With a few disastrous failures of late, you’d think this was all doom and gloom. I want to explain why I don’t think it is.
Gamers want to buy games.
I know, hold onto your nearest loved one as you digest that beguiling little nugget of truth but it’s certainly something we need to get out of the way very early on. Gamers – to the horror of an increasingly out of touch media narrative – are not nearly as dead as has been led to believe. Oh it’s certainly true that the market has shrunk in the last couple of years but that’s less down to political narrative and far more to do with a generation that simply isn’t creating content in the same way that it used to. Be that due to costs or a series of developers eschewing the traditional gaming sphere for a smaller, more intimate development team funded by the consumer through crowdfunding, the shrinking of the market is simply one of quantifiable numbers. Less games releases mean less money being spent, and sadly for the industry they have hit a wall in terms of DLC, pre-order culture and expensive additional add-ons. Even World of Warcraft has lately been subject to the scrutiny of the gaming world as a company which now revels in the unbridled avarice of charging its customers for each expansion whilst selling them levelling skips, pets, mounts and various other additional extras.
But I say that because we’re seeing smaller, “Artsy” games also taking a battering in the commercial landscape.
Look, let’s talk about Sunset. I’m sure most people want me to talk about the horrendous marketing and how it was left to a small company fronted by the very same “games journalist” who in August of 2014 kicked off the whole ‘Gamers Are Dead’ narrative, who floated the game around a small number of gaming websites which ultimately proved to not drive sales. You can argue all you want about how silly that sounds, but the problem was never that Sunset is a bad ‘experience’; it’s just that it’s not a very strong game in its own right. It’s an interactive story in a sense, a tale with some menial tasks to give a sense of interaction, but it’s not much of a game beyond that.
Gamers were targeted as the primary market for Sunset; but sadly it lacked that immediate interest that many games lately have had to drive sales. Say what you want about gamers in general but the success of Splatoon was not simply because it was a good game, but that it communicated immediately and efficiently what it was about; two teams of four squidlings splash paint around an arena in a multiplayer turf war, and the team who covered the most surface area in their teams colour of paint wins.
I consider Splatoon to be an art-style game though. At its core, there’s a lot of artistic brilliance to it. From the well-constructed arenas to the frankly alarmingly simple premise that seems now so obvious it’s almost hard to believe that it’s only now just been done by a company not traditionally associated with the team-based MOBA scene to its quirky neo-Tokyo concept and on to its focus on fashion and music to give the simple enough premise a charming character and identity, Splatoon is an incredibly high-concept game. But it gets the point across quickly, efficiently and then lets the player sink deeper into an online world that is at the same time bizarre but brilliant.
The problem with a game like Sunset is in how vague the idea is behind it all. There’s nothing inherently wrong with hidden depths; we all like to find our purchase has a lot more going on than first appears on the surface. It’s what separates the wheat from the chaff, what distinguishes between a good game and a truly great game. But if we’re being brutally honest here, video games have long since been sold firstly on the visual charm and impact alone.
There’s a reason people cheered on Doom 4 this year at E3; it looked fun, and looked good. As is the case with any recipe in the modern world, it turns out all too often that the first bite is with the eyes. It’s why for so many years, developers and publishers oversold their games with concept FMV and bullshots. It’s one thing to build an interesting, dynamic and solid video game, but as the gaming market has grown, so too has the casual audience. And by that I don’t mean mobile gamers, let’s be clear about that. They have their own market and they should be happy their own market is doing its own thing.
What I mean is that through the last two generations, the overwhelming success stories of the PlayStation 2 and the Nintendo Wii pulled in crowds for developers to pitch to who weren’t all that interested in the depth or the breadth of content. These individuals wanted simple, pretty and accessible games to show off with or just enjoy after a hard days work. This all kicked off in the PlayStation era, attracting a new breed of young, upwardly mobile young adult in the late teens to early twenties for whom gaming was far more about having the biggest names, not necessarily the best games. It’s a trend which has since dogged the industry like a particularly malignant little air biscuit that no amount of air freshener can seem to get rid of. It’s why horsepower is now considered the most important aspect of a games console; we’ve finally reached the point that people have swallowed wholesale into the gaping maw of believing that visual quality equates to progress. What I find more important in that is that throughout “Gen8” so far, we’ve seen more and more people come to realise this isn’t the case. And I think that’s a good thing. Aside over.
Never underestimate the importance of a good first impression; if our first bite is with the eyes, then we need to see something that grabs us and draws us in.
Sunset looked interesting, sure, to a certain audience. But it’s lacklustre sales tally of four thousand units (including KickStarted copies) for me isn’t and shouldn’t be anything to do with “Social Justice” or “Hidden Politicking”. To do that is to do the game a service that frankly I’m not convinced it deserves, and if anything, I’d even posit that it WANTS to be hated for that reason. It makes it easier for the people behind it to hate gamers the way they now say they do, to be angry at us for disagreeing with their ideology or personal political persuasion. Giving them what they want, especially when it’s not what killed their game, is never going to help.
No, the real problem games like Sunset have is that when they show off gameplay footage – there’s not a lot going on. Because ultimately, there’s not a lot of gameplay. They are interactive pieces of fiction, novels with some basic mini-games, and whilst there is a small market for that it must be pointed out that it is a small market; a niche corner of a niche genre hidden deep within a niche subspecies of interactive media. Marketing a game like Sunset to Gamers was its first and perhaps most immediate mistake; it was kind of the wrong market.
That’s not to say that there isn’t validity in software like Sunset, or Her Story or Dear Ester or any number of artistic games. The problem comes from pushing them as games, and more than that, getting pretentious games critics (Irony so thick here you could cut it and spread it on your morning toast!) to effectively laud your game for how “different” it is. In a similar vein, it seems that the critical darling of the moment – namely Her Story – is suffering a similar issue. The gaming press has long since lost its impact to sell a product on recommendation alone. Gamers are turning to YouTube trailers, footage and Let’s Play videos to make more educated purchases – again, to see what they’re potentially getting into. It’s why Splatoon was again the success that it has been for Nintendo – the company spent a lot of time showing how it was played. There was no illusion going in. We got what we came for – and possibly more than that as well.
No doubt this new trend is making life very hard for games developers. But if your game is a couple hours long and comprised more of narrative than actual gameplay, most people will gravitate towards YouTube footage or a Twitch stream, see what the fuss is about, and move on once they’ve consumed it, getting the video maker paid for their hits and robbing the actual developer of a sale. That’s the market right now; there’s less and less room for these small narrative-focused titles because ultimately gamers can get the same experience watching a video of it as playing it. And one of those things doesn’t cost a penny.
Steam’s refund policy also can’t be helping; it’s a great thing to see refunds happening now on a digital storefront like Steam, and it kneecaps the lazy asset flips and the broken developmental dead-weight that has for a while been dragging the whole Steam client into the ground. Likewise, it also hurts sales of these short games; people can play them for a bit, see they’re not really focused on the gameplay and if that’s not their thing (and it probably isn’t if it is on Steam), they can now get a refund. Once, you had to live with your poor Steam purchases. Now, of course, you don’t. And that is a bad place to be too if your game isn’t grabbing the attention of gamers.
Note that nothing of that has anything to do with the personal politics of the developers, the game or the buyers.
The reason Sunset failed is actually far more simple than people want to accept; it was an okay but ultimately shallow interactive experience that was targeted at the wrong audience, at a time when the gaming market was shifting and at a time that other more interesting things were happening. There is nothing more complicated about it than that; it’s also why more games going forward are going to have to work to carve out a niche. You can’t simply assume “gamers” will buy anything and you cannot rely on the media to sell your product in the same way you could a decade ago. Gamers have moved on, and so too must the industry at large on all fronts.
The joke at the heart of it all is that the industry tried to murder the second-hand market; and succeeded in a sense, as we have since been migrating to digital content we can’t sell on. Now gamers can get refunds on dodgy content, you can’t even be happy for that one original sale. The customer hates it? Congratulations! They can get their money back now. Yes, take aim and fire squarely into your feet, games industry. Bravo! Classic case of ‘be careful what you wish for’.
The world for games developers, both big and small, has become much smaller and much more dangerous. The power has been steadily shifting back to the consumer since I penned a piece a while back about the decidedly murky grey area of digital content – and more importantly, the consumers now know it. In a consumer-driven market, the successful products will be those who sell to their primary market – i.e. the gamers themselves. You can’t and won’t be getting away with shortcuts (Batman: Arkham Knight on PC has proven this beyond any doubt) and you can’t and won’t get away with trying to piggyback on the concept of ‘game’ in order to shift something that may not wholly be a game in the traditional sense, as Sunset proved.
In the gaming industry we face now, it will be the strongest games which will survive. I, for one, am glad to see this shift in tone. The industry hates it though. Which is proof positive that whatever these smaller studios say, that it is working now for the consumer.
Adapt or die, that old P. W. Botha statement has never made more sense than it does now. You want peoples money? Okay. But you have to earn it. You aren’t entitled to it.
It is time to start selling the market things that it wants, rather than what you think is important. You can still do great things within the traditional gaming sphere, and we’ve seen many great examples over the years. You can still put your message in there. You can still make an artistic stand. Heck, you can still make a political point if you want to. You just need to make sure that, when aimed at gamers, there’s a game there that can withstand at least basic scrutiny. If you can’t do that… well. Why should we buy your game?
It doesn’t need to be any harder than that, and everything else is just wasted oxygen.