The Casualisation of A Core Market?

 


There’s a myth that the Wii U failed because it was a ‘casual console’ .

That’s a historical rewrite that belies the utter lunacy of the games industry and gamers at their *ahem* core in the modern era. Had Nintendo wanted to court a more ‘casual’ audience, I’m convinced it would have done better marketing and probably the Wii U itself would have been a very different console at heart. Nintendo had faith that it was focusing back on a core audience after years of the press claiming that it had been neglecting it on the Wii – again, another heaping heapful of unremitting revisionist garbage. The Wii U was every bit as focused on a ‘core’ market as the PlayStation 4 and XBox One. That was meant to be one of the earliest takeaways from its reveal – this was meant to be for gamers again.

Gen-8 was entirely predicated on shifting the focus back onto a “core” gaming audience. That was the point. Falling Wii sales in the latter couple of years of its life and the utter disaster of Blu-Ray had convinced the wider hardware industry, and the developers too, that the casual audience had already left for smartphones and tablet devices. The industry wanted to get back, they claimed early on, to us. The gamers. The “core” audience.

Strange thing for me is that such claims stand at odds against how the business model has been eroding over the last few years. Falling software sales and revenue streams, alongside more games failing to even meet moderate sales targets, have conspired to shift the industry to adopt models that are at distinct odds with its ‘core’ market.

Take, for example, Resident Evil 7. I’ve said bad things about it but what was most egregious was its Season Pass, a bunch of experimental and actually not that good optional modes that traditionally would have been tossed into the game by default to give it something approaching longevity – after all, the only reason Resident Evil 5 and 6 are remotely tolerable are the Mercenary modes. Dark Souls 2 and indeed, Dark Souls 3 both sold you the ‘true’ endings as additional DLC content, something other companies have taken a shine at doing as well. Heck, who remembers “Easy Fatalities” in Mortal Kombat X? Because it’s so difficult to pause a game, open up the moves menu and hit the d-pad to the right a couple times to see full lists of the actual fatalities your character can perform. And hell, even that is rather comical considering in the olden days, we needed to buy an actual games magazine in order to read the fatality codes!

And WB Interactive again are at it with Shadow of War: Middle Earth – it has loot crates, microtransactions, bonus experience potions and of course the obligatory season pass.

For an industry that seems to be screaming about the core audience until its blue in the face, what I find comical about much of this is that it’s not at all aimed or indeed wanted by the so-called ‘core audience’. Indeed, much of this – easy fatalities, experience bonuses, additional potions and extra lives – only serves to highlight that even though the industry is quite aware that much of the casual audience has departed for pastures new, they cannot let these financially lucrative models go and have, in effect, started a troubling and perhaps even destructive trend in big-brand gaming; the casualisation of a core audience.

Take-Two were not shy about the reasons why GTA Online has so much of this – sure, people hate it, but it makes money. And by leaving the option on the table, they can turn the difficulty thumbscrews up gradually and by degrees until things are so unbearable that the player has one of two options – stop playing, or pay money to soften the challenge a bit. This has been the model that ‘casual games’ employed for years on mobile titles like Candy Crush – hook people in, get them invested and then make it so unbearably difficult that the option to pay even a little bit of money to ease things off a bit looks like a sound investment. Until the next time that happens, and before long the player is conditioned to dive into their wallets each time a developer throws up an arbitrary wall of difficulty.

It’s not that we hate it – we clearly do – but they have faith in the core audience that they’ll want to continue on to finish a game, or be so invested in a game that locking an ending behind a £30 season pass paywall will compel them to hand over the cash.

There’s a degree of cynicism in that which is almost beautiful, of course. Take the model that makes the likes of King and indeed, Niantic a ton of money and apply it to ‘core games’; finished Resident Evil 7 in a week and want something challenging to keep things interesting? That’ll be an additional £11.99, or £7.99 for the second episode, or indeed the “Season Pass” – which was £24.99. So that “Not A Hero” content wasn’t exactly as… ahem… “free” as Capcom and indeed the press was pointing out. Non-plussed that people are kicking your ass in certain online games? Fork over some cash and we’ll hand you a powerful weapon item in order for you to get revenge – ignore the fact the person probably killed you with this exact item in the first place, and that we’re effectively hoping that the next person you kill with it will be angry enough to fork over money to buy this weapon and kill a person who will be angry enough to…

Yeah, picture a snake swallowing its own tail.

There are of course some relatively decent reasons for this – namely, that video game development costs have been spiralling out of control for more than a decade now. The larger teams needed, the more sophisticated the tools required and the more work necessitated in order to get these games to completion has been rising far beyond the current price point. Where once even a big-budget game could make a profit on a £40 release, now even at a £50-£60 price point a lot of these titles will never actually see a return on basic physical or even digital sales alone. Additional revenue streams are required in order to make up the shortfall, hence microtransactions and DLC and loot crates and all this nonsense.

The danger is, of course, that the core audience isn’t going to take this attempt to ‘casualise’ them very well.

Indeed, the past couple days I’ve seen an outraged audience spitting barrels of venom towards Warner Bros. Interactive and indeed, Monolith for adding this stuff into Shadow of War: Middle Earth. They’re furious, with many even outright stating they will never buy the game at full price and wait until that £50 game at retail is on sale for less than a fifth of that. They’re actually going to boycott a game. And weirdly, this isn’t nearly as uncommon in the market as you’d think.

Street Fighter V sales cratered – it sold the bulk of its 1.7 million copies in the first couple months and across the last year and a half, the game – despite being almost always on sale on the PS4 storefront (I’ve regularly seen it below the £10 mark) – has sold about 150,000 additional copies. Capcom attempted to grab the fiscal model of Killer Instinct. The difference, of course, is Killer Instinct has been free to download and you get to use a select character or two whilst its free, then you can pay for character packs that ultimately let you get the stuff you want and neglect the other things you don’t. Street Fighter V sold at £50, was unfinished and was already pushing additional character packs before the game had even launched, meaning they were more interested in selling you more characters than finishing the base game.

Gamers are already holding off now; they’re waiting for “Game of the Year” editions, or “Complete” additions or just for a decent price drop during a flash sale or a sale event before they wade in. It’s happening.

Sadly, the industry won’t stop salting the earth on this front despite the fact we’ve seen what happens here. The more money a person invests in a game, the more attached they get to it and the less likely they are to try different things. Why do you think World of Warcraft still dominates the MMORPG sphere? Oh it’s losing subscribers, but not at a rate that makes other games attractive and they’re clearly not leaving for other MMORPG titles since there’s no real influx to these games either. The reason why Blizzard’s monolith was so hard to shift is by the time the industry got around to doing anything resembling good competition for it, many had invested hundreds of hours into Azeroth, paid at least three years of subscriptions and bought two expansions by that point – with the base game having cost I think £49.99, three years of £7.99 a month and two expansions at £39.99, I make that a total investment of £417.61 – and that’s not even taking into consideration the time investment either.

The risk is that will happen in these new “casual-core games”; that players will be so emotionally and financially invested in a game that they won’t go elsewhere, they won’t be interested in sequels – or they’ll effectively just wait until its cheap enough that it amounts to little more than a microtransaction in and of itself. The danger is that what the industry is doing, by adding in trends and transactions that used to be more commonly seen in social or casual gaming, is that they are in effect devaluing their own work. That players will continue to do the usual thing and treat new content as another microtransaction, waiting for it to crash in price before jumping on board because why should they pay you £60 for a new game, eh? That’s so expensive!

Dwindling sales figures and the inability to meet even modest sales expectations should tell the industry that this is going down like a lead balloon with the supposed “core” audience. It’s one that clearly doesn’t mind DLC – good DLC is a good thing, add more content to their games for a reasonable fee and people are fine with that. But even that fails to take into consideration the more we spend on one game, the less we have to spend on other games. If we had £80, we could have once bought two brand new big-brand titles. Now that £80 might not even cover the full content for one big-brand game.

The industry is so focused on trying to bring in money, they’ve failed to see the meteor looming overhead; if gamers can’t afford all these games, then sales figures will of course keep falling short, which means less investment for newer games. Which slowly, and by degrees, brings the industry grinding to a slow and undignified standstill – better to make money in already established games than to dare risk tens of millions – or even hundreds of millions – in a new product that people may not want.

And that will unquestionably make things worse on the microtransactions – and then you end up with the issue that dominates the casual and social gaming sphere – a very, very small proportion of video games ultimately making 90% of all the money. From there, hardware power won’t matter – you’ve got a standstill, so why invest in new hardware at that point?

That’s my concern. The end goal is the casualisation of a core market. And in this industry, that’s not an appealing prospect. It’s not a healthy prospect… and it’s not going to go over well with the core audience out there already sick to the back teeth of this happening right now.

So for me, the industry needs to consider the options more carefully. Carry on down this road, ramming more expense into already expensive games and cultivating a far smaller userbase because it’s becoming physically and financially impossible to buy all those games? Or consider changing things up a bit, and catering for a core audience that might, if its vocal enough in its praise, encourage others – even casual audiences themselves perhaps – to join in on the fun they’re having?

It’s a difficult market, but right now, the “core” audience is speaking. And they’re speaking with their wallets…

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