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Opinion: The Hardcore Niche

Opinion: The Hardcore Niche Exclusive

July 3, 2008 | By Brandon Sheffield

July 3, 2008 | By Brandon Sheffield
More: Console/PC, Exclusive

[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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