Of course, Wal-Mart, like other major retailers, pulled Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas from its shelves after the "Hot Coffee" fiasco. Take-Two Interactive revised that quarter's financial guidance down by $45 million. Wal-Mart has since resumed selling a modified version.
Wal-Mart has shaped the field in other ways. Remember five years ago, when computer game boxes all got smaller? That was Wal-Mart. "Wal-Mart was a significant force in driving videogame producers (and software producers of all kinds) to dramatically reduce the size of their boxes," says Charles Fishman, senior writer for Fast Company magazine and author of the bestselling book The Wal-Mart Effect. "Wal-Mart's goal is to put as much merchandise on the shelves inside a given store-size as possible. By cutting the box size of games and software, Wal-Mart could easily increase the amount of product it displayed by 20 or 30 or 40 percent. More product in the same shelf-space. That's good for Wal-Mart, and good for customers, and maybe even good, ultimately, for game makers. Smaller boxes cost less.
"And Wal-Mart is increasingly interested in the environmental impact of such changes," Fishman says. "If you literally cut the packaging of gaming software and routine software in half, [...] that eventually comes to forests of trees not cut down. This is something Wal-Mart works on consistently, not just in software boxes." Fishman's book opens with a similar story: Wal-Mart eliminated cardboard boxes for deodorants and antiperspirants to save shelf space and money and to reduce waste. (This is part of a larger Wal-Mart environmental initiative.)
More pertinent than the packaging of games is their content. Wal-Mart and other retailers display an ever- decreasing range of game types. More and more, it is difficult-to-impossible to market an adventure game, or a non-Microsoft flight simulator, or a non-Maxis city-builder, or a non-Civilization turn-based strategy game. Did the audiences for these forms simply wither away? No, they're still out there - but they're not sufficiently profitable for big-box retail chains. The commercial range of games shrinks because of the free market's uncompromising pursuit of the majority at the expense of all minority tastes. We see this most clearly in Wal-Mart's signal triumph in game design, Deer Hunter.
In the 1990s, Wal-Mart discovered a previously unrecognized demographic: The mass market gamer, who plays while holding a mouse in one hand and a can of beer in the other.
"He claims that he looked at data on how much software Wal-Mart was selling at the time, thought about the average Wal-Mart shopper, thought about what kind of games the average Wal-Mart shopper would want to play (which, with the exception of Bass Fisherman, was at odds with the kinds of games being sold in the store), and then pitched the concept of Deer Hunter. Multiple publishers turned it down, calling it ridiculous in some cases. It cost about $110,000 to make. The franchise has allegedly sold 10 million copies. I bet Robert drives a really nice truck."
Hardcore gamers derided Deer Hunter (1997) and its many imitators because they were dull and looked like crap. (The most recent version, Deer Hunter 2005, looks better.) So what? The games cost $20 and ran on low-end hardware - and their subjects spoke to far more customers than did Quake or Command & Conquer. Programmer Zac Belado wrote at the time, "It's not just computer nerds and simulation freaks that are buying computers and games. Deer Hunter [buyers] haven't seen a product that directly appeals to them, have been largely ignored by the game market (or, worse, ridiculed by games like Redneck Rampage), and have finally proven that they have not only the desire for software products, but the money to pay for them."