Experience Points: From The Niche, To Mass Appeal In Gaming
Initially, when news broke that Dark Souls 2 would be focussing on appealing to the Skyrim crowd, I was struck with a feeling of disappointment that niche game developers like From Software would want to stray away from the challenging formula that made the original Dark Souls such a hit. Other developers who have attempted similar feats have been met with less than stellar success as of late. It’s understandable that developers want to increase the profits that they rake in with each succeeding game, to expand their audience beyond the initial scope and spectrum that the previous game found itself in.
But this “streamlining” of a game to suit more broader tastes and sensibilities does come at a cost as we’ve seen with games like Deadspace 3 trying to capture a broader audience’s attention. The cost of pursuing mass appeal is a loss of interest from the original niche audience that supported the game series. When a publisher’s sales expectations are not met, a great amount of blame is directed at the developers. In some situations, it can be pressure from the publisher, who rely heavily on the discerning ‘data’ collected from focus groups, on developers to tailor their games to a broader audience in the hopes of increasing sales, and therefore profits overall. Whatever the root reason, this is a continuing trend in game development across the board.
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Indie games are not exempt from the attraction of maximising profit through mass appeal. You often see a barrage of cloned indie games hitting a variety of online digital storefronts, in the pursuit of profit made off stolen game design concepts and ideas. In some cases actual code is stolen from struggling indie developers. There have been occurrences of this, most commonly, in the Apple store where cloning of indie games runs rampant and is a endless battle for indie developers. The technicalities of cloning are somewhat troublesome as there are games which are blatant direct clones of popular indie games, and then there are a range of other games which take liberal creative influence from established developers, and their most popular games. This second option is technically not cloning, but has recently seen growth.
For instance, there are a number of indie games which take visual influences from Limbo and all try to vie for that audience’s attention. I’ve seen many indie platformers try to copy the mechanics of Super Meat Boy, and most notably there have been a couple of indie developers who have taken the Minecraft formula into various directions. But they are still Minecraft games. You can argue that this type of trend is the first step in creating new sub-genres within the indie game landscape. However, concurrently it allows the indie market to become oversaturated with homogeneous offerings that have very few features to differentiate themselves from one another. Just take a look at the recent submissions to Steam Greenlight and you get an idea of what I’m referring to. This is slowly becoming a natural trend within indie game development.
Undeniably, aiming for a broader audience, whilst alienating your niche audience, is essentially profit-driven. But with many games, it has much to do with exploiting the popularity of particular set of elements from a number of games that are making good sales numbers. We’ve seen this with third-person cover-based shooting that was popularised in the Gears of War series, and the culmination of the popularity of third-person cover-based shooting in games development is epitomised by games like Fuse. The ultimate result is generic game development, and a lack of variety in the AAA market.
The Call of Duty: Modern Warfare series is one of the benchmarks of AAA games sales potential, yet every time a game tries to compete toe-to-toe with Call of Duty the results can be unsightly and damaging. Good game developers, and publishers, should be looking for gaps in the games market. Appealing to an already well established audience of gamers, whom solely play Call of Duty, is counter-productive, whilst developing a game which differentiates itself from the rest of the games market can attain satisfactory profitability.
The original Dark Souls did it. Why does the next game in the series have to compete with Skyrim? Focus should be entirely on further developing the elements of the game that worked, and refining everything else from there. Bethesda are Bethesda, and From Software will never be Bethesda. The sooner that AAA developers and publishers return to reality; the better it will be for the industry. Remember you cannot compete with established and popular games like Call of Duty directly, that is a fool’s errand, and there are many fools.