THQ's shake-up stood in contrast to sensible remarks made by, of all people, Grasshopper Manufacture's Suda 51, purveyor of ultra-eccentric titles like Killer 7 and No More Heroes.
"There are a lot of core gamers, and a lot of lighter users playing on platforms such as the DS - but there's nothing in-between," Suda told the Nordic Game conference. "I think it's going to be very important for games to be created for that middle audience, and that will help bring the market back on-track."
Suda was talking about addressing the declines in the Japanese gaming market, but it's very likely a problem that the Western market will shortly have to face - if it isn't already. The fact that an industry figure needs to come out and say this is kind of worrying - Suda's comments are both necessary and true, but they are also totally obvious. Why should aiming for the mass market be a new concept?
Unlike the majority of games today, classic titles like Pac-Man or Tetris could be played by anybody and enjoyed on many different levels. To give an example, I recently had the experience of being in a small bar with a Wii set-up on the big screen. The owner liked to download Virtual Console games and play them when there weren't any customers about - and when there were customers, he liked to pass around the controller. My lady friend and I got in on the action, and before long the half-dozen or so other customers were getting involved, too. We played Super Mario Bros. 3 and passed the controller onto the next person when we lost a life. Had you filmed it, it would have looked just like one of those slightly pretentious Wii commercials (only with more alcohol and considerably more swearing), but it was one of the most entertaining evenings of gaming I've had in a long time.
But my ultimate reaction to the experience was, why the hell can't anybody make games like this anymore? Or even appear to try? Instead we seek to create divisions where none should exist - dividing games up into super-obscure "hardcore" titles and paper-thin "casuals." We do not make games to bring people into gaming. Almost nobody in the industry seems to talk, the way other industries do, of spreading love of the medium to the great unwashed, of getting more people into the game. No, we talk about the "casuals" who are ruining our industry and the "fad" of new people playing games - and what's worse, this way of thinking has infected the people who actually make decisions.
The whole industry is involved in an arms race, hundreds of titles competing for that once tiny segment of the market that buys 10+ titles a year. Get it right, and the financial rewards are admittedly great. But get it wrong and, as companies like Factor 5, Midway and THQ'S own Big Huge Games have found, you could now be out of business.
I believe that the majority of games that succeed on a massive scale do so not because they are "hardcore" or "casual," but because they are well-designed, well-marketed concepts that inspire a person to say "hey, that looks like fun," and take a chance on picking it up. This person buys it, enjoys it, tells their friends about it, and the cycle repeats. This is as true of Wii Sports as it is of Halo.
But so many people lack the vision - or the balls - to attempt to create something that gets controllers in the hands of people who have never held them before. Instead we are stuck, preaching to the choir, selling to people who are already sold on gaming, never attempting to capture Suda's "middle audience." And if we in the West are not careful we may find that, as in Japan, the choir is already losing interest.
Christian Ward works for a major publisher, and approves of beatings for anybody caught describing New Super Mario Bros. Wii as "casual".