + are not included in the percentage or title calculations that follows.


Of the 43 Gold Games listed above, Nintendo scoop up 16 titles on their platforms (37.2%), Sony gets 14 (32.5%), the PC gets 6 (14%), Microsoft gets 5 (11.6%), while Atari and Sega pick up one each. This is a relatively even distribution, given Microsoft's late arrival on the scene, but notice that there isn't a single PS3 title in this list: not one platform-exclusive PS3 title has cleared 5 million units.

Of the 25 Platinum Games listed above, Nintendo scoop up 14 (56%), the PC gets 4 (16%) split between EA's Sims brand and Blizzard titles, Sony also gets 4 (16%) and there are three titles which are cross-platform. The only Microsoft games in this bracket are the cross-platform titles (as are the only PS3 titles in this list). Nintendo make up over half of this list.

Finally, of the 11 Diamond Games listed above, Nintendo scoop up all 11 (100%)! Nintendo are the only company to have made games that have sold more than 20 million units, and an astonishing 7 of these titles (63.6%) were released in the last four years!

To say that Nintendo are currently dominating the videogame marketplace is an understatement, although this is not to deny that there are other companies doing well on specific titles. Activision-Blizzard's World of Warcraft must be generating a truly incredible volume of revenue, and they also own the Modern Warfare titles which are selling great guns. Take-Two Interactive have the Grand Theft Auto games at least, without which they would be wholly irrelevant to the current market for videogames. Everyone else – including Microsoft and Sony – may be making ends meet, but they are falling short of the bar when it comes to impressive sales. Sony in particular have experienced a terrible slide in sales volume since the glory days of the PS2, and if it were not for GTAIV and the Modern Warfares there would not be a single PS3 title which had sold more than 5 million units.

What else can be discerned from these certifications? If we look at the narrative genres represented (rather than the game genres), we can see an interesting trend in respect of science fiction. Among the Gold games there are 10 games (23.3%) that are clearly science fiction, (plus various Final Fantasy games with science fiction elements). At Platinum there is only one game, StarCraft – and it would only have been Gold if it were not for its recent phenomenal success in South Korea, something no game is likely to repeat. At Diamond, science fiction is gone entirely. (You could make a case for Pokémon as science fiction, I suppose, but it feels like a stretch).

Does this mean that science fiction isn't a profitable narrative genre to pursue in games? Certainly not. Gamer hobbyists (and videogame employees, who are also almost universally gamer hobbyists) love fantasy and science fiction, and provided you aren't trying to make a mega-title it may even be sensible to make use of it, as it can increase interest in the (smaller but more dedicated) gamer audience. In fact, there may have been a few months in 2008 when the Halo franchise managed to be the top console FPS franchise in gaming history, knocking Goldeneye 007 off its perch a decade after the fact. However, Modern Warfare has now returned the FPS crown to military-action, and in this case outselling Half-Life too, which was the previous FPS king when PC sales are taken into consideration. (Did Counter-Strike help Valve accrue sales? I'm uncertain). I'm doubtful a science fiction title will hold this crown again, but confident someone will manage to prove me wrong.

Fantasy fares better, especially if one considers Pokémon to be fantasy. But really the narrative genres of the top selling games might be best considered to be cartoon – a mass market friendly representation, since it appeals to the young and does not significantly put off anyone except, ironically, a proportion of the gamer hobbyists. The strength of the Mario brand may be able to overcome a gamer hobbyist's dislike of the cartoon style, but most companies don't have an equivalent option. This perhaps is why Mario-branded games enjoy such domination of the list – 6 Gold (14%), 7 Platinum (28%), 4 Diamond (36.4%) – about one in five titles listed, overall. If Sony or Microsoft wanted to compete against Mario directly, their options would be limited, perhaps non-existent, although this doesn't really explain why they don't even make the attempt. Serious amounts of money are being left on the table by the under-competition in the platform game market.

Finally, take notice of the poor showing of ultra-violence in these lists. In this regard, I don't mean gun violence of the kind in GTA and Modern Warfare, but rather vicious brutality of the kind certified as "Blood and Gore" by the ESRB. It's something the videogames industry is often associated with, but commercially this kind of depiction is relatively marginal. The Gears of War games squeak into Gold, but only just. (In fact, the sales figures for these games almost exactly matches the sales prediction I made at MIGS 2006). Little else is even remotely close to using gore as part of its representation (Doom, I suppose), and the most successful fighting games have been Super Smash Bros. titles, with absolutely no blood and guts on show.

In fact, the majority of successful ultra-violent games peak at about 3 million units – despite being released when the PS2 had a giant 100 million+ installed base, God of War barely cleared 3 million units, and is widely considered to be the "title to beat" in this space. It's a profitable niche market, at least in the short term, but with average development costs on consoles now typically exceeding $25 million, the break point for these titles is conceivably very close to their likely maximum sales. It's not clear why anyone would want to bankroll in this space apart from the fact that it's low ceiling for sales is compensated somewhat by no obvious dominating brand – multiple titles can compete in the same small market space, to some degree.

Why is so much marketing effort focussed on ultra-violence, then? Why does Sony consider God of War to be such an important brand if it only sells a smidgen over 3 million at most? Why did Microsoft spend a full quarter of their presentation at GDC 2008 showing off the myriad ways to decapitate and brutalise in Ninja Gaiden II when the title only sold a little over a million units? In short, why perpetuate the connection between ultra-violence and videogames at all if it isn't that profitable to do so? Among the gamer hobbyists, ultra-violent titles enjoy an inflated sense of importance that could perhaps be used in an attempt to justify the battle for control of such a marginal market, but I question the wisdom of doing so in high-profile publicity. For closely competing platform holders like Sony and Microsoft who are desperately trying to reach out to that oh-so-profitable mass market Nintendo have cornered, it makes poor commercial sense to simultaneously spend big money associating their console brands with games that are highly off-putting to that very audience.

To court the mass market is to pursue an audience of both men and women – every single Diamond game has cross-gender appeal to a significant degree. It may be the case that women gamer hobbyists are not put off by ultra-violence, but images of gore and savagery are counter-productive when one is shooting for the mass market; depictions of women being brutalised doubly so. Associating your console brand publicly with this games of this kind risks hurting your ability to sell to a wider audience, and I question the marketing logic in making such titles central to brand strategies. The only explanation I can offer as to the excessive focus paid to the ultra-violence niche market would be to point to my earlier remarks about testosterone and videogames. I welcome feedback from anyone (especially marketing execs) who can give me a coherent reason for the apparently ill-considered strategy of associating one's console brand with ultra-violent games when one's hope is to be able to compete with Nintendo in the currently one-sided battle for a market where sales volumes can be up to ten times greater.

Think I missed something from the list above? Feel free to post addenda in the comments, and if they check out I will update accordingly.

Please, no objections to the inclusions of bundled sales: a bundled unit is still a unit sold. However, comments concerning bundled games not currently marked as such are most welcome.

Discussion on why various titles managed to achieve blockbuster status is entirely welcome!

Miyamoto Endorses Fail-Continue Play

NewSuperMarioBrosWiiBoxart The latest 2D platform game offering from Nintendo, New Super Mario Bros. Wii, includes several features which lean heavily towards what International Hobo terms "fail-continue structure", something we have been advocating in titles targeting more casual audiences for a long time. (A summary of the general position can be found in an old post entitled Freedom to Fail from two years ago).

The relevant new features are as follows:

  • In multiplayer, it is not necessary for all the players to complete all of the challenges. As long as one player completes a particular challenge in order to progress, other players can simply press A and turn into "bubbles" which then catch up the lead player and rejoin the game.
  • Super Guide is an entirely original feature, invented by Shigeru Miyamoto (the world's most successful game designer) which triggers if players fail the same level eight times in a row. This adds a green block at the start of a level which the player can hit to have Luigi complete the level for them. This not only shows the player what is expected of them, they can jump in at any time to take over, or they can skip the level entirely. The level does not show up as completed, but whatever would be unlocked by completing it is unlocked.

The presence of these features in a high profile Nintendo title - and one enjoying considerable commercial success (9.84 million units and gaining more than than three quarters of a million each week) - is a massive validation of International Hobo's design philosophy in respect of fail-continue structures. The arguments against these structures are, almost universally, ill formed.

The most general complaint against fail-continue is that it collapses the challenge, and many players and videogame employees erroneously consider challenge the sine qua non of videogames. But allowing players to progress in a game without clearing a specific challenge does not short-circuit the challenge. The challenge is still there to be completed by anyone who desires to take it on! Fail-continue simply allows players who cannot clear a specific challenge to continue to play on in the game, rather than having their play experience end in abject frustration.

When I hear that Edge's review of New Super Mario Bros. Wii complains about "the lack of ingenuity on display" I can't help but laugh! Edge is supposed to be a forward-looking magazine, but even they don't recognise the innovation these fail-continue features represent. Why? Probably because, like most videogame addicts, Edge has it's own solipsistic values for assessing games - whatever it may claim, the magazine is principally reporting on what particularly pushed their buttons in the games they look at. Whatever Edge's own view regarding their reports on videogames, it's not at all clear they are offering anything more than the simple consumer reviews provided by other specialist press publications. (This is not, however, to suggest that the reviews elsewhere aren't qualitatively worse, of course).

All this said, I still suspect that New Super Mario Bros. Wii is too tricky a game for the mass market to come to grips with, but then looking at the sales figures I have to wonder... Is this really only selling to the gamer hobbyists?