Core games hit new heights, so why do they feel threatened?
GTA V and Monster Hunter 4 prove core games are thriving
Fans of traditional, "core" games are often extremely hostile towards the new wave of casual and mobile titles, and even towards the people who play them. They're keen to draw a line in the sand between these titles and "real" games and quick to portray players of Farmville, Candy Crush Saga or Puzzle & Dragons as mindless consumers of low-grade, repetitive entertainment that's utterly disconnected from and disrespectful of gaming culture and the medium's development as a form of art and entertainment.
There are good discussions to be had around those topics - not Internet flame-wars, but some interesting if slightly dry academic discussions defining the form and shape of "gaming" as a pastime, a medium and an artform. If we're very lucky, some of those discussions could even avoid becoming tedious tug-of-war sessions between the "narrative has no place in games!" crowd and the rest of the world. None of them, however, will gain anything from employing "casuals" as a vicious epithet, or deciding to sideline millions of game players as insignificant because they're "fake" gamers who play the wrong kinds of game.
Why does this kind of knee-jerk unpleasantness get so consistently applied to new, more casual audiences? There are uncharitable explanations which often point to uncomfortable truths - self-styled "gamers" have built something of a boys' treehouse over the years, and dislike the invasion of new demographics which can include such unwelcome treehouse guests as women, homosexuals, trans people, ethnic and religious minorities, and even - gasp! - their own mothers and relatives. Is nothing sacred?! There's also a broader sense in which this is not specific to games at all - there's a more universal knee-jerk reaction which sees adherents of any niche pastime resenting and rejecting the arrival of a mass-market audience and products tailored to them. ("Ugh, you listen to chart music? Are your ears broken?" "You actually like JJ Abrams movies? What's wrong with you?")
"Why does this kind of knee-jerk unpleasantness get so consistently applied to new, more casual audiences?"
At the root of much of the dislike of casual games and their players, however, lies a more basic concern - a fear that the rise of this kind of game is going to replace and erase the sorts of games which existing gamers actually enjoy. Watching Clash of Clans or Candy Crush Saga roll in countless millions in cash is a deeply uncomfortable feeling for the kind of gamer who trekked for tens of hours across Skyrim, who can utterly lose themselves in the flooded corridors of Rapture or the dingy streets of Dunwall, or whose adrenaline pours out when they're ambushed by the Covenant or surrounded by the Combine. If Candy Crush Saga can make so much money, is that the future? Is that all we're going to be left with - if not thematically, then as a business model or a creative approach?
That's the fear that drives the aggression. There's a hobby which we love, and a wealth of creative works which have given us unforgettable experiences - gamers fear that the new business reality represented by F2P and casual games is an outright threat to that experience and that hobby. In the chase after the new casual audience, game companies will be forced to abandon the pursuit of the kind of experiences which enrapture and delight the existing audience - or at the very least, to turn them all into tawdry fairground toys which demand that you pump coins into them to keep on playing, robbing them utterly of the atmosphere and immersion which is so much of their appeal.
I wonder, then, if the atmosphere of discussion and debate around games might become a little more civil (on this topic, at least) in the wake of two fairly important events in the past week. Firstly, you can't have failed to notice that GTA V came out and smashed through sales records not only for games, but for just about every entertainment media imaginable. Of course, week-one sales of games surpassed the revenue of blockbuster movies long ago, but GTA V cements games as the dominant entertainment medium of our era by finally silencing the last bastion of naysaying - not only did it make more money in a single weekend than the biggest films in the world make in their entire lifetime, it was also purchased and played by more people in one weekend than the number who bought tickets for any recent movie. Revenue or volume; count it how you like, GTA V is the biggest entertainment property on earth.
"GTA V cements games as the dominant entertainment medium of our era by finally silencing the last bastion of naysaying"
Meanwhile, in Japan, another entertainment property went on sale - Monster Hunter 4, Capcom's latest release. Its figures don't rival GTA's, but in the supposedly "declining" Japanese games market, it sold over two million units in its first week and helped to drive hundreds of thousands of sales of the 3DS - a console that's meant to be a miserable flop thanks to the unstoppable advance of smartphones and tablets. That can't rival Apple's 9 million unit sales of the iPhone 5S and 5C, of course, but then again, that's not a remotely useful comparison, no matter how often blowhard mobile evangelists trot it out - the 3DS purchasers are all confirmed gamers who will go on to spend heavily on expensive game software, while only a certain portion of mobile phone owners play games, a much smaller portion pay any money for them, and the amount of money they pay can be quite small (or quite large, of course, but certainly rarely exceeding the spend of a console owner).
GTA V and Monster Hunter 4; two games which are absolutely squarely aimed at the core gamer who is presently so terrified of being squeezed out by the flood of mobile, casual and social software. Two games which, completely uncoincidentally, have just become the biggest entertainment properties in the world and in Japan over the past few weeks.
There is no threat here. There's a small and dwindling clique of hardcore evangelists who will try to characterise GTA's success in particular as an outlier, an erratic piece of data that doesn't change the overall context of the industry, but they're absolutely wrong. GTA's enormous release is actually a perfectly logical and predictable continuation of a curve which has seen the top-rated properties in traditional gaming ranked higher and higher in sales terms over the past decade or two. GTA V is not a last gasp of sales success for a doomed industry; it was inevitable that eventually, a core videogame would achieve this level of sales success, and it is also inevitable that a future franchise will surpass this (although perhaps not for a few years, as the new console generation and the other systems which will play host to the next giant release need to establish themselves first).
Social, mobile and F2P gaming isn't going anywhere. Developers are going to get better and better at creating and honing those experiences, targeting specific audiences and even creating experiences in those categories that appeal to core gamers - no question. But this isn't the only way to make a game or to make money from games. There will still be a huge audience who want 8 to 12 hour long amazing narrative-driven interactive experiences. There will still be a core audience for combative multiplayer. Hardcore FPS, long-form RPG, exploration of vast worlds; all of these things have huge audiences which, far from being drawn away by the lure of Hay Day or Bubble Witch Saga, are continuing to grow and expand. Yes, the really impressive expansion right now is at the casual end of the market - but that doesn't stop core games from selling even more than they used to, as this month's success stories prove.
This isn't a zero sum game, and everyone needs to stop talking and acting as though it is. As long as there's an audience that wants and is willing to pay for core game experiences, there will be companies that provide for that need. Mums playing Candy Crush Saga outside the school gates do not in any way detract from the value of the market that wants a new GTA, a new Monster Hunter or any other core experience. This expansion is not be aimed at core gamers, and a big mistake being made by lots of companies now is trying to apply rational choice models to a fundamentally irrational consumer behaviour and deciding that core gamers actually SHOULD want this kind of business model or game experience. However, that mistake aside (and it'll stop once a few companies get badly burned for their foolishness), this expansion also does not harm core gamers. Once they realise that, perhaps we can all tone down the rhetoric and instead enjoy the hegemony of videogames as, quite remarkably, this generation's truly dominant entertainment medium.