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