A running theme of this generation has been the arrival of the so-called “casual” gamer. The rise of the Wii and the desperate scrabble for the new audience that it opened up has most certainly seen an increased focus on what we call “casual games” — often misrepresented as purely shallow mini-game collections and cheap licensed material. Of course, casual gamers have been around since the beginning of videogames, and they have played titles as seminal as Pac-Man and as influential as Grand Theft Auto. The mislabeling of the casual gamer is a topic for another day, however. The fact that they are potentially healthier for this industry than any self-styled “hardcore” gamer, however, is something I find far more pertinent.
Earlier this week, Treyarch community manager Josh Olin claimed that angry gamers stifled creativity with their complaints. I do not agree with his claims that criticism and complaining have been detrimental, especially as this sentiment comes from a studio that hasn’t worked on a creative new IP in many years. However, Olin is right about one thing — the gamers are to blame for the state of the industry. While Treyarch’s community manager is wrong about the way in which they stifle creativity, I’m beginning to think that we “hardcore” gamers are indeed to blame for the myriad sequels and spin-offs that infest our market. At the very least, we are perhaps to blame for not encouraging new endeavors enough.
Enslaved: Odyssey to the West sold 460,000 copies since launch. Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days sold over a million. A genuinely wonderful, original, unique, and polished title didn’t even sell half as much as a rushed, threadbare, barely-finished, visually grotesque, utterly broken pile of shit. Both of these titles were aiming for the more niche “hardcore” crowd, so I don’t believe we can blame the “casual” gamers for buying Dog Days while ignoring Enslaved. No, I think the blame for this is squarely on our heads — the hardcore gamers who didn’t want to give a new IP a chance, and instead went for something because it had a “2″ in its name. We hardcore gamers blame the industry for what is called “Sequelitis” — the consistent supply of sequels. Yet we buy them in their millions. Even if the first game wasn’t good, we’ll buy the sequel, simply because it is a sequel. Left 4 Dead 2 and Dead Space 2 both doubled the sales of their prequels while every successive Call of Duty game makes more money than the last. These are all properties predominantly played by us — the “hardcore” gamer community. We complain about sequels with one side of our mouths and lap them up with the other.
Am I saying it’s wrong to buy sequels? Left 4 Dead 2 and Dead Space 2 were stellar games, so I am not suggesting we ignore all sequels, or that they are inherently bad games. But it’s the blind trust we have in sequels, compared to the distrust we have in new titles, that really concerns me, and leads me to believe that the dedicated core gamer might very well be the one who signals the ruination of gaming as we know it — because at the end of the day, the “casual” gamer is simply a better customer than you.
Just Dance, Wii Fit, Carnival Games. Three titles that have been huge successes. Each was a brand new IP when released — not a sequel, not a spin-off, carrying unestablished names. But did the casual gamer care about that? Did they worry that the games might have come from developers that they didn’t know? Published by companies they didn’t like? Did they wait for the games to enter the bargain bins? No, no, no and no. While “real” gamers waited for Enslaved to slash its MSRP, the casual gamer was buying titles brand new. While the hardcore gamer was snapping up sequels because it can only trust established franchises, the casual gamer didn’t give a shit and just bought what looked fun.
There’s something to be said for being a discerning customer, but when you look at the history of great games going unsold — Psychonauts, Okami, Gitaroo Man — you have to admit that maybe the jealous guarding of our loot has had a lot to do with the way publishers are producing games now. For example, can you really blame Koei for making endless Dynasty Warriors sequels? The one truly unique and brilliant game it ever published, Gitaroo Man, sold so poorly that they won’t even bother putting the PSP version on the PlayStation Network. Meanwhile, the Dynasty Warriors games sell, and sell pretty good. As much as I like Dynasty Warriors, I do admit that the amount of spin-offs is excessive, but I cannot blame Koei, because when it tries to be original and brilliant, all it receives is punishment.
Originality alone does not entitle a game to high sales. In fact, I’ve argued before against people who believe that “innovation” deserves high review scores and more sales simply for being inventive (and I’ll be addressing that in a later article). You have to be original and good to deserve success, but those games that strike such a rare balance are suffering, and dying, because nobody wants to trust them. There are enough of us out there to make games like Psychonauts a success, but we’re not supporting them, and it seems to be because we’re only willing to back a game with a sequel, perhaps mindlessly believing that “If it got a follow-up, it has to be good.” It’s the only logical explanation I can find for Kane & Lynch 2 selling over a million, despite the poor quality of the original and its own absolute awfulness.
America is a capitalist country, and one of the most crucial cogs in the capitalist machine is the concept of supply & demand. Publishers provide what the market wants, and the market has declared that it doesn’t want Enslaved, or Psychonauts, or Okami, or any other title that combines good gameplay with originality and freshness. It wants more Halo, more Guitar Hero, and way more Call of Duty. This is the market you helped to shape, the market you created. It’s the market I created, too. I can’t pretend to be blameless. We’re all in the same audience, the industry is shaped by all our wallets, so we’re all to blame for the “sequelitis” we so haughtily criticize.
Yeah, I get it — games are expensive, used games are cheap. I am all for the used market and I am all for gamers being careful with their cash. But maybe if you supported less sequels and more original games, we’d have, I dunno, more original games and less sequels! Redistribute your funds a little, be a bit more diverse — broaden the ol’ horizons. Take a little gamble now and then. There is a reason why Activision put out ten Guitar Hero games in 2009, including crap like Band Hero and DJ Hero. Guitar Hero is what sold, while Activision’s more original titles, like Singularity, did not. Who is to blame here? Activision? Perhaps a little, for its sheer over-saturation, but who made the publisher think it was a good idea? Us, the silly cunts ignoring the good stuff in favor of the drek.
Even worse, it’s only we hardcore gamers who can be blamed for the rampant piracy that is helping to wreck the industry. Do you think a middle-aged mother of four who plays Brain Training is downloading ROMs? I’m sure a rare few exist, but let’s face it — hardcore gamers are the ones who contributed to the outright rape of the Nintendo DS’ game library. Is it any coincidence that Brain Training, Let’s Quit Smoking and Imagine Babyz are some of the system’s top sellers, while M-rated games like Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars aren’t considered viable properties? It’s because we sat there stealing the games we wanted to play, while whining like hypocrites that the DS is only good for casual kiddy crap. People bitch and moan that the DS library is home to a load of shovelware shit, but you know what? That’s exactly what you deserve. People who are interested in the good games, the unique games, the typically “hardcore” games, steal them in droves.
I used to turn a blind eye to software piracy, and I think some industries — especially the movie industry — encourage it with the way they treat their consumers. However, the sad case of the Nintendo DS is entirely our fault. Same goes for the PC market. PC gamers complain that nobody supports their chosen medium anymore, but nobody wants to support a medium where more people choose to steal than to purchase. Nobody would open a store where customers are allowed to get away with thieving as many items as they buy, so I don’t see why a developer would give the first shit about the PC market. That many studios still do is admirable, and something we should encourage, yet at the end of every December, we always get a “Most pirated games of the year” list, and the numbers involved are staggering.
That’s what I think of, these days, when I think of hardcore gamers. Refusing to buy brilliant new titles, and outright stealing anything they do want. Meanwhile, we have the causal gamer — not savvy enough to pirate, and not distrustful enough to ignore a game that catches its eye. That, friends, is why sequels and shovelware rule the sales charts. That is why publishers are making them.
It’s not all bad, of course. Every now and then, a surprise sale will shock us. Especially on Xbox Live Arcade, Steam, and other downloadable stores, we have games like Braid and Limbo becoming huge successes. Even at retail, a new game like BioShock can suddenly pop its head up and become successful. But I don’t think such successes are frequent enough to keep this industry from becoming everything the hardcore gamer claims to hate — the domain of the casual.
Can you say that we, as a collective audience, have given publishers any reason to make it otherwise?
Can you say that we are encouraging up-and-coming developers to create new games?
Can you say that we are supporting the kind of industry that we want to see?
Can you say that we are not shaping an industry where fresh talent atrophies while old shite triumphs?
We better learn to enjoy our ten Guitar Hero games a year. We’ve earned them.