Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Sane Gaming: Market Misconceptions

Monday night blogtime. I'm mostly over my illness from this past week, and this week's going to be a blogging catchup week. I'm opening my usual Monday night post with the Sane Gaming installment I intended to finish and post two weeks ago. I'm still looking for an interesting non-gaming related topic (And open to suggestions) for another post in the next 24 hours, and I plan on doing another Sane Gaming post for a third later this week so I can finally finish the series next week. (After having intended to finish that series at the end of this week.)

After all that catchup, it'll be back to the usual couple of weekly varied posts on a variety of subjects (I'm starting to plan a couple more comedy pieces for the first time in a while), so those of you not so interested in video gaming blogging can look forward to that.

Without further ado, the first installment for this week's topic is the issue of market misconceptions, as there are many regularly spouted by both third parties this generation by third parties, the blogging media (Which is, frankly, anything but objective - especially the biggest sites, Kotaku and Joystiq), and market "analysts." (Who more often than not display a complete and utter cluelessness about the market they're supposedly "experts" in analyzing, coming off as little more than paid shills for Sony and Microsoft in particular, who know nothing about the industry, medium, or how to recognize actual sales trends and the reasons behind them. It says a lot when some random nerd like myself can pick up on patterns more easily after simply having been a gamer for a couple of decades and paid attention to market changes.)

The most important pack-in game since Super Mario Bros. on the NES.The Wii itself in particular - and to a lesser degree the DS - has been a victim of a clear fallacy in regard to the idea of "casual" gamers, the new mass market crowd that Nintendo's "blue ocean" strategy has successfully targeted. The "casuals" are essentially all the newcomers to the gaming industry that the platforms have brought in - the people who were never keen to be part of the whole basement-dwelling gamer stereotype, obsessively playing the latest role-playing game or first person shooter. Many third parties have looked at this market, however, and decided that it's completely and cleanly divorced from the traditional or "core" gamer, and sought to cash in on this audience largely by developing knockoffs of hit first person Nintendo titles with this crowd. (See: The "Brain Age" brain training series on the DS, and Wii Sports and Wii Fit on the Wii.) These knockoffs in turn are often produced with less thought involved - under the assumption that these "casual" gamers are a pack of clueless suckers who have no idea how to discern between a well-made game and a poor quality one - and tend to sell quite poorly. And on the whole, traditional/core games tend to outsell "casual" games, with only a few exceptions sprinkled here and there.

Many of these developers don't - or it could be interpreted that they don't want to, under pressure from competitors - look at strong core software sales and acknowledge the presence of a strong demand for "core" games on the Wii - and to a lesser degree, some developers ignore this demand on the DS. (At this point, it's not as much of an issue on the DS, but we do occasionally see publishers like Capcom heap a larger variety of titles on the PSP where they won't turn a profit when they would've been a better fit for the DS user base. Capcom themselves reduced a lot of their portable support for Nintendo this generation following the launch of the PSP in a very questionable shift in focus, simply bringing the DS a mixed bag in an oversaturation of Mega Man series titles and excellent Ace Attorney series titles, which at least somewhat redeem their efforts.) Capcom is also guilty of openly announcing that they "need" to focus their efforts on the Xbox 360 in order to remain a strong, viable presence in the market - especially in the west - this generation. This is demonstrably false, and an ideology largely rooted in fanatics and the media's efforts to declare Microsoft the "winner" of this generation within a year of the system's launch, prior to PS3 and Wii hitting the market. Many still haven't shaken this mindset, outright detached from the reality of the industry and market these days. The PS3 is in many capacities catching up to the 360 in sales, while both are generally slowing and plateauing in market presence and appeal, crystallizing their general unprofitability for the majority of developers who've released software on the platforms due to their ridiculously high development costs and limited user bases that tend to only make the most overhyped of blockbuster titles profitable - and even then, nowhere near the kind of profitability these companies built their business model around on the PSX and PS2 in focusing development on the market-leading hardware, as is industry common sense. Both the high definition systems suffer from a overly graphics-obsessed user bases with a slant against Japanese-developed games and a fixation on a very small subset of genres - largely those that revolve around shooting at one another online. Capcom as a publisher has in many ways detached from reality and sustainable market strategy out of a developed apparent ridiculous loyalty to Sony and Microsoft. (Which was likely in part bankrolled by both companies - it speaks in volumes of a lack of wisdom in gaming business these days when many developers are willing to take money to develop extremely expensive games for unprofitable hardware for financial gain in the short term in exchange for heavier losses in the long term. It's short-sighted and self-destructive, and after becoming complacent over a decade of Sony dominance of the market, many publishers seem to have completely forgotten how to be competitive.)

Capcom's best on the DS.
Bethesda Software - best known for their PC and Xbox 360 Elder Scrolls series games - is also guilty of Capcom-level cluelessness in having described the Wii as a "toy" in comparison to the expensive high-definition consoles. Another company - or at least an individual at said company - that doesn't get it. (Though a larger scale of ignorance seems evident in their developing a minigame collection for the Wii - a genre the system's plenty saturated in already - instead of paying attention to demand from the Wii crowd for a high end massive-scale western role-playing game, like they've provided on the PC and other consoles.) It's also funny in general that they would call the Wii a "toy" in order to marginalize it, when no matter how you look at it, video games in general are toys. Whether you're a kid or an adult, if you're playing a video game, you are still in essence playing with an electronic toy, and there's certainly nothing wrong with that - it comes off as both immature and insecure when people try to sugarcoat it.

Many developers and publishers continue to ignore the strong traditional software sales - when games actually have a budget, attempt to use the Wii capabilities well, and are actually advertised (As many developers, Capcom again included, seem to think their advertising budgets should be focused solely on the high definition consoles, while their Wii offerings aren't worth advertising on TV. Rather hypocritical after the bulk of gaming advertising was focused on PS2 games - a similarly dominant market-leading console over the losing two - last generation. When game sales suffer as a result of a lack of actual promotion efforts, it comes off as an attempt to rationalize marginalizing the Wii in simply not trying to be successful on the most important console of the generation. There is, after all, a tremendous amount of pressure from Sony and Microsoft to focus "core" titles on their platforms, even if they frequently don't turn a profit on releases on those platforms, let alone as much as could be made on the Wii with a proper, well-advertised effort catering to the same, larger market segment on the Wii.) - undoubtedly under pressure from Sony and Microsoft to push the image that the Wii is cleanly a "casuals-only" console. This is something many paid analysts - including Michael Pachter, who's only consistent in being wrong on virtually every prediction he makes, having spent years trying to date a sudden and abrupt Wii downfall and meteoric explosion in popularity for the failing HD consoles, which themselves are effectively a more expensive retread of last generation with graphics that require an expensive television to properly display - have attempted to echo, and only appeared clueless and unprofessional as a result. There's no such thing as a clean-cut "casual" and "hardcore" gamer divide in the industry, let alone on the Wii or HD consoles. (Most "casual" consumers buy some traditional games too - especially the well-advertised mainstream ones, such as Nintendo's own first party offerings.) You have the mass market on Nintendo's platforms, and a much more expensive, niche market on the HD platforms and PSP. There's an incredible gap in sales and profitability between the two as a result that many seem to be consciously avoiding acknowledging, undoubtedly as a result of pressure from Sony and Microsoft, which in turn are increasingly making it clear that they don't belong in this industry, with neither an understanding of how to honestly succeed in the market, let alone get software support without greasing the wheels at every turn.

This fallacy has been addressed far better than I'm going to in this post by Sean Malstrom in an article he wrote last year that addresses the problem of the "casual" fallacy in impressive depth and detail. Well worth reading for any curious about more details on this particular issue.

Elitism has been a problem in video gaming culture for decades as well. Back in the days of Atari and Coleco, the companies' respective fanbases had a great deal of hatred for one another. Growing up with Nintendo and Sega myself, the same situation repeated - each side attacking the other's brand based on personal preference and shouting hardware specs as though they determined the actual quality of games themselves. I largely stayed out of this, myself, having been fortunate enough to grow up playing the NES, Sega Master System II, SNES, and Genesis throughout my childhood - all of which had a lot of great games. Sony and Microsoft, on other hand, seem to have cultivated a base of fanatic followers this generation that make the Atari/Coleco and Nintendo/Sega rivalries look like old friendships by comparison.

Some classic nasty advertising from Sega.
As Nintendo continues to dominate this generation - and rightly so, in producing far more affordable and innovative hardware, geared towards appealing to both consumers and developers alike - the ongoing chorus from the Sony and Microsoft fanatics amounts to no more than "But I'm a better gamer than you!" Far worse than the brand name-based rivalries of gaming generations past is today's ongoing still-brand-name-based rivalry, which has largely amounted to the self-proclaimed "hardcore" who largely came into the hobby being taught to hate Nintendo and everything they stand for by Sony and Microsoft and buying desperately into their expensive rehash of the previous generation's gameplay experiences screeching that the massive new gaming base Nintendo's brought into the industry is populated by people who "aren't gamers." (When by definition, anyone who plays and enjoys any kind of video or computer game is, in fact, a gamer. A huge part of the world populace with access to electronic entertainment is made up of gamers of varying tastes and degrees, after all.)

These individuals violently offended by Nintendo's success this generation rally under the idea that gaming itself shouldn't exist beyond the narrow scope of their personal tastes with the handful of types of games they buy. (See: First-person shooters with minimal single player and a heavy focus on online combat coupled with voice chat trash-talking and expensive graphics in varying shades of black, gray, and brown. While the gorgeous, colorful sandbox-gameplay oriented ocean exploration Wii title, Endless Ocean, received a great deal of "This isn't a game at all!" from that crowd in its blogging coverage, simply because there's no violence, though the core gameplay is about doing what you want when you want of all the things you can do - searching for treasures, training dolphins, interacting with undersea life, exploring ruins, furthering story events, taking others on guided undersea dives, and more - in a manner not at all unlike the "hardcore"-beloved Grand Theft Auto series. Endless Ocean is a lot more relaxing, though, certainly.) These same people also largely believe that they, in turn, should be looked up to as "hardcore" appreciators of "great art" (See: Gears of War) in playing things like games about shooting zombies and terrorists. A branch of gamers that also resents and gets offended at the tired old negative gamer stereotypes (See: Living in their parents' basement, being unable to talk to women, never bathing, etc.) despite still embodying some of the worst personality traits in those negative stereotypes about gamers - lack of healthy perspective, insecurity (And hostility stemming from that), and general self-identity issues. It's a rather adolescent mindset that's come to dominate gaming and this particular branch of gamers for some time, right in line with the stereotypes.

Market expansion means the demolishing of that precious little sandcastle they'd built up, while it also means growth of both the industry and medium into something new and better. Something everyone can enjoy, like film, literature, and television. These people simply oppose its growth because they want what they like (As well as the brand names they've blindly attached themselves to) and the immature products of an industry and medium still in its infancy to be held up as timeless masterworks.

Change and innovation are absolutely crucial for an industry and medium like video games - this is something both Sony and Microsoft are rather actively working against through their own agendas in an industry they don't understand. Unfortunately, many third parties have completely detached from the current state of the industry and are going to suffer - and some even collapse (As Working Designs did as a result of rather blind Sony loyalty last generation, when Sony made it clear they didn't want their localizations hitting their platforms in the west anymore. Thankfully, now that Vic Ireland's back with his new GaijinWorks localization company, he's turned to Nintendo, where there's plenty of software for him and his team to dig into and an audience ravenous for the kind of stuff they used to release as Working Designs back in the day.) - as a result of these companies losing sight of competitiveness and sustainability in this changing industry where gameplay is growing and evolving, and neither Sony nor Microsoft has any kind of market majority to cater to. Those blindly loyal to those brand names are going to find themselves falling only further behind the times and eventually without much in the way of the software they demand coming to their platforms of preference as developers continue to adapt to refocusing on the Wii. When you get down to it, it's either time for that crowd to "outgrow" the hobby, or open their minds and expand their horizons beyond blind brand loyalty.


Lindsay Champion said...

Wow, what an informative and well-researched article. I have always felt that the Wii is lacking in something. I enjoy playing but there is something very inexact about it. I don't feel like there's much of a way for me to get better at the games because there is no "push this button and it makes the guy do that." No amount of body control will make me feel like that white stick is a weighted bowling ball.

lindsay || newyorkwords.net

Benjamin Fennell said...

It's the result of decades of gaming experience and paying attention to the market. But yeah, the Wii's definitely a stepping stone forward in terms of gaming experience over the others, but not without its drawbacks.

I find that a lot of the improvement at games like Wii Sports comes down to getting more of a feel for how the controls specifically work - such as boxing only really needing you to flick the controllers rather than throw actual punches - since it's easier to be more precise once you more unconsciously adapt to the controls. It makes for a more realistic experience than just pushing a button to do something and requiring more physical movement, but a lot of games - like Elebits and Endless Ocean - simply use the Wii remote like a 3D mouse, where you control a pointer on the screen in the game to vastly increase control precision.

But yeah, unfortunately at this point there's no way for a game system to replicate the exact experience of bowling all the way down to the weight of the ball. Hard to say when or if they'll find a way of emulating that in the future, given the limitations of the virtual nature of games. It's times like that where one'd probably be better off just not gaming and instead going to an actual bowling alley. But the Wii's taken a huge leap forward in giving us the ability to replicate the physical experience of the bowling motions - even without the element of the ball's weight - in a virtual alley in our own homes. And that's certainly a big step forward from anything we've had before.

CrazyCris said...

Very well written and interesting piece, even if I didn't understand half of it! ;o) I've never understood the fascination for the game consoles... probably 'cause I never had much of a chance to play on one growing up since my mom flat out refused (and was highly negative) when we asked about a Nintendo back in the day... But the Wii has caught my curiousity over the past couple of years with friends raving about the goofy fun they've had trying to "play" tennis, golf etc... plus the unsuspecting workout you get. Add in the Wii Fit and laughs are guaranteed (particularly after consuming a certain amount of rhum diluted in coke....). And having tried it I wish I could afford one for myself!

So, I thought with all the hullabaloo round the Wii that there would be more games available, but I just discovered what you've mentioned here, there's practically nothing! A search on Amazon (I'm looking for a b-day present for the friend who has the Wii) brought up close to 20 games, at least a third of which seemed to be adaptations of the others but by a different designer. So what? You can only do some limited sports and play parlour games? (The ocean one actually sounds great, but more for me the marine biologist, not sure my friend would like it).

As for advertising... I remember a lot more ads around the holidays. But there is a series of really fun ones here in Spain for the Wii Sports. It's usually played on public TV (or their sports station) during the Grand Slam tennis tournaments... and shows former tennis stars Alex Corretja (who comments the Grand Slams for the channel) and Albert Costa (current captain of the Davis Cup team) playing around with it and commenting on each other's technique as if they were talking about actual tennis shots (grip of raquet, angle, swing etc.) They're a hoot and have been played quite a lot!

Benjamin Fennell said...

For me, at least, games have always been interesting as a different sort of approach to a narrative story and the whole concept of a simulated interactive experience. But yeah, I was lucky to grow up in a rather nerdy household, so I was able to enjoy a lot of Nintendo and Sega stuff growing up, and I played a lot of Sony's Playstation and PS2 over high school and college, though there's a lot I definitely find objectionable about Sony's market strategies and approaches to gaming now. But there was no passing on the PSX and PS2 those years, since those platforms got the vast majority of software support.

The Wii's definitely the most important and unique console since the NES back in the '80s, and a hell of a lot of fun. Wii Sports is a wonderful introductory game to the system with its tennis, golf, baseball, boxing, and bowling. The exercise element is a wonderful addition to the interactive experience too. I still need to pick up Wii Fit myself, as it definitely seems valuable for a fun home workout. I've always heard good stories of drunken games of Wii Sports bowling on gaming blogs too. I picked my Wii up back in summer of 2007, and I can definitely recommend it.

Yeah, there's a lot of games, but a large number of them are shovelware (Essentially crap produced to try to take advantage of an unaware audience), half-assed efforts, and low budget smaller-name titles that tend to get ignored even if they're good. The PS3 and 360 have gotten an inordinate amount of software support - the majority of which is derivative and amounts to little more than a more expensive rehash of games from last generation - that neither console deserves with their high development costs and lower installed user bases that only buy a small subset of genres and obsess over expensive graphics. A lot of developers and publishers are making huge mistakes in trying to ignore the mass market on the Wii, when they need the mass market to survive.

There is actually a large number of good "core" market traditional games on the Wii though, and that's starting to grow as more developers and publishers start to recognize the importance of the Wii over the other two. If you'd like any specific genre recommendations, I could come up with a fair number. My Wii library at the moment amounts to 17 disc games with a lot more I'm planning to pick up over the year and coming years, over 20 classic Virtual Console games, and a handful of original WiiWare download titles at this point, so I haven't had any problem finding a satisfying lineup of more traditional style games to satisfy my tastes, even if most of the games aren't overhyped blockbusters.

Ah, nice to hear they're advertising there. They've never really advertised Wii Sports here in the USA, mostly because the game's packed in with the system, though they used to use footage from it in montages. Very cool to hear. The Wii got a good bit of coverage on comedy shows here when it first came out too - Stephen Colbert ended up having his Mii avatar box a Mii of Nancy Pelosi when the system first came out, and Conan O'Brien played tennis in Wii Sports with one of the Williams sisters when they were on his show back in 2007 or so. There's definitely a lot of fun to be had, with plenty of good games geared towards single player and multiplayer play, and the Wii's online play offerings are only increasing in quality as time goes on, with the system's great free online system.

Eric said...
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