The casual gaming revolution is upon us, they say. Almost every new video game is aimed at those shadowy figures that clamor for Kinect functionality, the WiiU and worst of all, accessible content for the whole family. Last month, you could hear the shrieks of terror reverberating in the halls of the Los Angeles Convention Center as the hardcore gamer crowd was dealt a fatal blow at this year’s E3. Though do not fret, dear reader. It won’t be hard to keep them in our thoughts and in our hearts, now and for all time. That is, of course, because those gamers aren’t going anywhere.
The video game industry is changing, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen before. While developers try to appeal to the shifting and evolving demographics that didn’t exist ten years ago, the end result is something very similar to the business of creating any other established media. Understandably so, since recent numbers would make a Hollywood executive jealous. According to the NPD Group, the video game industry did 18.6 billion dollars in sales in 2010. Although the same names are still at the forefront of the industry, those corporations, like EA Games and Activision, now find themselves joined by companies like Zynga, PopCap and Rovio. With any growth, there will always be a corresponding transition to new technology, platforms and titles.
In turn, rabid fans often misinterpret the intentions of publishers, as what may look like a period of “casualization” from a hardcore gamer’s perspective is actually market growth. Publishers aren’t trying to woo casual gamers – companies are chasing potential profits. When a small developer turns a Facebook game into a $10 billion empire, everyone is going to rethink their business model. To ignore that trend is leaving money on the table, something you almost never hear when people point out how they feel the medium is leaving them behind. We gamers often forget that for the companies that make what we love, video games are a business first and entertainment second.
Therefore, the real danger to the future of gaming isn’t casualization, but something far more disconcerting. Publicly traded companies don’t strive to create art. Their purpose is to focus on profit by making safe solutions. Those publishers looking to avoid risk are depending on bankable properties that feature recognizable brands and licenced characters. The end result is a formula that leaves companies chasing last year’s sales data and trends, while consumers swallow the same dreck again and again. It isn’t casualization – it’s homogenization.
As the cost of delivering a polished product goes up for developers, so does the pressure from the publisher. In turn, it becomes more difficult to bank on anything but a hit, with past expectations of gamers driving sales while bad reviews threaten to stifle them. As an example, take the above data. Although the three titles were released within the same two week span in October 2010, that’s about all they have in common. It comes as no surprise that the two titles with better brand recognition did better with gamers, but something else lurks in the data. It is the driving force behind homogenization – the industry’s inability to sell anything beyond a simple concept from an established franchise or genre.
Right now, it’s a risky venture to put out a unique product. When we take another look at the three aforementioned games, we see that good games don’t always sell. Both Enslaved and Castlevania did well with critics, garnering what could be defined as a recommendation to buy, but didn’t find corresponding success with gamers. However, despite substandard review scores that caused a dip in the company’s stock price, Medal of Honor did well. As you can see above, critics won’t influence sales as long as you produce what’s popular. In retrospect, the assessment that Medal of Honor was a derivative experience with little to add to the genre should have been something EA advertised on the game’s cover art. With results like that, publishers have every reason to fear the unknown.
When good titles are getting left on the shelf while the same old stuff goes home, everyone has an opinion on who the guilty party is. Publishers blame consumers. Developers blame publishers or themselves. Gamers blame everyone but themselves. Yet, the sales data and aggregate review scores show the truth – if you want a hit, keep selling the same thing that did well last year.
Although that strategy might make for good business, it isn’t helping the medium in the least. You can say what you will about the supposed casualization of gaming, but it’s a mere byproduct of a larger trend, and if anything, it’s bringing new blood into our hobby. Homogenization, conversely, is holding the industry back from making major strides towards the future. A focus on cost and corresponding revenue has meant that a lot of great games won’t enter development, as publishers refuse to fund anything that isn’t a sure hit. It’s not easy to produce a game that’s an innovative, inspiring narrative that broadens how we think about emergent gameplay and immersion, so you won’t see many of those titles going into production. There’s simply not a lot of profit in making video games into an art form.
We have nothing to fear from an influx of new gamers enjoying our hobby, as publishers understand that casual users become hardcore fans as often as treadmill joggers become marathon runners. The sales of games aimed at the casual crowd tend to be more insular to review scores than that of less-mainstream games, so that’s one place where companies are going to chase profits for now. It’s the same thing we’ve seen in the past with the quality of popular brands and characters leading to waning quality when good games turn into profitable franchises. It’s easy to pin that on a variety reasons garnered for a gamers’ emotional responses, but the rational reason is that the video game industry is controlled by corporations that want to remain in operation. Staying in business means producing what sells, which, at the moment, means more homogenization. So, if you want something to blame for the future of video games, you need look no farther than the past.