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Opinion: An Uncertain Future For The Core Gamer?
Opinion: An Uncertain Future For The Core Gamer?
January 21, 2008 | By Raph Koster

January 21, 2008 | By Raph Koster
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More: Console/PC



[In a vitally Gamasutra important opinion piece, game design veteran and Areae founder Raph Koster looks beyond the buoyant 2007 NPD results to ask - how does market expansion affect the hardcore gamer, and will they like it?]

As I have spent the last couple of years yelling loudly that the game industry (despite record years) is actually in dire trouble in a business sense (not just creatively), I have repeatedly run into one comment from core gamers. You see, I keep saying that the rising landscape has a lot more lower-budget, asynchronous, low time investment, web-based games. And the response is usually:

“But the landscape you are describing doesn’t sound like games I would like.”

And that is absolutely right. I don’t know what happens to the core gamer in that scenario. Maybe sometimes, they are made very happy by a title like Rock Band, which frankly isn’t designed for them, but which epitomizes many of the characteristics I have been talking about (including the microtransaction business model — 2.5 million songs sold!).

iQ212 has a great post about how the 300m user mass market is making games for Your Hypothetical Mom.

"Your Mom has a household annual income of $48,201 and lives in the state where she was born. She listens to CDs by Carrie Underwood, or Daughtry, or some other American Idol. She watches four hours of TV a day, and her favorite shows are Dancing with the Stars, American Idol, CSI, Grey’s Anatomy, Wheel of Fortune and Oprah. Mom drives a white or silver Japanese car, but almost half of her friends own big American trucks or SUVs. She saw most of the Spider-Man, Shrek, and Pirates of the Caribbean movies in the theater. Odds are she is Christian, owns a Bible, and prays almost once a day. She reads Nora Roberts, James Patterson, Mitch Albom, and anything Oprah suggests. Mommy talks on her Motorola cell phone about 25 minutes a day, but has never downloaded a game to it. (By the way, did you know her ringtone is “My Humps” by the Black Eyed Peas?) Her favorite restaurants are Outback, Red Lobster and Ruby Tuesday. Your mom shops at Walmart, Sears and Costco. She websurfs 30 minutes a day on her dial up connection (though she uses broadband at work and will upgrade to broadband at home next month) and visits Yahoo, Ebay and Pogo. She has no idea what a WoW Guild, XBLA, Free BSD, BlueRay, or Podcast is. Oh yeah, she wants you to call her more."

Yah, that’s not us, now is it? I’ve used some pretty provocative language in the past to describe this problem, including the catchy phrase “numbers talk, niches walk,” which got some folks mad. But is hard to argue with the numbers.

The thing about niches is that businesses try to monetize them more. Basic math: if you are making a title for a passionate minority who loves their hobby, you charge them more to cover the costs of operating in a smaller market. And, well, because you can.

This often manifests in things like ongoing premium service fees, or tiered service plans, or some form of premium upsell. Look at TV, for example. Sure, you have an antenna signal. No, wait, you have basic cable. But if you’re serious about TV watching, you upgrade to one of the nicer packages. If you’re really really serious about it, you want stuff like HD signals. Or pay-per-view. If you’re a phone nut, you start getting not just a better phone, but stuff like all-you-can-eat data plans, and buying things like ringtones, apps, etc. Or maybe you live in Beaumont, Texas, where Time Warner is testing this sort of plan for your high-speed Internet.

This is really common across all sorts of industries. The reason is that while everyone may want a given service or product, they often want it to different degrees, and they often have very different price thresholds for what they want. Me, I’m willing to buy the full-on Rock Band set and even some downloaded songs, or a DDR mat, or whatever, but I am not going to buy a $250 dance mat from Red Octane (though if they send me one, I’ll gladly try it out.)

This is a huge part of why I have been saying that microtransactions are the rising business model. Unlike the single flat fee, they allow users and businesses to arrive at the price point they feel comfortable with for the service they get.

But if the offerings from the businesses shift direction overall, then what? Like, there’s not much on Facebook for the core gamer. If stuff like Facebook becomes the dominant model, then what does the core gamer do? Under circumstances like that, you’d expect prices to rise for core games.

In some ways, that’s exactly what is happening, using microtransactions and premiums as the way to do it. Is the fancy metal tin on a collector’s edition actually worth an extra $30? Not to most people — it’s for the niche. The same goes for selling you dashboard themes and gamer pictures on XBLA. You’re paying real money for an icon or a desktop background — and nobody else can even see the latter.

The question of what sort of offerings need to be in the overall portfolio is a tricky one, when you look at it this way. For some, chasing after the mass market is very hard, because their expertise is simply not in that area. They have lots of experience at making core gamer titles, and are entirely geared towards high-budget titles.

For others, it’s sort of a bird in the hand, and the question is whether they double down on it or whether they service their traditional audience. Consider the dilemma Nintendo faces, where they are actually facing a fair amount of anger from core gamer loyalists wondering if they are being abandoned.

This has hit home in the MMO world recently as everyone watches the painful process that the Star Trek Online title has gone through. Consider Robert “Apache” Howarth’s reaction to the reports that the game was going to refocus to aim for a more casual audience, when he covered the news over at Voodoo Extreme:

"Set phasers to suck"

Whoa. One could say quite easily that World of Warcraft is “EverQuest done more casual.” Suckage is not a mandatory consequence in the least. And one of the darling titles of the last year among core gamers was Puzzle Quest.

Core gamers are almost certainly going to have to adapt to a world in which a lot of developer attention is going towards a much broader array of titles than in the past. The bookstore is changing from having mostly genre stuff and pulps, to having nonfiction aisles, music aisles, coffeetable books, and so on.

The fat fantasy, sci-fi, and military novels are going to end up relegated to a section of the store, where once they owned all the shelf space. We’re already seeing burgeoning growth in areas like non-fiction (Like with Wolfquest, perhaps), self-help (hello Brain Age 2), personal essays (such as Passage), and so on. And the growth here will, to some extent, distract developers from making stuff aimed at the core gamers.

Who will also have to get used to being dinged repeatedly for their love of their hobby, buying ever nicer editions of stuff they already have (yes, I mean you, Absolute Sandman).

Overall, I think this is a good thing for the core gamer, not a bad thing. But it’s definitely an adjustment.

The flip side that is equally interesting, of course, is that the mainstream will get tugged in the direction of the niche. As the world has become more science-fictional, we have seen the memes of SF appear in everyday life. Stuff from James Bond and Lord of the Rings is now common currency. The boundary lines between niche and mass market are very thin these days, and will likely get thinner. So even the casual stuff is going to have a heavy tinge of the stuff that we the geeks love.

Given the nature of games, I’d expect to see a continuation of the trend to complexify the casual, because that’s what games do: grow more complex as people master the basics. The high-end casual market isn’t very casual anymore (some match-3 games are not only expensive to make, but downright esoteric in their rules).

In other words — gamers may not want to become like Your Mom. But Your Mom is gradually becoming more of a gamer.

What will the gamers do? Complain, then play on, probably.

[This opinion piece is adapted from a weblog post on Koster's personal website, already the source of heated and thoughtful debate on the future of video games.]


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Comments


Anonymous
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I believe that casual game developers should have a long term perspective in terms of the audience they are pulling in or creating. My big worry is that a new audience is being created but will not be sustained if the games they play offer little in the way of improving their lives. Games that make you think, game design that enlightens and lights the fires of imagination in the people who play them.



Core gamers can look back at the games that changed their lives one way or another. This either lead to a career in games and/or a long and deep relationship with the hobby.

Leo Gura
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Sure, you can try to be the McDonalds of the gaming world. You’ll appeal to everyone – you might even be financially successful – but your product will ultimately be crap, and many will be left unsatisfied. Just because there’s a McDonalds doesn’t mean there can’t be a Chipotle, an Olive Garden, a Black Angus, or a Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse. You can’t force everyone to eat at McDonalds all the time.



The gaming market will not only widen, but mature. Audience taste will become stratified. Some games will appeal to the hardcore sci-fi fans, some to soccer moms, some to kids, some to seniors, and others to everything in between. To think that you can appeal to everyone is a recipe for mediocrity. There’s going to be more tolerance for niche markets and large budget titles like Halo aren't going anywhere because the hardcore gamer won't die out and these things are fun as hell to play. Just because a market is niche, doesn't mean you can't be successful in it. Case-in-point: EVE online.

Anonymous
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True though it may be that the gaming industry we know and love today won't be the one of tomorrow, that's not to say the traditional markets and games will disappear, or even suffer. The same people who like Sci Fi games are the ones who used to watch the Sci Fi channel until it left them for the mainstream, and went to games instead because they provided their fix. When games become widespread in culture as a whole, there will still be a healthy part devoted to the "hardcore" gamer, as they're the ones who are the most dedicated, and if not, someone else will come along to fill the void.


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