Wait, can I do that? Can I actually censor that word enough there? Eh. There has been plenty of talk from the industry that games need a “broader appeal”, and whilst this may be true, I don’t agree that has to mean games themselves need broader appeal – just widen the scope of games on the market.
When EA, Activision, Capcom, UbiSoft… you know what? Let’s cut the BS there. When the INDUSTRY says it needs games with “broader appeal”, I despair.
This is not because I don’t in some sense disagree with the notion that games need a broader spectrum. Nintendo were incredibly savvy when it came to the Nintendo DS and the Wii, when they pitched machines not towards the traditionalist gaming market that favours first person shooters and third person action games. Nintendo did this with a real intent and purpose, whether it is aware of this or not – it meant that they were selling to a greater market of people.
For all the shit we can talk about Nintendo (and let’s be honest, we can level truckloads of shit at their doorstep), this was one of the smartest business decisions that anyone has made in recent memory. Titles like Wii Fit and Wii Sports attracted a new-age, health conscious market – one that traditionally would have shunned video game consoles because they were tarnished with the image of overweight teenagers spending late nights swearing at others for being better than them. You had the DS, with its wide variety of mental puzzle games, mystery thrillers and the like appealing to a crowd that was more interested in an electronic device handling their entertainment than lugging around a book, or an e-reader. And yet, despite appealing and selling an awful lot of things (Wii Fit sold well over 20 million units), Nintendo still managed to put out games that appealed to their normal customer base, Mario Kart selling over 32 MILLION units. Yes, that’s right, Mario Kart Wii sold over 32 million units.
The reality that the Wii brought was one of fragmentation – it split the market, intentionally so. Games had to be custom made for the Wii, rather than be bog-standard ports. It brought in new customers with gimmicks and software designed to appeal to their hobbies and interests whilst doing its best – admittedly solo – to keep its traditional customers happy with Zelda, Metroid, Mario. And in its dying days, the Wii became almost the new home of the JRPG, a genre most had considered dead, and proved that there was still an audience out there for it.
The success of Nintendo was not because of gimmicks, but because they grasped a basic truth of the market – that not everyone is the same, so your machine needs to do more.
EA, Activision et al are struggling right now to sell games – EA have gone on record to state Dead Space 3 will need to sell five million copies to see any return on the investment (which makes no sense). But they all miss the point, and they end up ensuring their own games end up homogeneous, bland and boring. As they struggle to save money, the re-use of assets like sound and engines has ensured games are beginning to blend into each other a little more than we’d like. This is of course fantastic if you LIKE the sort of dreary corridor-based cover shooters that are becoming ever more prominent in the industry, but for everyone else it’s something we’re just not that into.
There’s a reason Mario Kart Wii sold 32 million units. A reason Wii Fit sold over 20 million units. A reason New Super Mario Bros. Wii sold 26 million units. Figures that EA and Activision can only dream of, and yet Nintendo can attain them without constant complaints or bitching. The reason is this – know your market, and sell to it.
Broadening the appeal of Ninja Gaiden 3 meant that it had to appeal to more than the hardcore crowd that had once made it such a success. The way they did this was not to tighten it up, or make it fairer, but to dumb it down and make it simple and accessible to anyone with a working braincell and at least one finger on either hand. Immediately, without question, critics and its traditional consumer base rebelled, and called it out for what it was – a vulgar, crass and horrific exercise into tainting a once recognised and loved brand into something not worthy of its name. Ergo, Ninja Gaiden 3 has been to all intents and purposes a bit of a write off. It simply hasn’t the sales nor the critical praise required to ensure its continued success. It is very likely it will be many, many years before we see it again, and it won’t be in this guise.
Consumers are loyal to a brand or a genre for a particular reason. In the case of Ninja Gaiden, the consumers who bought into it liked the challenge, they liked the brutality of it all. They liked the slow progression because that was what worked for them. This is what sold it. When you change a formula like that simply because you want to appeal to another market as well, you’re always running a higher risk of utter abject failure.
Dead Space and Resident Evil again are games that have swiftly moved from the horror margins – I did write about this before so don’t ask me to explain why the horror market became such a no-go area – into a more action orientated arena, akin to Gears of War – a game that has sold many millions of copies. But these games began as horror games, and the absence of horror and the addition of co-operative multiplayer has driven many traditionalists out of these games. They don’t WANT to play with other people in their horror game. They want to be scared and often that means playing solo, in the dark, with surround sound in the middle of the night. This is the horror gamer, and they have their ways and expectations. Move your game out of the genre they’ve grown to appreciate and you lose that customer.
You might see a pattern there. Broadening the appeal often means making it like something else that is more successful, rather than building on what you have and making it better. This means that many consumers are spending less and less on games simply because the genre that they are accustomed to is shrinking rapidly as everyone tries to outdo each other by copying what each other is doing. All the while, you have Nintendo looking on, sitting atop a massive pile of cash, bemused by it all. They are fighting over each others numbers without taking a look at their own. Resident Evil 4 sold over seven million units, whereas Resident Evil 5 sold 5.8 million. Which is less. Still impressive, but Capcom are STILL talking about Resident Evil 6 having a more “wide appeal”. Why would you need to do that when your last game sold five million copies?
It’s a sort of envy I suppose that the industry has, they all want to be like each other and all secretly wish they knew the secret to what makes Nintendo so successful. But it isn’t a secret. It’s basic common sense. There is no “common gamer” anymore. We’re all different. Young and old, male or female, whatever sexuality or race, we’re all after different things from our entertainment and when we find something we like, we stay more or less with it until it throws us off. The contraction of genres and the stranglehold of copycat cloning going on is, ironically, not broadening the market at all – it’s shrinking it, and forcing less and less sales numbers as everyone competes for a smaller and smaller piece of territory. The more people try to jump into these spaces and markets, the less there is to go around. One game can feast well on a deserted genre, but the minute you have two, they will naturally compete for resources – in this case, consumers. Add in another. And then another. And then another.
It’s a sad reality, but it is one that again Nintendo are very good at seizing on. The Wii-U and 3DS, whatever people may think of them, will likely have more of what made their predecessors such a success – a broad and wide range of games from multiple genres, trying new stuff out and sticking to old genres as well to keep those fans happy. JRPG fans only need a few games in a year – three or four – and if they’re good, then that’s the genre kind of sewn up in Nintendo’s favour right?
Here’s the thing – change is hard. But if you change your attitude and clothes to fit in with the biker crowd, don’t be surprised that the country club doesn’t want to know you anymore. Changing to appeal to someone else only ends up with you alienating those who once felt they knew you – and it is no guarantee the other person wants to know you either. And then you have nothing. Zip. Nada.
That’s when things get ugly. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow did this. They moved the game towards God of War, but it wasn’t good enough to stand next to it. But it couldn’t go back – because the moment it left, Dark Souls stole the Metroidvania throne. Now it’s got to be bloody brilliant in its sequel or it really is up shits creek sans paddle. God of War and Bayonetta fans already have some of the best bloody games they could hope for. They won’t settle for an imitator when the originals are still so prominent (believe it or not, some of these people still play these games years on!). And likewise, Dark Souls has sold over a million units in less than a year – which is bloody impressive for what was considered a very niche game. Oh, and did we mention From Software made a profit from those sales? Yeah. It’s possible to make a profit from a million sales. Who would have thought it?
So Lords of Shadow has some work to do. Because it’s suddenly a game without a place, because it wanted to be something else entirely.
My overriding point here is that genres are not merely words and concepts – there are people who buy into these genres, who are fiercely loyal to their chosen genre, and they won’t buy a game that moves away from their genre to something else. And they are unlikely to buy a game trying to infiltrate their market and not doing a very good job of it. They will want – and pay good money for – games tailored and designed for their genre exclusively and explicitly. That is what they want, and that is often where you find people making a profit on their work.
By trying to be a jack of all trades, you end up a master of none. And in a market fractured into such tight genre niches, it is impossible for a single game to break down so many genre boundaries and appeal to everyone within. A one-size-fits-all approach will not broaden appeal. There are still bigger people who will pay for a fitted 3XL suit and smaller size zero types who will pay good money for clothes tailored to them. This is business. Difference means you have to do more than just make clothes – you have to sell to the correct audience as well, and tailor designs and fashions to them. And whatever someones size, they will always pay good money for quality goods aimed at them specifically. They want to feel special, loved, fashionable. Not like you just scaled up or down normal clothes.
Annother analogy; the industry spends billions trying to convince itself that we all need to be rounded up into the same pen so we can all be fed with the same feed. But when you put cows, sheep, chickens, dogs and pigs in the same pen – don’t expect everyone to get along willingly. Even a farmer knows it’s more cost effective to keep their animals in the environments they are accustomed to, and feed them the very things they need to survive. Which, as it turns out, is different for each and every species – cows and sheep tend to be vegetarian whereas pigs and dogs tend to lean more towards eating meat as well. It’s just how nature is.
We’re all different. The industry wants to believe we aren’t. And that’s why “broader appeal” is bollocks. Because it’s a cheap cop-out designed primarily to save money – and yet somehow, manages to do the exact opposite because we’re buying into it less and less.
There’s a pattern there. If only they’d see it.
(Lead image is Homestar Runner, of homestarrunner.com – it’s dot com!)