What happened to the middle class of gaming?

As time was short this week just a small post but one thing in the last days really intrigued me: Just recently at GDC, Epic‘s own (in)famous Cliff Bleszinski stated: “The Middle class game is dead!“. Now, “Cliffy B.” is known for some polemic statements but if you have a look at the current games in the Top10, being released or being covered in magazines and online portals unfortunately he has a good point. But as I do not agree with Mr. Bleszinski I thought I have to do a little rant on it.

State of the “Art”

To quote what was said:

It needs to either be either an event movie – day one, company field trip, [Battle: Los Angles], we’re there. Avatar – we’re there. The Other Guys starring Will Ferrell and Marky Mark? Nah, I’ll f****** rent that, I don’t really care, right?
Or it has to be an indie firm. Black Swan – I’ll go and see that. I’ll go to The Rialto or I’ll go to the triple-A Imax movie. The middle one is just gone, and I think the same thing has happened to games.

What he does is making a very logical comparison to the movie industry and the people watching movies. And I think we all had that kind of thinking when going to the cinema, at least once.
In general, the movie and the gaming industry underwent a big change over the last years through the advent of fast internet connections, a wider offer of “different” games delivering the same and of course piracy. The movie industry had many problems related to the “new media audience” and was trying to force a new way of thinking onto an old structure… and in most cases failed (not counting things like the iTunes Movie Store, Netflix, … as these are 3rd parties)!

Gaming did so, too! With building restrictive copy protections, enforcing keys for online playing etc. the industry of course tries to protect their property and investment but has also to deal with a not so new audience but its only audience, the media-audience that knows the possibilities and knows how to spread or deal with what they do not intend to deal with (again some “kind of” 3rd parties succeeded such as Steam, providing other games more successful).
But from there, two new branches (re-)opened for gaming: 1) Widen the audience with titles like Just Dance and the NDS or Wii and 2) work with the “independent idea”, doing something special, even odd (being “Sundance“). These also broadened the art of games and the art of developers. But if only Triple-A and Indie developments are really the only thing succeeding the whole Wii line-up probably has to be canned.

If we just take a look at sales, Top10s and media coverage right now everything pretty much underlines what Bleszinski stated:

  • The Top10 is ruled by Killzones, Call of Duties, Fight Night Champions, Bulletstorms, …
  • Call of Duty: Black Ops sold over 20mio units (vgchartz.com)
  • Arkham City, Bioshock: Infinite, Guild Wars 2, Prey 2, … on gaming news sites

Not much variance in what is the main source for information and “opinion” making for 90% of all gamers. I may be a developer but foremost a Gamer! And growing up in a time where every game was Indie or middle class and could get the attention it wanted, this somehow makes me sad. So why is it that there is no middle class in gaming any more?

Today’s Ratings…

You could think that gaming and game reviews follow the rules of the Highlander: There can be only one! Games seem to need a 90+ rating to be sold and they have to be the “definite” thing. Every game has to duel against the genre highlight and nothing is accepted besides. Every MMO has to compete against World of Warcraft, every Action-RPG against Mass Effect.
Now, with this attitude in reviewing games, always coming back to: This was a good game, but Call of Duty has more players online!, how can middle class games even get the attention they deserve? How can a middle class FPS compete against billions of dollars in revenue? Only “Indie Games” seem to have that little bonus given so that even e.g. a game as Magicka (great game) often just got a 7 out of 10 but is a success (a death sentence to other games). But wait? Magicka was known and well sold already before reviews with great ratings!?

…and the perception?

Reviewers and PR often argument that they have to force the 90+ and advertise the hell out of it just to provide a “deceiving perception” that it is the next great game and needs to be bought. Now, if you just read the comments below reviews and the comments to In-Game Videos that may show a little lag you could think those arguments are correct. And if sales such as Call of Duty: Black Ops pop up everything is signed that “their way” is right.
Now, everyone wants to do that “one bullet”, wants to be the next Call of Duty or WoW (not even Blizzard can do another WoW!). But really besides those what sells are a Pokemon, a Mario, a Just Dance, are Kinect and their Adventures, and the many other (not only Wii) titles that everyone watches but somehow nobody really sees. These are not necessarily games that are labelled triple-A or are covered throughout the gaming sites all day long (up to the release I didn’t even know about a new Pokemon, but I like Black&White ^^), but nevertheless they are sold, are in Top10 charts and are even fun to play. I will skip that in some purely economically driven stock corporations these numbers seem to not count.

Media Coverage

How games are covered in magazines and on online sites is very important nowadays. 100 Action-Adventures against 100 First-Person-Shooters against 100 whatever games compete for the money of the gamer. It is not enough any more to release some footage near release. You have to be in the gamers mind for months before the release. You need to be watched to be recognized, you need to waited for to be a “seller”. But did people really waited for the Top10 game Just Dance 2?

The recognition long before the release is produced with “unreal” information. Costly Render trailers provide a visual media entertainment over the real gaming. Produced parallel to games, sometimes from external studios they try to establish a name in the gamers mind. Games like Deus Ex: Human Revolution were noted for nearly a whole year just because of an impressive render trailer. It is just now that some people start to report from real playing sessions. If these would be anywhere near mediocre the game would be criticized prior release because of faked expectations. In this particular case even two expectations: Because of its predecessor and really incredible trailer. If I think about the Video Game Awards last year and the trailers I could start thinking that gaming is not important any more as I haven’t seen much gameplay… the important part in the end!
A different game and according media coverage is Limbo. Videos, Previews, Screenshots etc. always showed gameplay and people got intrigued by the game, by the art, by the style and not a “produced emotion” but what they felt themselves watching the real game. Now, I am always thinking: If they only show a render trailer the game probably isn’t that intriguing being watched… or is it?

…and the perception?

Basically you could say: WYSIWYG! We can only go out and buy what we know of, what we see. Therefore, PR and Marketing, the coverage in the media and the outcome as a rating is so important to be recognized and a possible subtract for the buyers money. That is limited and more and more players try to get a share out of it. Once the music industry complained that piracy is destroying the revenues. No question, piracy is bad but an important point is missing: The every growing entertainment battles for the same share! New technologies, more games, more movies, … broaden what has to be consumed and therefore fight for the right to be noticed.
I remember a time where I would pick up a gaming magazine at my local store (yes, a printed one!) and would have an overview about every single game to be released in that particular month and nearly everything in development. The market was growing but manageable and you would be able to keep an overview of everything interesting. Nevertheless, we still remember the time and those “glory days” of gaming. Games such as Outcast or Might and Magic VII keep me on my machine still today (just bought them at GOG).
Nowadays, such games would hardly been noticed if not covered exclusively or they would not stand comparisons against “that one” genre defining game.

The hidden Middle Class

A problem as always is the definition of “middle class” and especially “indie”. Middle class is not necessarily A- or AA-Games and Indie does not mean: One guy sitting in its room developing the next extraordinary gaming evolution.
Of course, games such as Braid or World of Goo with it’s extremely small teams are top-notch productions and extremely great games. These are also often used as a definition of Indie games. Besides providing an interesting game design and gaming twist both games are extremely polished, with sometimes incredible graphics and beautiful music. So, besides an interesting game design these games also provided incredible art and music, often only related to so-called Triple-A games.
But besides these two examples what about others? For example the developer of the fantastic ‘Splosion Man Twisted Pixel is no “Two and a half Men” team but a team of about ten doing a high production value, extraordinary game with good design and a special twist. The new developer Adhesive Games just showed of their premier title Hawken which was so impressive that Kotaku labelled it as the most beautiful indie game. But a giant city, mech action game with an impressive graphics style and city view, an indie game? Introversion coming from Indie “heritage” being middle class nowadays. This is also a good example of what indie development becomes after that “one hit”: Middle class! You cannot stay “indie” if you are noticed and people follow what you are doing and especially starting building up expectations.

All these and even more such as contract developers (e.g. Shin’en) are the middle class no one notices. This “hidden” middle class is what provides the foundation for our gaming, for our everyday entertainment. As well as a movie such as Avatar gaming cannot and will not consist of only triple-A high budget productions. Many try to achieve just that: A triple-A 90+ international seller every year! But from a real economic viewpoint this is nonsense. You neither plan with just one horse nor do you found on one pillar. Sometimes productions have to level each other because success cannot be planned, especially in entertainment. If you have bad luck and your extremely awesome military shooter comes out right the week after a catastrophe, your game is doomed. The movie industry knows this for years and paid for it. These errors should not be repeated.
And from my own experience, another player, the browser games are not developed by some “PHP script kids” any more but productions with larger teams trying to increase the production value to a level with standalone games. Right now probably the widest middle class games everyone plays, but nobody knows.

No question, I love the so-called AAA-Titles such as Uncharted, Gears of War or Killzone. But to me the middle class definitely is not dead. It again depends on how we look at it, how we rate it (without prejudices) and how we classify “The Other Guys” in gaming such as downloadable games, “indies” and online games (as well as my infamous Casual Games). Because we have to remember even a company such as Epic started of as a middle class developer with Indie developers. “Cliffy B.” may be right for the games he intends to create, but The middle class game is not dead in general! Or would you label EVE Online as middle class? Just based on money or CUO you would have to if you think like Cliff!

PS: A polemic assumption by me: If the general gamer has 100$ each month, he would buy more games if the costs are lower and therefore a wider production would be more effective and risk-less!

Written for #AltDevBlogADay

3 thoughts on “What happened to the middle class of gaming?”

  1. “You cannot stay “indie” if you are noticed and people follow what you are doing and especially starting building up expectations. ”

    Why not? “Indie” only means that the development is done without the financial support of a video games publisher. I don’t see, why e.g. Arrowhead should not be considered “indie” after Magicka. If they get bought by EA, then they would lose this status, but as it is now, I’d still consider them “indie”.

    Btw: A great example for middle class gaming would be Paradox Interactive. As far as I know none of their games is considered AAA and all got ratings around 70-85. Still they’re making quite some money and are really successful.

  2. Hi

    To me the “idea Indie” cannot be related to money only. Even an “indie” production takes up money… much money and to draw line there is not applicable in my opinion. Indie is more, indie is passion, indie is publicity and indie is of course money… but not alone!

    Cheers

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