An Ageing Issue

Okay, so I’m redoing this piece after losing it. Hello again, ESA Annual Report 2015.

The gaming market is getting older.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at the ESA Essential Facts of the Games Industry/Market 2015. There are lots of interesting factoids in here. The one most people got obsessed by was the small detail that only 3% of consumers consider reviews a primary influence when buying a video game, when actually that shouldn’t be a shock to anyone, anywhere, at all. It was a mountain from a molehill trying to score points off of some websites which are not as popular as they used to be.

The most interesting bit, from my perspective, was the ageing of the market. The average gamer is 35; with male gamers at 35, and female gamers at 42.

In some regards, this doesn’t shock me. In 2013, the average gamer was 30, and in 2014 the average gamer was 31. Now the average gamer is 35, and I’m guessing we’ll see that figure steadily rise as it has been doing for a while now. So why is the average age of a gamer rising? And what does this tell us about the games industry at large?

1. Gamers are a static audience.

The reason numerically that the average age is rising may be because gamers as a whole are a static audience. Many self-titled ‘gamers’ have been playing video games for years, if not decades, and as such their interest is already captured. The problem comes when it is time to engage with new, younger audiences who are old enough now to buy, play and enjoy video games. The reason that the average goes up is because we don’t seem to have a new fresh swathe of young interest coming into the market. As we ‘Gamers’ age, so too will the market average.

This posits a conundrum for the games industry; clearly seeking to engage with young audiences hasn’t had the desired effect. Some time ago, we covered that the likes of Fuse had been designed and focus-tested on and around twelve-year-old boys, which ultimately seemed to kill interest dead. Trying to make “grown-up” games pitched at kids doesn’t seem to work. And ask Nintendo, trying to make games anyone can buy and enjoy only seems to amplify a “for kids” ideal. It leads us into a complicated stalemate, where the industry hasn’t quite managed to sell itself – or indeed, this new generation – to a younger market, for whatever social, political or economic reasons you can name.

The danger is if we keep getting older, there will be a risk that video games themselves are seen as “old-fashioned”. How would I change this? Well, that leads me into…

2. The Industry Talent is… well, Old.

Take a moment to think about names in the games industry you know about.

Hideo Kojima. Shigeru Miyamoto. Tim Schafer. Shinji Mikami. Peter Molyneux. Kaz Hirai. Noticing a pattern? Yep, they’re all male. But that’s not the critical problem I’m seeing – it’s that these men have been in the industry a LONG time, and are not – with all the best intentions meant – as young as they used to be.

This is a big difference between the Games Industry and, say, Music. When one singer gets a bit old for kids today, they push a new singer out for kids to idolise. New actors come into the scene all the time. There is a thoroughfare of talent that keeps most creative industries looking fresh and inviting and interesting. The problem for the games industry is that most would struggle to name one woman of any age to come through the ranks (The answer is Jade Raymond, by the way, and you’re welcome!), and there is a significant lack of new young faces being pushed out there by games publishers and studios. When your most famous and bankable names are all middle-aged or ageing men, you have to accept there may be a slight issue.

For younger people to see interesting things in the industry, ideally you want projects from the minds of people of that generation. Nintendo does seem to have caught wind of this, if its Treehouse Live stream last year was anything to go by, but I still would struggle to tell you what those people were called. Yet I know Reggie Fils-Aimé, Satoru Iwata, Bill Trinnen and Shigeru Miyamoto off the top of my head.

We need more exposure to the faces, ideas and thoughts of a new generation if we’re to capture the minds of a new generation. Otherwise we’re just cynically pandering to them from a position of aged authority, and there’s nothing to condescending as an older person trying to tell a younger one what they should be liking. I was young in the 80’s and early 90’s. Believe me, it wasn’t so long ago that I forgot my own struggles to be “myself”…

3. Most Franchises Are Getting On A Bit.

People will scoff, but stop. Think about this; you enjoyed GTAV? Yeah. I bet you did. Consider this for a brief moment; someone born today in 1997 would only now, in the UK, be able to legally purchase GTAV. Why did I pick 1997? Because that was the year the first entrant into a franchise called Grand Theft Auto hit the market.

And it’s not alone. Metal Gear Solid V is a big thing for the games industry. First entrant in this series? 1987. Mario Kart 8 – first entrant; Super Mario Kart, 1993. Mortal Kombat X. First time we got to pull off a fatality? 1992. Resident Evil – 1996 (and arguably, Sweet Home was the original source – 1989). Silent Hill – 1999. Street Fighter – 1988 (but if we don’t count the original side-scrolling brawler, Street Fighter 2 was released in 1991). Call of Duty began in 2003. Don’t think Battlefield is any younger; that franchise began in 2002.

And so on, and so on, and so on.

So we have dependable franchises taking up a lions share of the market and marketing budgets. This means often that most people who are contractually hired into studios will cut their teeth on older franchises, and that would be excellent if they got a shot of making their own stuff too. However, the games industry has had an aversion to that for a while, so what tends to happen is this talent ends up getting shelved when a development cycle is up, going off and starting an indie studio. The explosion in the independent scene has not been coincidental; it’s a side-effect of an old-school way of doing business. That talent used to be nurtured inside the beating heart of the games industry, and now it is wasted by short-sighted profit goals.

So why was this issue so quietly glossed over? Well, I suspect therein lies another ageing populous; games media.

I said this last year as a throwaway comment; the games press has for years cultivated console wars, fan-boy agendas and general devotion. Many of the names in this sphere are, themselves, not quite as young as they used to be either, and are trying to remain relevant in a modern era.

This is why games media became so incestuously tied to the indie scene and the games industry as a whole. Partly because, after years of relationship between the lot of them, it’s easier to influence someone. But also because the movement coming through the colleges and campus protests right now is a young, vocal, argumentative group of people seeking change. The same kind of people that games media latched onto in the early to mid noughties, who unsurprisingly got the idea from magazines who were pulling the same stunt back in the early 90’s, when Sega got the idea that pitching its marketing to teenagers and saying Nintendo was “for kids” was a good idea (There you go people, the source of the myth! Nice work, Sega! Really worked out for you, huh?).

It’s not that gamers are dead or were dead; we were a stagnating audience. Cynical, jaded, we’d been around the block and after the fuss over game releases like Colonial Marines, and the dropping of support for pre-order culture, some elements of the gaming press knew that this was a dead-end for them. The alternative? Attract a new audience that is tangentially similar in style and tone to the one you are trying to replace, and set about conditioning that new audience whilst making the voices from the ageing audience irrelevant to them.

But this is oil and water; the two audiences were never going to mix. We all know what sprung from this particular corrupted wellspring. And let’s leave it at that. We’re dangerously close to the stinky stuff and I’d like to not have to put my gas-mask on today.

Thing is, by not knowing this is a problem, we’re dooming gaming as we know it.

I don’t believe older people can talk down to a younger market. I don’t think that is sustainable. There’s a reason for this; eventually, a generation wants its own voice, it’s own iconography, its own heroes. Far too much of the industry – and the press – is focused on what is, or what has been. That’s never going to work. If you live in the past, you’re stuck in the past, and why would any young person seeking their own brand of fun and jollity enter a room where people are arguing over what people want now? We’re talking about the past, we’re looking to assign blame, and that’s an exercise in sheer futility.

The industry now, more than ever, needs to invest in new talent and new IP. It needs new heroes, new ‘celebrities’, new gaming icons to join the ranks of Sonic, Mario and Lara Croft. Lara Croft entered the icon stratosphere because a new audience wanted in both ways an identifiable female icon and a digital fantasy to knock a round over. And that sounds so old-fashioned, but that’s the point. That was 1996. This is 2015. Lara was what both men and women of that era wanted, someone listened, and a franchise was born.

Lately, we’ve had UbiSoft telling us Aiden Pearce from Watch_Dogs has an “Iconic Baseball Cap”.

If that’s what passes for iconic in the modern era, bring on the new blood I say…

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