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Opinion: The Hardcore Niche
Opinion: The Hardcore Niche Exclusive
July 3, 2008 | By Brandon Sheffield

[In this editorial, originally printed in Gamasutra sister publication Game Developer magazine, EIC Brandon Sheffield tackles the realities of the changing video game industry, as lower-budget online social games eclipse traditional games in worldwide audience scope.]

The video game market is changing incredibly quickly right now, probably at the fastest rate since the big crash of the mid-1980s.

Not only is the market expanding to include women and casual gamers once again, the definition of what constitutes a game is expanding. I wouldn't say it’s expanding within the minds of game developers, but it is expanding in the context of the mass media and mass consumers, and that’s who drives the market in the first place.

As sick to death as we all are of talking about microtransactions, free-to-play MMOs, and casual online spaces, the advent of these things is changing the game landscape for good, whether we like it or not.

Interactive Media - At Face Value

The lines between an online community portal and an MMO are blurred to the point of being indistinguishable. Consider the numbers — Audition Online has tens of millions of users worldwide, and a dedicated TV show in Vietnam. Kart Rider has tens of millions of users. Ditto Habbo Hotel and Club Penguin.

Traditional games - like most people reading this are developing today - may never be able to reach that large of an audience. Our games are too focused, too hardcore, and bear too much of the stereotype of “gamer.”

Right now, Halo 3, Grand Theft Auto IV, and World of Warcraft are considered our blockbuster titles, and flagships for the industry in popular culture. But when you think about it, it’s still just shooting aliens, playing gang banger, and swinging your sword in the forest.

Boiled down to their essentials those things appeal to a very limited group of people, and the complexity of game controls prevents even blockbuster movie attendees, whom we should be attracting, from playing these things.

At least, that’s the common line. But is that really the case? Do aliens, wizards, and soldiers really make a piece of entertainment inaccessible? Many millions of people went to see the Iron Man movie over the past two months, and a large percentage of them have probably never picked up a comic book in their lives.

Why is it that people will go see The Lord of the Rings' movies, but many of them will not play the games?

The Real Mass Market

It’s common knowledge that game controllers are intimidating, that consoles have a certain stigma to them, and that most mass market consumers consider games to be either a waste of time, or actively detrimental.

These can all be debated until the end of time, but the perception exists, and either that has to change (Nintendo is doing good work there), or we have to change. Otherwise we’ll end up with a comparatively small fraction of a growing market.

Will it be possible to make a game like Assassin’s Creed or BioShock in 2015? It’s already becoming difficult to justify large budgets for single-player experiences, and it stands to reason that it will get more difficult as time goes on. What does that mean for developers of these games? What happens to the concept of a game auteur?

One possibility is for these hardcore games to essentially become the art-house cinema of the video game world, which would be odd, as that’s a role currently filled by indie titles.

Interestingly, never has the film/game analogy worked less well than it does currently. In the PS2 era, you could correlate Grand Theft Auto III with a movie blockbuster, and Ico with an art-house film.

But now, in terms of scope, money, and global social impact, Kart Rider or Club Penguin would be that blockbuster, and Call of Duty 4 would be the art-house equivalent, though content- and budget-wise Call of Duty 4 is much more your traditional blockbuster material. Something seems awry there.

The fact is, these simple-to-play social experiences are here. They’re growing in popularity, they’re dwarfing our multi-million dollar projects that sell through to 5 million people at max, and they cost a fraction of the price to make.

With the market expanding as it is, and the dollars going where they’re going, the $20 million budget bestselling console title of today is going to be the hardcore niche title of tomorrow, art-house or not. Unless development costs get significantly lower, it seems we have an online future to look forward to.

New Things Are Stupid

To wit: online games are taking over, and I, curmudgeon that I am, don’t really like it.

Certainly there will always be the hardcore players that will want that deeper experience. There’s no doubt about that. But the question is: in an industry where we’re getting our asses kicked financially by web developers, of all people, who will pay us to make it?

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Kirk Battle
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Not only is it tough to justify developing a single-player game, it's tough to justify paying for one as well. Until a game like 'Max Payne 2' or 'Bioshock' can cost 10 or 20 dollars on release, they're never going to seize on the kinds of profits a 10 dollar movie ticket can.

Either a developer will have to take an incredible leap of faith or maybe just recycle a lot of old assets & game content...but there must be a way to create new games without building a new engine, training a new team, and investing thousands of hours every single time.

Stephen Dinehart
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Agreed this is a great article!

To respond to Mr. Jeffries query above: It's called standardization, and it's the exact aim of the IGDA WSIG Tools Initiative. We are partnering with industry leaders to create a Universal Open Source Game Writing Tool. While just a first step, we as an industry need standardization to reduce cost, and compel our medium forward both fiscally and creatively.

For more information:

Brandon Sheffield
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garth - I think the shovelware will continue to fool people as long as people still keep going to blockbuster action movies or sappy romantic comedies. most people don't seem to want deep entertainment, or indeed to have to think at all.

also, while I agree that exclusives sell consoles, I don't think that the majority of marketshare will be on consoles in the next 5 years even. I think the casual/social/mmo market is going to explode on the pc for better or for worse. there'll be lots of shovelware there too, and the best will rise to the top, but as accessibility grows, so will the market. I don't think consoles will be the place to be at that time, when you're spending tens of millions and hoping to make your money back, versus spending one or two and having something sustainable.

and I'm not saying I like any of that!

Jacek Wesolowski
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What's really worrisome, is that when it comes to name a "deep" (i.e. "not shallow") game, one can point to Gears of War with not a hint of irony in their words, and still be treated seriously.

In terms of mainstream culture, a game as such needs to be:

- interesting,

- challenging but comprehensive,

- easy to learn but difficult to master,

- preferably, a viable social activity.

Online casual games have all or most of those characteristics, and AAA games don't.

AAA games are extremely difficult to learn. For instance, after over twenty years of playing games (with keyboard and mouse, usually), I've found out it's impossible for me to get used to gamepads. When I tried to play Assassin's Creed, I couldn't memorize the damn button combinations! I tried playing Army of Two the other day, and I couldn't beat the second mission on the lowest difficulty, even though I used to play Counter-Strike every day for three years. Or maybe I should say: I wouldn't beat that mission, because I got bored before I managed to overcome another generic obstacle that kept me pinned down for fifteen minutes.

Casual games win on that front, because they are as easy to grasp as street soccer. Kick the ball that way, try not to break any glass, don't push other players, and that's it.

On the other hand, once you learn to play your typical AAA title, it quickly runs out of fresh challenges. In other words, it's easy to master. How many gameplay interactions are there in Gears of War, ninety percent of time? There are two: a long unidimensional arena with player on one end and enemies on the other, and a small space with small, annoying melee attackers invading from all directions. And that's nearly all there is to it, except for a few enemies you need to avoid without making noises, a few rollercoaster rides, a few opportunities to operate a machinegun turret, and a few big monsters that just need to be hit in the right spot (and you're always being told which one). It takes longer to explain the controls than to explain the challenges. And that's supposed to be the paramount of first/third person shooters.

Now let me tell you something about being interesting. A pack of four males on steroids arguing about which one of them has bigger genitalia is interesting to a fifteen years old boy. Or to someone who can suspend his disbelief well enough to forget he's no longer fifteen. Have you heard of the Good Old Times gamer's syndrome? Here where I live most gamers burn out between the age of 20 and 25. Games can no longer keep their attention, because those gamers have grown up, and games have not. I still like computer games a lot, but when I'm playing I keep having thoughts like "I could be reading a book now, instead of letting my brain rot".

AAA games are as antisocial as it gets. Call it "dark side of the immersion" if you like. Online casual games have the advantage of being online. You can send a link to a flash game to your friend and ask them to beat your score. Or you can found an alliance in OGame.

Being antisocial isn't necessarilly something bad. Books are antisocial in a similar manner, and so is TV. But books and TV are superior to games in one very important aspect.

People go to see movies, because even a "shallow" movie can provide a rewarding experience. Experience is the keyword. For instance, Star Wars is just a silly fairy tale in space, but you do care for Luke and Leia, and Obi Wan, and Han Solo, and you do wish that the Rebels win, and you do feel the dread of Darth Vader. The story has emotional impact. Now how could someone possibly care about the likes of Marcus "my brain is made of concrete" Phoenix or Solid "and now for some exposition" Snake? I mean, someone who's not a diehard fan of computer gaming.

Not a long time ago, I've read a science-fiction book by a local author. It's eleven hundred pages long, and consists mostly of complicated debates on such topics as the economy of a gold rush, early XXth century politics, free will, and the nature of truth. It's a local bestseller in spite of being a significantly more involved reading than Harry Potter. People do buy it, because the narrative is well executed, and the problems presented are intellectually stimulating. How many games make you consider a philosophical, political, or scientific issue?

My father used to express himself with plastic ariplane models, scale 1:48. Whenever he had enough spare time (and that didn't happen very often), he would sit by his desk for hours, gluing a model together or painting it. He stopped when he ran out of room on his shelves. I used to have similar fun with Civilization and a few RPGs like Fallout or Arcanum, but we don't make games like these anymore. Not in large numbers, anyway (and please don't say "Bioware"; Bioware writing is notoriously graphomanic, their "moral dilemmas" are trivial, and if I never see that quest about five judges again, it will be too soon). Guess why Spore is being given such a hype.

AAA games are and always have been a niche, because they deserve it. Their entertainment values are on par with B-class movies, even when their budgets are bigger. They offer as much as online casual games do, but at a much higher cost. They can either become cheaper in terms of player's time and effort required (that is, become "casual"), or change their structure. Thoroughly.

In an attempt to be at least marginally constructive, I ask you to take a closer look at so-called niche titles and their audiences. Thief. Heroes of Might & Magic. Syberia. Games like these "don't sell". But they often appeal to those who are not your typical testosterone-poisoned teenager. This is the path to the mainstream culture, and not "Metal Gear Solid" or "Gears of War". And no, I don't mean to say "let's make more first person sneakers". Experience is the keyword, not mechanics.

Gorm Lai
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I do not necessarily agree that the new world of small online games, represents something shallow; instead they trade game dynamics for accessibility and a social experience (please note that used the term 'game dynamics' instead of 'game mechanics).

One of my favorite games is Assassin's Creed, but where would it be without its deep story and vast amounts of content? The game mechanics of the game are so simple, that they could easily be found in a smaller 2D variation on the original Prince of Persia. Many of the smaller, so called shallow titles, can claim just as advanced game mechanics as the modern AAA title.

I believe that if AAA titles want to avoid becoming niche (or admitting they are), then the mantra must be Accessibility, Accessibility, Accessibility. Note that accessibility does not necessarily means a lack of game play.

Jacek Wesolowski
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Garth - while I'm tempted by the perspective of a good discussion on whether Gears and Metal Gear are good games, I think it would miss the point. Good or not, these two games look to me as good examples of why big budget titles cannot brake into mainstream culture.

There are many techniques that can be used to present the setting to the player. Some games, like Beyond Good and Evil, tell a lot by simply letting you walk around. Many RPG games, like Baldur's Gate or Morrowind, resort to infodumps, but they do that in a strictly optional way. If the player doesn't want to read all those books, they can easily ignore them. Thief is an excellent example of good exposition in a first person action game. During briefings, the main character only says what he needs to say, but he shows a lot of personality in how he says it. All the flavour conversations are built into gameplay: you can overhear them if you manage to sneak up on the people speaking. You can also interrupt them at any time, or just leave, because you're never force-fed. In Call of Duty 4, the most is being told about the world when your superiors tell you "crew expendable", or when your colleagues make jokingly sarcastic remarks while bombing enemies from an airplane. All these methods are either interactive or kept in the background. The point of watching briefings in Thief or Call of Duty is to get briefing data, not to make friends with characters.

But most big games do it the Metal Gear Solid way, that is - they make the player watch exposition cutscenes. This is a mistake, because cutscenes belong to a different medium (which is clearly indicated by the fact that many players just skip them). I don't mean to say they are completely unnecesary, but when they turn into movies, they are shooting their own game in the foot. We don't mind, because we are hardcore gamers. We enjoy the medium itself, we play computer games for the sake of playing computer games. But for an "outsider" this kind of narrative is a showstopper. It's a movie, but it gets interrupted by action sequences. And it's not on par with real films in terms of dialogue or direction.

Gears of War shows a different problem. Most of all, it's almost a "pure" game - it has rules, it has victory conditions, and that's it. And it's a difficult game with complicated controls, that can nevertheless be described in a single paragraph. Casual games can be described in a single paragraph too, but they provide much simpler interfaces. For an "outsider" this is a definitely much better bargain.

Hardcore games have one big advantage over casual games, namely - they can provide an experience. A casual game is just that - a game, like chess or solitaire. A hardcore game is a medium. It can talk with the player, and thus create a meaning. This meaning doesn't need to be a moral or a message. It doesn't even need to be "deep". For instance, I return to Beyond Good and Evil from time to time, because it puts me in a very special mood that I find difficult to describe verbally.

But most hardcore games, including Gears of War, create very simple experiences that can be summarized as "feel like a hero". They also provide very little means for the player to actually identify with characters. If someone happens to secretly dream of being a 150kg mountain of flesh, then they will accept the role of Marcus easily, because it's been made specifically for them. But everybody else just won't get it. I don't get it. Gears of War bores me, in spite of a few neat tricks such as active reload, which of course was an excellent idea for a microinteraction (I strongly believe games should have more of those).

This isn't a matter of being combat-focused. Baldur's Gate is very combat-focused and it was a big hit among my female classmates in highschool. Most fans of the Heroes of Might and Magic series that I know personally are women. Married. With children.

The problem is in what a game offers *beyond* the fact that you're playing a game. In case of most AAA games the answer is "an exercise in hand-eye coordination" coupled with "feel like a hero". Now Thief, for example, is an exercise in patience and caution, coupled with "feel like an unwanted guest in the lion's den". That's different, so different people become fans of Thief. Surprisingly high number of men over 40, for example. In order to leave our niche, we need to stop repeating the same pattern of "feel like a hero" again and again.

Many people can be drawn into an interaction, if they can identify with or relate to other participants. This is of course much easier in a multiplayer game. In singleplayer, the burden lies on NPCs' shoulders. For someone who wants to be Marcus, he's an ideal avatar. But to most people, who have other dreams, he's just too simple. It would help a lot if he was a 150kg mountain of flesh with actual personality. But he has none. This isn't necessarily bad for Gears of War, but it is bad for games at large, because most games take exactly the same route.

Yannick Boucher
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Has anybody simply thought about time constraints ? Who has time to put in 100+ hours in Oblivion, 50+ hours in Final Fantasy, and 20+ hours in Metal Gear Solid ? Even I, as a hardcore gamer for more than 20 years, don't have that much time. So sometimes, yes, I just pop in Ghost Squad on the Wii and play for 20 minutes. Or I go on Facebook and kill time at the office by playing Scrabulous, or Tetris Friends.

There might be outside factors that some of us are forgetting. But personally, it pisses me off when my favorite game asks for 30 hours of my time. Give me Call of Duty 4's campaign length. And if I have/want to spend more time on it, i'll go on the multi.

Maurice Kroes
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I think the disruption chronicles by Sean Malstrom are getting more and more true.

Must read for everyone interested in the whole 'casual' discussion.

But really.. the casual gamers now, will be the hardcore gamers in the future. And the people growing up with the current technology will have no troubles with controlling and understanding the 'hardcore' games. My neighboor kid of 9 years old has no troubles playing StarCraft, or Oblivion etc.

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The idea of a hardcore niche is invalid - you can be 'hardcore' at almost anything... even casual games. On the surface, yes, things like NeoPets and Second Life (and for the matter, Puzzle Pirates) are fluffy, casual, no-commitment games. But that ignores the actual experience of playing them for someone as in love with them as someone who is a Final Fantasy fan playing the latest Final Fantasy. While 'casual' games are casual, they have very hardcore elements - NeoPets has a massive in-game economy, Puzzle Pirates can demand a significant length of time to merely travel from island to island, and Second Life... well... you have to be a businessperson to get anything.

The issue (if it is even an issue) is not that 'hardcore' games are hardcore or even complex. Hardcore spades players and hardcore chess exist and those rules can be complex for someone who isn't familiar with them. The issue is that the industry is currently very insular. The vast majority of games produced are produced for a niche within a niche - I'm not a Metal Gear Solid fan (or rather, I have no connection to the franchise) and the new MGS has very little appeal to me; unapologetic, MGS4 makes no attempt to appeal to anyone that isn't already a fan of the franchise. Indeed, even the video game media treats it the same way - it assumes that you are a fan and already love it.

Likewise, would anyone not a Diablo fan really care about Diablo 3? Would someone who is just getting into MMOs really be more attracted to having to figure out the often poor UI and keyboard demands ... or more attracted to simply wanting to play and not play finger twister?

The issue comes into play because, ultimately, games (video or otherwise) are social activities. Very few other forms of games are purely a single player experience. I'm not talking about the stereotype of balding 60 year old men who are virgins still living in their mom's basement - any sort of glance at any studio whether it is Firaxis, Green Monster, or Garage Games will disprove that. I'm not talking about the same stereotype of video games being anti-social (again, mention a franchise and fans will be happy to tell you all about it).

I'm talking about the fact that hardcore games do very little to attract people that aren't already video game fans. If you were watching a film and really loved it, you could easily tell someone who hates movies what it was about. They might still hate movies, but you could at least share the experience. You can talk about the story, about the experience, in terms they can understand.

You can't do that with video games (yet) because video games don't want you to. Saying "I farmed epics until I got a T3 blue from Graighpeic last night... man, we almost wiped since the ret shaman pulled an extra keldpea." doesn't mean anything to anyone unless they already know what you mean. Rarely do video games provide an experience that can be shared with a non-video gamer outside of the story. And typically, the story is such that it doesn't welcome newcomers or isn't in popular terms non-gamers can understand.

This isn't an issue of hardcore/casual, of accessibility and ease of play. It's an issue of the video game industry being in love with itself - we're riding on the highs that radio, film, and TV have generated and treating ourselves as superstars. It isn't all our faults though - the regular media does it too.

Of course, the issue is mostly a matter of age. As the industry and the people grow up and grow old, the language barrier will slowly erode as it did for film and the rest. However, the private attitude could still potentially be there - ask someone about playing computer games and they'll probably talk, incorrectly, about how they don't want to spend thousands of dollars to play a game - and that's the part we need to work on. And everyone needs to stop separating serious games and edutainment games and other 'fringe' industries as some sort of weird stepchild - they're as much a part as anybody else.

Frankly, if the best we have to offer/that the mainstream media will take is Fatality and 'negative' press like the Mass Effect nudity, that's more indicative of how we're -not- pressing people like Will Wright to the media. We need people like Tony Hawk and Vince Lombardi who can not just bring stardom to the media, but a personality, a passion, and a drive to bring their 'thing' to people... not dominate them and sell them products in order to be just as good as them. The ones we have who are like that, sadly, get shuffled away - I remember going to an E3 a few years back. Lots of glitz, lots of glamour. You have massive displays and big booths and the sort of flash superstar being thrown around. You had theaters set up with giant statues of game characters from the stuff being shown in those theaters. Where was Will Wright and Spore? A 10x15 dark room hidden in the EA booth (literally, the door was a non-descript panel) with a high school projection machine on a metal cart talking to the press people on cafeteria chairs. A far cry from the more trade show appearances (that get less regular press) where he gets at least a stage and wall sized screen to work with and talk freely.

Once people can talk about games on equal ground and once the industry is relaxed enough that it's at least mildly approachable, then we'll see real niches develop (genre niches and franchises not withstanding). And it won't be like the film industry. It'll be like the -media- industry. You will have Hollywood games(big budget), you will have TV games (small budget), you will have indie games (artsy/high concept games), you will have radio and newspaper (quick informative games), you'll have sports shows and game shows (5 second games).

Then we can talk about niches.

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Oh, and let's not forget one of the better examples of a casual hardcore experience - The Sims.

Dedan Anderson
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Huh? What is this article saying... games are for gamers, everyone else is dabbling in our hobby... main problem with our industry is that it grew too big; it's not that it should be big, it shouldn't be; it's not that is should be mass market, it will never be; it's just some money hungry companies (sony, microsoft) want to get in to everyone's living room and they think the trojan horse is games. Nintendo could care less about this and yet ironically they have got into more living rooms... funny how that goes... games will never be massmarket, my grand mother will never run to the shop to by the latest game for herself... we need to realize that this is just a hobby and respect it for that... movie's for most are not a hobby they are entertainment... there's a difference...

on the fact that it's becoming hard to justify the cost for a single-player game development - what crack is brandon smoking? Super Mario Galaxy??? Devil May Cry??? Ninja Gaiden??? Professor Layton? God Of War??? These game can't even work as multi-player games... if he would stop and actually try developing games he will realize that single-player and multi-player games are two different beast... single/multi - have nothing to do with budgets, budgets determine the amount of assets, quality of said assests and risk level of a project...

this article is a reason why i stopped by subscription to GD...

Dedan Anderson
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correct: articles like this (not necessarily this article) is a reason why i stopped my subscription to GD...

Castor Lau
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This article is making a big deal out of a simple blue ocean initiative. Some game companies have found a way to tap into a new market with a better pricing model. So what? Jealous?

Traditionally, video games have been "a waste of time/money" to many people for a long time. Games like Assassin's Creed and Bioshock have been part of the "hardcore niche" from the get go, regardless of free MMOs. Only a small percentage of people have the time, interest and hardware required to enjoy such games.

The final question, "in an industry where we’re getting our asses kicked financially by web developers, of all people, who will pay us to make it?" is invalid, because it's a different market. If you thought free MMO gamers would buy and play hardcore games, you are just kidding yourself.

The people who should be worried are those in different industries dealing with the same market, such as television and board games.

Julian Cram
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Anonymous said:

Saying "I farmed epics until I got a T3 blue from Graighpeic last night... man, we almost wiped since the ret shaman pulled an extra keldpea." doesn't mean anything to anyone unless they already know what you mean.

Dude, that's just you nerding out.

The problem isn't to do with the "industry" - you've proved yourself that gamers wanting to remain exclusive and "leet" by the speech they use.

Here's how you say what you just did without sounding like a complete nerd...

"This idiot ran past us, attracted the attention of a nasty monster, and then ran back to us. As we were all standing around picking our noses, we got killed."