Preaching to the Choir

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The usage of the terms “casual” and “core” have split into three different divisions, each of which will cater to different types of games – Core Games, Kids/Family/Casual Games, and Online.

Judging by comments a few weeks back from the man who is now in charge of Core Games, the change-up will divide THQ into a company with one division for Xbox 360, PS3, PSP and PC games, and another for so-called casual Wii and DS titles. Then-Senior VP of Creative Development Danny Bilson described the Wii as a “Monopoly box in a closet… You look at the Wii wall [in a game store] and you can’t find anything… It’s a big conglomeration of junk and the Nintendo stuff pops, and a couple of other things pop, and that’s it.”

Perhaps that would be junk like Neighborhood Games, Battle of the Bands or Big Beach Sports – all of which are published by THQ and have a combined Metacritic average of 50. Bilson’s comment may have been more understandable if THQ had a long list of unsuccessful Wii games that really tried hard under their belt (or to put it another way, if Sega had said it). But like the majority of publishers, they have been standing around, hands in their pockets, seemingly waiting for the “hardcore” audience to materialize on Wii. Where is this audience coming to come from, if publishers just like THQ don’t publish games that develop it?

It’s amazing how many people, even in the industry, are willing to write off millions of prospective customers in a brushstroke. It’s amazing how there can be that many potential gamers out there who are just ignored because we have no idea how to reach them. And make no mistake, that’s who the problem lies with – us. The industry. Not the customers.

This argument has nothing to do with the Wii and its particular merits (nor with its long list of demerits). It’s to do with the fact that people out there with their toe in the swimming pool of gaming. By forking over the $200+ needed for a console, they’ve put on their trunks and are ready to dive in. But we can’t seem to find it in ourselves to give them that push.

Is there any industry so objectionable to growth, so hostile to newcomers as ours? We behave like schoolyard bullies, insulting the new kid for daring to come into our territory. We try to judge customers on their worthiness. They’re not a “real” gamer if they don’t buy 10 games a year/play 30 hours a week/make fun of Wii Fit. We don’t try to classify users by what they like, we judge them on their worthiness to play “our” product.

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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”.

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