: Editorial: Going Mainstream Makes Games More Niche

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Editorial: Going Mainstream Makes Games More Niche

The road to Hell is said to be paved with the best of intentions.

In gaming that can come in the form of accessibility, mainstreaming, dumbing down, whatever you want to call it, of established franchises. It has been a common topic for conversation and even more commonly a source of angst, but I'd like to wring one last observation out of this trend if you'll indulge me.

My theory here is quite simple: Going mainstream makes your product more niche. Setting aside anecdotal observations of the purchasing behavior of select groups of gamers (a common point of contention in forums) I just want to run down a string of logic and see what the rest of you think about it.

I will begin where my experience lies, with the JRPG. This generation has seen the effective death of the traditional, turn-based, exploration-laden, grand epic role playing game in the Japanese style. There are a few examples of some aspects of the gameplay surviving such as in the Atelier series but the age of what we were used to is gone. Grandia is gone, Suikoden is gone, Xenosaga is gone, Final Fantasy has become something else, and other experiments like Ni No Kuni and Eternal Sonata have tried to straddle action and turn-based ideologies. I am not suggesting that the JRPG was ever going to become a huge billion dollar seller, only that changing the genre to appeal to new mainstream fans was a misadventure with a goal that could never be realized. Final Fantasy is the best example to follow down the rabbit hole because we can watch what happened with the sales and the scores. Please bear in mind this is not a Final Fantasy complaint editorial, I just find it to be a great example for my purposes.

With Final Fantasy this generation you begin with the most successful JRPG franchise in history. It appeals to people who enjoy creative battle systems that include strategic micro-management with a medium strength learning curve. It includes expansive exploration across a world map. It includes anime-inspired art direction. It includes towns filled with different people from different fictional cultures from numerous factions. It includes a large, diverse cast of characters. It has deep emotional sub-stories beneath an overarching plot that follows a major theme from the real world. At this point you have an audience which enjoys these things all together in one game. Basically you have the broadest most mainstream JRPG fan possible because it takes a special kind of enthusiast (and I am one of them) to play the ultra niche games like Hyperdimension Neptunia, Atelier anything, or Mugen Souls. Those are specialized games, Final Fantasy was previously a big tent kind of game. Do you think the changes have made a bigger tent for the franchise or actually a much smaller one?

FFXIII implemented a macro-management battle system in which the figurative car is always driving and you basically shift the gears so the car doesn't crash, this was done in the name of action. It restricted you to one playable character at a time. It gave you regenerating health as most games do nowadays. The map became mostly a straight line. Whether you liked the cast or not is very subjective, but the treatments of them were very surfacey compared to past entries, with each character being driven forward by just one troubling aspect of their past. The towns were gone, the cultures diminished into civilized versus savage types, and limits on stat growth made grinding pointless so that you could never become overpowered. Some of this was remedied in FFXIII-2, but more changes further shrank the audience size. You were now restricted to just 2 party characters for the whole adventure while the side quests, NPCs, and factions became lifeless backdrops. The plot that was only convoluted in XIII became insulting in its sequel, and the world was a series of utterly disconnected locations.

On the horizon is Lightning Returns and Final Fantasy XV. The former cuts the characters to just one, adds more standard face-button action to the battle system, adds platforming, and puts a time limit on people which is sure to trouble anyone looking to explore its world. The latter is pure action in a very modern setting with lots of testosterone (no playable females). So what has happened? The folks at Square Enix probably feel like they have altered their series enough to appeal to gamers everywhere who like to play as one character or few characters, who love non-stop action and who enjoy only light RPG elements in their games. Instead the reality of the situation is that you have taken a very wide customer base and whittled it down to the following description:

“For JRPG fans who enjoy stock characters, non-stop action, limited exploration, limited playable characters, simplistic battle systems, platforming, crazy plots, and modern/futuristic settings.”

When you look at it that way, the mainstreaming of any previously established franchise within a specific genre effectively makes the game more and more niche.

We can repeat the exercise with any title following the same trends. Recent Resident Evil and Dead Space entries could quite easily be described as games for survival/horror fans who prefer pop-out scares, large amounts of ammunition, limited focus on atmosphere, and non-stop action. I think that is quite the niche audience indeed.

You can see these effects in various places. With Final Fantasy it is right there in the sales figures. That isn't always the best place to prove the point though, as something like Resident Evil will indeed benefit from being an action/zombie game and having a big name. But you certainly can see what is happening with the reviews of all these games, they are not holding up to expectations. More than anything it is right here in comments sections where we can see long time fans complaining about new changes pushing them to the margins of what they can enjoy just because they don't dig the mainstream changes. Gamers will always complain, sure, but if developers can't hold onto their consumer base it's because changes are narrowing their base, not because they are expanding it.

Yes companies need to make money, but the goal of creating something should really be to make the best product possible for the audience it is intended for. I would point to the games Demon's Souls and Dark Souls. I can't even play those games, they are utterly frustrating for me, but they have success and passionate fans because they do hardcore very well. Could the series be more popular if it were easier? Maybe, but now developers would be trying to cater to fans of challenging gameplay who also want their games to go easy on them. Does that make any sense at all?

I don't think so. I think when you change established norms to get mass appeal you are twisting the arms of the greater portion of your audience and making your product so niche that its future is unsustainable and coasting on name recognition. That coasting period is probably limited. If they really must make games that mash things up to this extent then I believe they should make new franchises and let them prove themselves. Like with The Last Remnant, that worked out well right? Well, at least it lived and died on its own merit and didn't tear a beloved institution down on its way to the ash pile of history.

10/23/2013 David D. Nelson

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Comments (18 posts)

Temjin001
Wednesday, October 23, 2013 @ 11:18:16 PM
Reply

I had to think about it and re-read stuff but I follow, David.
Ninja Gaiden 3 made a similar mistake. They took a game series well supported by core gamers and then tried to bring it to the generalized gamer masses (and those who get off on blood and bones breaking) with it's easy difficulty and streamlined design. Thankfully, Team Ninja realized right away where they went wrong, labeling their own creation as a "Japanese Hamburger" then remixed it with Razor's Edge to try and appease their original core. Thankfully I feel they now know their audience and they'll get it right next time.

EDIT: the lesson is like the ones kids cartoons teach. It's okay to be yourself. Stop trying to 'fit in' with the popular crowd. By doing so you screw everything up about who you really are.


Last edited by Temjin001 on 10/23/2013 11:21:10 PM

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WorldEndsWithMe
Wednesday, October 23, 2013 @ 11:38:01 PM

The argument had to be kind of convoluted because the basic premise that you can get gamers who mainly enjoy Call of Duty to play a series originally for Survival/Horror or JRPG fans is on its face absurd. And I think it fits any game that dumbs things down in the same ways.

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ethird1
Thursday, October 24, 2013 @ 12:34:25 AM
Reply

David Nelson is awesome. Butka sux!!

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___________
Thursday, October 24, 2013 @ 12:46:54 AM
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what pisses me off though is the notion that "modernizing" games will give them a much larger install base.
its just BS, allot of the times all it does is piss fans off so they loose sales there, and dont gain any new fans because fans expect the game to be different.
you dont go to a franchise and say hey i might try that now because its a sequel and it will be different.
so, what do we have to do, to get this bullsh*t notion out of publishers thick skulls?

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PC_Max
Thursday, October 24, 2013 @ 1:18:55 AM
Reply

With jrpg games, I think what it has come down to is to cater to American audiences. Not saying they want easier games, just that I think the Japanese developers think their games will be more appealing if they change the game a bit or alot and westernize them.

I think games in general and becoming more like each other, with the occasional rebel who wants to do something different, even if the masses want the same old thing.

Ben I think mentioned in a past article about games becoming less consequence oriented. In other words, you die in a game but you can continue from where you died quite easily be reloading the saved game. Thing is, I think a game could cater to ease or challenge of the player if a game offers the option.

Keep playing!

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Knightzane
Thursday, October 24, 2013 @ 2:57:07 AM
Reply

catching on are yee?

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Gordo
Thursday, October 24, 2013 @ 4:51:20 AM
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Hardcore is fine and I wouldn't advocate ever to betray your creative principles but I think in this day and age you are able to cater to a wider audience.

Add an easy or casual setting. Keep your game hardcore if you like but cater for the oldies that don't have the nimble fingers or time anymore to master the muscle memories. Make the grinding optional. Add a few settings to make it easier.

By all means penalise by removing trophies or reducing online but give people the option. I would like to play through Catherine. I spent an hour last night stuck on a frigging wall getting spiked and eaten. Give me the option to admit defeat and skip to the next level. Persona 4 Golden. Love the game but I can't do grinding anymore. I've traded it in which is a shame.

I'm not saying change the story or the gameplay, just add a few options for the noobs so they can enjoy it too without the penalties of it being too hardcore.

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Vivi_Gamer
Thursday, October 24, 2013 @ 5:27:15 AM
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You say Xenosaga is dead, but did you ever play Xenoblade for the Wii? The game offered absolutely everything a JRPG fanatic could ever want. An engaging story, characters who each have their own involvement and personal troubles to surpass. A huge (HUGE) new world, which never outstays its welcome, if you want to advance the story you can, if you want to spend more time exploring the world you can. The battle system while not turn based is just as true to a JRPG form, I don't think it is necessary for a JRPG to be turn-based, but it has to have a structure where you work as a team and Xenoblade's combat is all about teamwork. I can go on but this game gave me faith that the JRPG is still alive when the PS3 had nothing to offer. Yes it is on the Wii, but the game just breaks so many boundaries, its the primary reason I bought a Wii-U now, I loved this game and I cannot wait for the next one.

The problem with Final Fantasy is the within the company itself, we all know ever since Square-Enix has formed that the Squaresoft's quality in titles dropped dramatically. For me XII is the worst in the series and as that was their first FF (Not counting FFX-2,which I nearly disregard completely) and the biggest dissapointment in gaming I have ever had. I've gone into this many times before and I am sure you regulars have had these points forced like a mallet to the head so I will just say that because of the lead creators involved (The director of the Orge series) it just didn't feel like a Final Fantasy. I still stand by XIII-1 as a enjoyable experience, I really had no problem plowing 110 hours into it, but it should not have gone into this convoluted mess of a series, I just want it to be over now.

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WorldEndsWithMe
Thursday, October 24, 2013 @ 9:25:59 AM

I don't think it is necessary for one to be turn based either but think about this: The Tales always had an action battle system and it was always very niche with a lot less sales than the turn based ones. Now Tales is closer to a classic JRPG than FF.

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Lawless SXE
Thursday, October 24, 2013 @ 6:26:42 AM
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A well put together article offering some convincing arguments. However, I disagree with the premise. I don't believe that watering down the "unique" elements in any given game series in order to better appeal to the mass market turns it into a more niche product. I think that the reason that it curtails sales is actually because those elements are scaled back to the point that they lose their lustre, resulting in what is termed a drop a quality (the question of whether the watering-down of 'hardcore' elements necessarily equates to an objective drop of quality could make for an interesting topic in and of itself...).

And, as Ben is fond of pointing out, gaming is arguably the only remaining entertainment industry where sales are, more or less, determined by critical consensus. Using the Final Fantasy XIII example, I don't believe that its audience was JRPG fans, but a more general group of gamers, and I'd argue that the sales figures prove that. Most other JRPGs are lucky to break one million, but FFXIII sold over six million copies, clearly transcending the niche of its genre. Even XIII-2 surpassed 3 million sales, according to VGChartz. You might argue that those sales are the residual effects of what was once easily counted among the biggest brands of gaming, but it still shows that more people are ready to pick it up than they are entries in the Tales of..., Atelier, HyperDimension or Xeno series.

The same goes for the DS/RE examples. They're being catered towards the F.E.A.R. crowd - action fans who like a little horror thrown in to change things up a little; not survival/horror fans. Well, that's the message that I've gotten from the marketing, anyway.

My view is that too many people are holding on to this ideologies that these franchises are still targeting the original audience while attempting to appeal to a wider audience. That is fundamentally wrong. Sure, it's grand if the old guard comes along for the ride, but it is entirely the new fans that they are striving to convince that their product is worthwhile. And this is because gaming is a growing industry and it is clear to publishers that new gamers want a very different experiences that the hardcore fans of yore. I mean, what are the best selling games of recent years? Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, Assassin's Creed, Halo, Gears with FIFA, Just Dance, Wii-brand games and Gran Turismo sitting slightly on the next tier.

These aren't the same fans that once decided the sales figures in the heyday of Zelda, Final Fantasy, etc., etc. It's clear that the old games have reached their sales peaks, as a rule, so the only option is to attempt to evolve them with an eye on the market that is now the dominant one. It isn't necessarily making a series more niche... It's more about misreading the way that fans will read your intention, bringing me back to the point that too many people are hung up on the idea that the newer iterations of a series are aimed at the old fans.

Did all of that make any sense whatsoever?

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ProfPlayStation
Thursday, October 24, 2013 @ 8:25:54 AM

Here's the trouble with changing your product to meet a base who has never supported you before: They're not loyal.

As David has pointed out in this article, these games become more niche because the new "fans" which these companies are attempting to garner are the very ones who will ebb and flow with the changing fads, and drop your product in an instant when it becomes unfashionable.

Although it's a console and not a game series, the same principle applies: Look at the Wii. From near the beginning until the very end, the old guard gamers warned that Nintendo was mortgaging their legacy and burning their supporters by trying to cater to a new audience who had never supported them before. Fast forward to today, and all that has come to pass. The "blue ocean" crowd has moved on to the latest fad, and the traditional Nintendo supporters have shrunk down to tiny core, due to neglect. Putting out a questionable product that was trying to repeat the Wii didn't help anything, either.

The same is true of these game franchises. The new customers who picked up FF13 aren't going to say, "Remember the good times we had with that game; let's buy more!" They're going to seek out the latest fad. FF13-2 didn't even reach half of the FF13 sales, and I think the biggest argument against the new crowd is the FF13-2 360 sales: Barely over a half million! FF13 sold nearly 2-million on 360. Obviously, the new people didn't like it or forgot about it, and the old fans didn't like it, either. So who did Square-Enix please?

The same is true of the other franchises. The fans who will follow a series and continually support it appreciate the uniqueness of it. Take that away, and you take away the fans. If you try to turn it into a generic me-too game, you're not going to please anyone. For instance, I'm a huge Mirror's Edge fan. I like it because of how unique and different it is from other games, and everyone I introduce to it likes it for the same reasons. If they suddenly decided to turn the new Mirror's Edge into a run-and-gun shooter just because Battlefield and Call of Duty are popular, they would have betrayed the confidence which I and others had put in the series.

Kojima's main Metal Gear series is more popular today than ever. Why? Because he never compromises his vision! With every release you have people who "don't get it," complaining about the same various aspects, but the series wasn't made for them in the first place, and they probably wouldn't follow it if it were made to cater to them, anyway. Kojima may borrow elements from other games that he thinks will help make it better, but he never compromises his core vision of what makes it a Metal Gear game.

Final Fantasy, Dead Space, Resident Evil, and so on, have all been compromised. As they say, when you try to please everyone, you end up pleasing no one.

Last edited by ProfPlayStation on 10/24/2013 8:39:48 AM

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WorldEndsWithMe
Thursday, October 24, 2013 @ 9:30:17 AM

Yes and I appreciate the well made rebuttal, but even if my argument doesn't nail down the totality of why mainstreaming is a bad idea I still think there is merit to this basic theoretical structure:

If Yellow Labradors are popular and I have Rat Terriers, cross-breeding them won't please fans of Labs or Rat Terriers but will only cater to fans of Ratties that like the look of the new hybrid (a smaller faction of the original base). People who like Yellow Labs will still only buy Yellow Labs.

Last edited by WorldEndsWithMe on 10/24/2013 9:31:51 AM

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Temjin001
Thursday, October 24, 2013 @ 10:33:21 AM

hey, so lawless, while you were exploring the world Ben opened up support to the psxe community to lend their writing talents to the site. World, Beamboom, and Highlander were selected. But only World produces anything from them. Perhaps you should email Ben if you're interested in article contributions. Your hands-on play tests of next-gen games would've been pretty useful, at least a few weeks ago anyway.

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Lawless SXE
Thursday, October 24, 2013 @ 3:32:32 PM

Don't have much time, so I'll address this quickly.

Prof, Who's to say that they won't become loyal? It may be true that the majority of gamers that you attract are fair weather fans, but does that mean that you can write all of them off as simply as that? And FF is know for the quality of its mainline entries, which means that XV will be the real litmus test, not XIII-2 or LR, which, although counted by S-E as integral to Lightning's story, are not core entries in the eyes of most.

The Wii is an interesting one, but let's not forget that the Wii U still doesn't have the majority of Nintendo's core IPs. THey haven't appealed to the core audience yet, and they're new console has failed to garner the attention of the Wii crowd largely because it doesn't live by the same gimmick. Sure, the fans are fickle, but I'd like to know how many people who only started on the Wii also picked up the 3DS...

Unfortunately, Daves, I'm outta time. Get back to ya this arvy.

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Lawless SXE
Friday, October 25, 2013 @ 4:04:56 AM

World,

There absolutely is something in the idea of a series losing its appeal when the developers/publishers alter it in the name of seeking a wider audience, but to say that it becomes more niche is, I think, mistaken. If I had to issue an alternative, it would be something along the lines of the shattering of expectations. The fans go in expecting it to remain, largely, the same and they extol the virtues of that approach to other people that they think might be interested in it. When it transpires that those expectations are fundamentally incorrect, as would be the case in FFXIII, RE5/6, etc.

I'm really agreeing with the sentiment of the article and the Professor above, I realise, but disagreeing with the choice of word - "niche".

As for the dog analogy... fair point. I still think that if you tried such a cross-breed with the intention of chasing those that really liked the original breeds you'd be a damned fool. One of the things with dog breeding is that cross-breeds are typically attempted in order to utilise the unique talents of each breed and reduce the effects of their natural genetic defects (arthritis in Labradors, respiratory problems in snub-nosed dogs, etc). So... again, the target market SHOULD be different to that of the pure-breeds.

Yeah... it's that choice of word that bugs me more than aught else.

Temjin,

It's an idea worth considering. I'm back writing for Nick again, but I'm probably going to bring that to an end if I get accepted to uni. And then, depending on how much free time I have, I may look to something with a bit more prestige attached. We'll see how things turn out.

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PlatformGamerNZ
Thursday, October 24, 2013 @ 6:35:42 AM
Reply

yea i cun't agree more ben and i think that mainstreaming certain games and series to fail actually cos they aren't meant to be marketed to those people and you piss of ur actually fan base and so they don't buy the game and so you fail it seems to me to be pritty simple and straight forward but watever.

happy gaming =)

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slow and smart
Thursday, October 24, 2013 @ 10:37:26 AM
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The last of us shows that fast and dumber is not the only thing that can sell very well,there is still a large group of gamers that can bring you loads of cash,but only when the games go all the way for that kind of group of gamers,and not a mix of half smart gameplay and half dumb gameplay

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Lunar_Miyuki
Monday, October 28, 2013 @ 8:30:20 AM
Reply

see Devs need to understand something if they want to Mainstream games then thats Fine but the thing they Dont understand is their Mothership IPS that put them on the map aren't the games to do it with

gamers are very Loyal to things that they enjoy and games Like FF have an audience that expects FF10 previous style FF games will a FF Fan try something new yes but do they want you to turn FF into something completely new No
FF fans will go out and try different IPS for instance drakengard or chocobos dungeon or star ocean 3 using examples of sqare games

just like DMC fans will try games like GOW Ninja gaiden Dantes Inferno Darksiders

Sidenote Capcom only has 152 Million in the bank meaning their broke don't believe me google capcom broke its all over the net

my point is companies look at the sales instead of why we liked the game
and thats their downfall

on the other side of the fence we have companies Like Nintendo which stick to what made their franchises popular in the first place

Zelda is still an adventure game and plays similar to the ones people liked
Pokemon is still pokemon barely ever changes yet outsells FF every time

ill address Ninja Gaiden 3 First off the game was rushed for a deadline
then Nintendo tried bringing it back where it started so stuff got complicated
and Techmo wasn't allowed to release half the stuff they wanted 2

Next techmo gets a Big backlash and listens to the Fans and creates Ninja Gaiden 3 Razors edge for PS3/360 which lets them release everything they wanted to

Now Hero Mode is completely Optional yes Optional your not forced to play on it yes it is for casual gamers to see if they like the game
bash it all you want its optional don't like it don't play on it


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