Can't Get No Satisfaction
Are gamers impossible to satisfy? Yes - and it's the best thing that's ever happened to this medium
Even while smacking your forehead at the sheer absurdity of it, it's hard not to feel a little sympathy for Reggie Fils-Aime's complaint about gamers being impossible to satisfy - a comment he made to Kotaku in the days after the Nintendo conference at E3 this year, but which has been widely circulated online this week.
It's absurd, because what Fils-Aime is effectively doing is complaining about having a fanbase who are clamouring to buy his company's products. It's a daft thing to say, the kind of quote that ends up haunting an executive because it just seems so self-pitying and so utterly unaware of the extraordinarily privileged position occupied by himself and his firm. Yet at the same time, we all know what he's talking about. Many, if not most, of us have experienced the odd sensation of watching a press conference where a host of interesting stuff is announced, only to walk out and discover that the Internet has decided it was a complete let-down and proof of a firm's impending creative and financial bankruptcy.
The Internet, after all, seems to have an extraordinary capacity for disappointment. No matter what's announced, there's a vocal group ready to express their disappointment regarding all the things which it is not. Pundits listening to those voices often end up terribly surprised by what happens down the line - witness the gobsmacked back-pedalling by tech pundits who couldn't understand why the iPad was the fastest-selling new device of all time, only months after the wisdom of the Internet had dismissed it as just an oversized iPhone which would definitely be a massive flop.
"The Internet, after all, seems to have an extraordinary capacity for disappointment"
The reason for this constant torrent of disappointment is simply that the Internet is very, very big, composed of the voices of an extremely broad swathe of consumers - and that due to an unfortunate quirk of human nature, we're much more likely to raise our voices when we're disappointed or annoyed than when we're satisfied or happy. How many of us, unprompted, tell the serving staff in a restaurant that the food was wonderful and the service fantastic? How many of us write appreciative emails to an author after enjoying their work? How many would organise a petition to thank a game company for a superb story conclusion or a well-run service?
So equally, when it comes to game announcements, a huge number of voices whispering "hmm, that looks good actually" can easily be drowned out by a relatively small number saying "looks rubbish, what's the point, what else have you got?" - and those voices will always exist, because there's not a single product or game in existence which satisfies everyone.
That's a crucial truth of our industry which Fils-Aime fails to grasp in his statement (although I suspect he gets it in a broader sense), and which many of us let out of our sight all too often. "Gamers" are not a homogenous group of people with homogenous tastes and preferences. "Gamers", in the core gamer sense (which I'll define loosely as being someone willing to spend significant money on dedicated gaming hardware of some kind), are a group of people over 100 million strong, composed of many different genders, ages, nationalities, ethnicities, sexualities and whatever else besides. Yes, the voice of the young, straight, white male is dominant - but less and less so, as the borders of gaming stretch ever further, and even among young, straight, white males, there are countless different tastes and preferences to cater for.
That's why the concept of "mainstream" or "mass market" is such a tricky one. It's essentially a measure of commercial success - how many copies did you sell? - but it's also become a shorthand for a kind of game, which is a dangerous path to go down. The reality is that nothing is really "mainstream". Hardly any game sells to more than 10% of its addressable audience; even most successful games reach a far smaller segment than that. Those which are tremendously successful, though, are worth looking at more closely - because in reality, their success is based not on being "mainstream" in one specific way, but rather on hitting a lot of different bases which appeal to niche audiences. Combine the niches and you get a "mainstream" hit.
Just talk to people about why they play and love the games they do, and you start to see the extraordinary fragmentation within people's engagement with media. Take World of Warcraft - probably the most profitable game in history. In spite of the easy stereotypes which are thrown around about WOW players, the reality is that there are an extraordinary range of people playing, for an equally extraordinary number of reasons. Some are hooked on the game's levelling and quest structure. Others are involved in end-game guilds. Some enjoy playing against other players rather than co-operating. Some love the social aspect of the game. Others play it almost as a single-player adventure. Some adore the art style, obsessively collecting pets or mounts. The rich lore and backstory draws in others. The sense of humour appeals to some. Some love the music, and buy the soundtracks to listen to when they're not playing. For most, though, it's some combination of a few of those factors, in varying degrees of importance, which drives their subscription decision.
The point is, though, that you can't point at any one of those elements and say "this is why WoW is a mainstream commercial success". WoW's success has come because it appeals to such a broad church of players in such a variety of ways - and in fact, you could carry out a similar segmenting exercise on almost any game that's been a big success. Is Halo a success because it's a well-balanced SF shooter, a genre and play-style that's become labelled with the "mainstream success" tag at various points in gaming history? For some, perhaps - but the number of tie-in novels and soundtracks sold, let alone the divide between those playing multiplayer, singleplayer or a bit of both, suggests that ways of engaging with the game and reasons for buying into it are more complex than that.
The message here is about fragmentation and diversity. Lots of different people playing lots of different games (or sometimes, the same games) for lots of different reasons. The problem Fils-Aime and other executives face is the tendency to lump together "gamers" as a single entity with a single mouthpiece - the Internet. "Gamers are impossible to satisfy"; well, yes. That's because there are hundreds of millions of them, and you'll never satisfy all of them - and those you're not satisfying will be sure to let you know about it.
" There's so very much to satisfy, and that, to me, is a sign of a medium that's thriving and evolving"
This is a good thing, though. It's a demonstration, in many ways, of how far we've come. There are so many people playing games now that there's no dominant centre any more - instead, there's a huge sweep of creativity, from free to play iOS games up to £50 special editions of console blockbusters, from experimental indie titles about getting a gay divorce through to multi-million dollar budgeted action games about chainsawing aliens in the face, taking in social games where tens of millions of people manage plots of farmland, fitness training games and artistic wonders exploring the mythological concept of the hero's journey along the way. All of these things exist. All of these things can find an audience; even a paying audience, on one scale or another. That's amazing, and it can only happen in a medium with an audience so huge that it will never be satisfied.
Fils-Aime isn't alone in appearing daunted by that situation, though. We've been so used to the homogenous idea of "gamers" as a community or a grouping (even though it's been a lie from the very outset) that many of us recoil against the idea of this fragmentation and diversification. We assume that the shift we see in both the creative and the business aspects of gaming are a zero-sum game of some nature, in which eventually One Approach To Rule Them All will emerge. Yet that's exceedingly unlikely. Just as sports cars, hatchbacks, SUVs, pick-up tricks, stretch limos, motorbikes and push-bikes all find niches as methods of wheeled transport (despite the fact that you could probably make a convincing argument for something like the humble Toyota Corolla as being the "right" approach to road transport), few industries ever home in on a single, undifferentiated approach to things, either creatively or commercially. Filmed entertainment comes in all shapes and sizes - movies released in cinema, or on DVD, or on streaming sites; TV episodes and series of varying lengths; short films; YouTube clips, even; and that's even before considering the diversity of creative approaches on display within each of those. Why should games be any different?
So yes; Nintendo will never satisfy gamers. But that's just because there's so very much to satisfy, and that, to me, is a sign of a medium that's thriving and evolving. That's causing growing pains for many, certainly, but when you look past that, it's hard not to be more excited than ever about the creative and commercial future of this medium.