I’ve been playing video games for almost 35 years. I’ve been reading gaming media (magazines and then Internet sites) for about 25 years. The game press has always been an essential part of marketing games. Developers and publishers use the gaming press to hype games and spur sales. What’s so important about the gaming hype machine? Why is it so important to get those Day One sales?
The answer is simple: the game industry is broken.
In March 2013, Square Enix published a reboot of the popular Tomb Raider series. The new game, titled simply Tomb Raider, sold 3.4 million copies during its first month of release. Soon after, Square Enix announced it was “very disappointed” in those figures, revealing it had estimated TR would sell between five and six million during the first four weeks.
A few years ago, over three million copies sold would have been a success. (Popular 2003 game Knights of the Old Republic sold only 2.2 million.) Now it’s “very disappointing.” There is a fundamental disconnect between the cost to make AAA games and the price consumers pay. While the latter has been steadily rising (easily hitting nine figures for development plus marketing by some estimates), the cost of games has been declining once adjusted for inflation.
This wouldn’t be a problem if the market for games was expanding fast enough for volume of sales to keep up with cost of production, but it hasn’t. While the occasional huge hit comes along to keep companies afloat, the industry as a whole is sick—not dying—just weak and stuck in endless cycles of trying to get more money from gamers.
Day one DLC. Online passes. Pre-order bonuses. Collector’s editions. Micro-transactions. And, of course, endless hyping through the gaming press. Developers try to cut costs, overworking their employees and cranking out endless sequels that can re-use assets. There’s some good things happening in the indie space (and some not-so-good), but, much as I like indie games, I don’t want to lose AAA gaming, and that is what is slowly happening.
The gamers are out there. The Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 have sold a combined 166 million consoles. If even half their sales are to individuals who own both, that’s still 120 million console gamers. Plus however many play on PC (Steam had 75 million users as of this past January). So why is it so hard to sell to just a fraction of that user base? Why are gamers not buying games?
Two reasons: games cost too much, and there are too many of them.
In the wake of Ubisoft not including playable female characters in either Assassin's Creed: Unity or Far Cry 4, the standard tropes are trotted out...the average age of a gamer is 31. Forty-eight percent of gamers are women. Etc.
These numbers are accurate, but are presented with no context. They come from industry information published by The Entertainment Software Association (1). They include ALL gamers. A 60-year old playing Candy Crush Saga counts as a gamer. The legions of middle-aged women playing Bejeweled Blitz count as gamers. When a parent buys a game for a child, the age/gender of the parent is counted, not the age/gender of the child.
Well, today I spent two hours standing in line with my two sons to play the demo of Super Smash Bros. Wii U. Without doing an actual hard count, the total people I saw standing in line were about 95% men between the ages of 15 and 25 (2). "Core" or "hardcore" gaming--the gaming dominated by the AAA games that cost $50 million to make and another $50 million to market--is overwhelmingly young and male. Citing statistics that count all the people playing free mobile games and the like is not going to change that.
And developers know it. They know the people most likely to slam down $60 for a AAA game on day of release are teen or young-20s men and the games are aimed squarely at them. If you're a woman or an older man and you want to see the industry change, there's a simple way to do it.
Spend money. Until you're spending money on hardcore gaming, hardcore games are going to keep dissing you.
(1) Link to current info. Another "fact" that's funny is "88% of games are not rated M." Watch an E3 press conference and it looks like 88% of games are rated M. (There were some trailers that were too disgusting for me. I can't imagine what the games will be like.) Just another example of how the ESA's statistics have no relevance to hardcore gaming.
(2) The actual percentage was probably higher than that; I'm being conservative. Within my immediate space in line there was one old gamer (me), one young gamer (my younger son), and one female gamer (someone in front of me whom I did not know). Everyone else was a teen or young adult male.
A gamer tells you graphics don't matter.
Then tells you to play games on PC because, better graphics.
A gamer bemoans the lack of innovation in the industry.
Then screams bloody murder when a favorite franchise updates the core gameplay.
A gamer complains there are too many sequels and not enough new IP.
While buying Super Mario Halo Killzone 15.
A gamer screams publishers are ripping them off with day one DLC.
Then buys the game used.
A gamer criticizes new consoles for not having backward compatibility.
But trades in all their old games to buy new ones.
A gamer argues games are art.
Then demands the artists patch their game because the players don't like the ending.
A gamer objects to the depictions of women in games.
Then treats women gamers like dirt.
A gamer mourns the closing of a studio.
Then returns their game that was only rented.
A gamer is passionate about games.
And passion makes you do weird things.
This is going to be a long essay, so here's the short version: The Wii U will be the last home console ever made by Nintendo, and the next Xbox could be Microsoft's last console. The home console gaming market is shrinking due to market fragmentation, and, while there's still room for a dedicated home gaming console, there is only room for two, and maybe only one.
Types of Gamers
Throughout the 20th century and into the 21st, we have progressed through several types of media entertainment: radio, film, television, and video games. (The Internet isn't a media itself, just a medium that delivers media in different ways. It will eventually lead to the dissolution of traditional radio and TV stations, but we're still a generation or two from that happening.)
What has marked all those types of media is eventual fragmentation. The video game market is also fragmenting, and it will only get worse (better?) from here. Fragmentation of these markets are based partly on genre (like radio station formats) and also based on market demographics. For video games, more than other media, the market is breaking down by demographic rather than genre.
Broadly there are four types of gamer:
Enthusiast. Enthusiasts love to play games, and lots of them. Enthusiasts are more likely to own multiple systems, will almost definitely have at least one console, probably a gaming PC or laptop, and buy lots of games across a variety of genres. These are the so-called “hardcore” or “core” gamers that have been playing for quite some time.
Obsessive. Obsessive gamers focus on one or two games and play them to the exclusion of all others. Most often the focus of their obsession is an MMO or similar online game that is constantly updated with new content. Obsessive gamers may change their obsession, but it will be rare, so they don't buy many different games, but they will spend lots of money on their one or two obsessed-over games.
Pick-up-and-go. These gamers just want to jump into a game for 15 to 20 minutes and get a quick fix. They don't want big, complicated games or games with long levels or long times between checkpoints. They prefer puzzle games where they can solve a few puzzles and turn the game off.
Social. Social gamers like playing with friends. They could be lumped into any of the other groups, and, in terms of spending habits, may fall into one of those groups. However, they will only spend their money and time on games that offer an online component because single-player just isn't interesting to them.
Let's leave that there and take a brief look at the history of consoles, beginning with Nintendo and Sega.