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The Current Culture of Gaming

The Current Culture of Gaming – January 21, 2008 5:26 PM (edited 1/21/08 12:26 PM)
Talraen (2373 posts) Doesn't Play with Others
Rating: Not Rated
Last week, the creator of No More Heroes was very outspoken against the Wii after his game debuted in Japan with abysmal sales. His basic point was that Wii gamers are non-gamers, and thus a "real" game like No More Heroes doesn't appeal to them and got left by the wayside. Having never played No More Heroes, I can't comment on whether the game is good enough to warrant such an outburst or not, but there are plenty of other examples of this phenomenon. It got me thinking: how is the gaming culture of each console affecting game development?

Things are a lot different in Japan than they are here. Non-games have been very successful on every platform for some time, and home consoles have been secondary to portables as well. Even Wii Fit, which broke a million sales relatively quickly, is selling slowly compared to many portable games. But I'm talking about the US market here, not Japan, where consoles still rule the roost, and Nintendo does not dominate every aspect of the gaming market.

We have three perfectly viable consoles over here. First, there's the Wii, which has dominated month-to-month sales all year and is quickly catching up to the Xbox 360's overall US sales numbers, according to the latest NPD's. Wii hardware has been selling like hotcakes, as are a few first-party games like Super Mario Galaxy, but overall Wii software hasn't been a revelation.

Next we have the 360, which still gets solid hardware sales and boasts the highest attach rate (games sold per console) in the industry by a wide margin. 360 games aren't always the top sellers in a given month, but the best selling game of the year (Halo 3) as well as of December (Call of Duty 4) were both on 360, and developers have raved about the ability to sell 360 games.

Finally, there's the PS3, which despite being as old as the Wii has yet to come into its own. There have been a number of quality games (including Uncharted and Ratchet & Clank this year), as well as a number of games that were expected to show off the system but ended up as massive flops (like Lair). What the PS3 has not had is a game that has sold well.

It is very easy to find anecdotal evidence to explain why sales for each system have gone the way they have, and I think there is some merit to each of them (and I will do my best to prove it). The Wii seems to be bought mainly by three groups: the same die-hard Nintendo fans who supported the N64 and Gamecube, non-gamers or casual gamers who wanted the latest thing, and gamers who simply don't want to shell out for the more expensive systems. The 360 is more the domain of hardcore gamers who just want good games any way they can get them, as well as people who like to play online. The PS3 audience apparently consists mostly of technophiles, people with far too much disposable income, and people with an unreasonable level of Sony loyalty. And of course there is plenty of overlap between these systems.

The previous two Nintendo consoles had their game sales absolutely dominated by first-party games, and halfway through their life cycles they were often called "Nintendo-playing machines." At first the Wii, with its tremendous sales numbers, seemed to finally be bucking that trend, but a quick look at a game release list shows that things are looking distinctly Gamecube-esque for the Wii in many ways, at least in terms of the "real games" that hardcore gamers crave. (There is plenty of third-party shovelware, minigame collections, and PS2/PSP ports, but I don't think they count for much.) Ask a typical three-console gamer (whatever that means) what third-party games they're looking forward to in 2008, and chances are there won't be many for the Wii.

Now, for Nintendo this is no problem: they're making money on the system, their awesome games sell like hotcakes, and they get plenty of third-party sales (of the aforementioned shovelware) to keep other publishers happy. One could very well argue that creating a profitable system and being the top publisher for it is the best business model out there. But as a hardcore gamer, it disturbs me.

The problem with the Wii is not that there are no quality games, at least for the moment. The Gamecube likewise had some good third-party games throughout its life, even late games like Resident Evil 4. The problem is that these games don't sell. Sure, the initial glut of Wii games like Red Steel sold like gangbusters, but in the last year or so this has definitely not been the case. Zack and Wiki is the best example of this: a game which was a huge critical success but did not sell well at all. Personally, I don't think this represents a change in culture as is the case in Japan, but rather a failure of marketing. But whatever the reason, the potential outcome is that third-party developers will simply stop trying to make good, "real" games for the Wii.

Of course, critically heralded games that gather dust on store shelves are nothing new. If the Wii represents a new business model focused on casual games, the PS3 represents the old-school model that dominated previous generations. That is, well-known titles get all the hype (and, assuming they ever come out, will probably get the sales as well) while new IPs have a hard time gaining traction. The PS3's first crop of good games, Resistance and Motorstorm, sold well considering the overall PS3 sales but were still disappointing when looked at compared to the rest of the industry. This year's games are even better, and sales have been more disappointing. Ratchet & Clank is a series that's very popular among those who've played it, but it stands to reason that audience is not the early adopter crowd that has a PS3. And Uncharted is an entirely new IP. PS3 sales will very likely pick up a bit for Metal Gear Solid 4 and especially Final Fantasy XIII, but in general games have sold the same way they always have on the PS3: slow and steady.

Which brings us to the 360. The Wii is focusing on the casual, while the PS3 is keeping up the status quo, but the 360 has arguably embraced its own new model: a focus on the hardcore. You might ask how that's any different than what previous consoles have done, but the proof is, as they say, in the pudding. The 360 crowd is, for a variety of reasons, sort of migratory. This was especially true in 2006 and early 2007, where the entire 360 crowd would gobble up each new and cool game as it came out, then move on to the next one. The monthly decent-to-awesome releases have certainly helped in this regard.

This is notable for two reasons. First, it shows (unsurprisingly) that the first few million people to buy a 360 were largely hardcore, well-informed gamers. Only since Halo's release last September have you really seen a wide variety of games being played at any given time. Second, because of this, good 360 games rarely slip through the cracks.

No one was surprised that Gears of War caught on, nor Halo, Guitar Hero, the Orange Box, Call of Duty, or other pre-existing or super-hyped games. What was very surprising (though people seem to forget in hindsight) are the games that have succeeded from seemingly out of nowhere: games like Dead Rising, Fight Night, and even Bioshock. What's that you say? How can I possibly list Bioshock as "coming out of nowhere"? Well, bear with me, because Bioshock is pretty much the center of my argument.

I spend a lot of time, more than is healthy, trolling message boards and reading gaming news. When Bioshock was first announced, the immediate reaction from the gaming community was that it would be just like System Shock 2: probably a critical darling, but certainly not a top seller. People were intrigued by the ideas behind the game, though, and it began to gather steam. The thing is, it never really got a crazy marketing push like Gears of War or other games. It came out in the middle of a glut of great games. And despite all that, it sold like gangbusters, and won awards from just about everyone.

Interestingly, this phenomenon works both ways. Whereas a terrible game like Lair sold relatively well on the PS3, crappy games with hype have had problems on the 360. Blue Dragon was supposed to be the 360's Final Fantasy, but it turned out to be kind of a repetitive grind-fest, and didn't sell that well. It was here and gone from the community's eye in no time. Even popular games have been pretty divisive on 360, as we've seen with Mass Effect and Assassin's Creed.

I would love to say that the 360 is the first console where quality and sales always go hand in hand, but while I think there is more of a correlation there than we've seen before, there are exceptions. Viva Pinata, for example, could be called the Zack and Wiki of the 360's library. Its cutesy design and Saturday morning cartoon tie-in certainly didn't help, nor did the fact that nobody thought this game would be good until it actually came out. But then, neither did Crackdown, and that did pretty well (the Halo 3 beta notwithstanding).

Nonetheless, it seems apparent to me that, by catering to the hardcore, the 360 has made it easier for good games to find success. What's interesting is that I don't think this has all that much to do with the 360 itself (though the community features help), but rather it is largely a product of it having been released first. It seems that hardcore gamers who buy anything that's supposed to be good happen to intersect quite heavily with well-informed internet users. With a huge audience of internet-using early adopters, the 360 couldn't help but gain a sort of cult following. It's not like every 2006 release was stellar (I mean, come on, Uno dominated a month or two!), but with only one next-gen system, there was plenty of time to dissect everything. The 360 could have failed anyway, if it had a shitty UI or really terrible games (and the red ring of death problem has definitely been a hindrance to its success), but really all it had to do was come out first and be halfway decent to end up where it is today.

The question in my mind is, where do we go in the future? As a hardcore gamer myself, I wish every system had a community like the 360 does (or did, perhaps - it will be interesting to see what happens in the lean spring and summer months now that there are a number of good games already out for the system). It seems that many third-party publishers are shying away from the Wii because they feel quality games won't sell on it, but just as many are getting in line to take advantage of the system's tremendous popularity. If the Wii ends up as the N64 mark III, where 95% of Wii software sales in 2010 are published by Nintendo, I think we will see an interesting shift in the industry. Will someone, perhaps Sony (as a reaction to the overpriced PS3) try to make their own "casual" system while catering to third parties, or will the Wii truly carve out a wholly separate gaming niche from its competitors? It will be interesting to see.

In the meantime, though, regardless of which system or systems you own, do everyone a favor and buy good games, not just games with familiar names.

Re: The Current Culture of Gaming – January 22, 2008 3:54 PM (edited 1/22/08 10:55 AM)
Balerion (1224 posts) Elite Powergamer
Rating: Not Rated
I think this is a good post in general, just wanted to add my 2-cents on the Wii related stuff.

I'm not convinced that the Wii has actually had a quality 3rd party title created for the American market - yet.

I think there are plenty of great 3rd party titles (Zack & Wiki, Elebits, Trauma Center, possibly No More Heroes as well, just to name a few), but most of these are, for American gamers, a bit bizarre in one way or another. I love games like this, but I also have a habit of seeking out the more bizarre titles and giving them a try.

And I won't be at all surprised if No More Heroes is a commercial flop but a critical success. Killer 7 was the same way and, frankly, 5 minutes with that game will show you why. It's a fascinating concept, but actually a bit painful to play. I'm very excited about No More Heroes, but I have no illusions about being guaranteed to like the game - and from some of what I've read so far of the full reviews that are coming in I strongly suspect that it's going to be a disappointment to me.

(edit)

I'm actually more concerned that too many 3rd party companies will see the Wii's market position as the "low end" console as an excuse to not spend the necessary time really polishing their games.

(/edit)
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