Building Bridges

This may be the best quarter ever for core games - but where are the titles that could build bridges to new audiences?

Depending on which end of the industry you work in, there's either something sobering or something uplifting to be taken away from the multitude of pre-Christmas surveys which all tell us essentially the same thing - namely that for yet another year in succession, it's Apple's shiny gadgets and not the games industry's dedicated toys which occupy the top spot on the majority of Christmas lists.

Not so long ago, this would have been reason for game creators to be very worried indeed, but the reality is that this Christmas, more of you than ever before are actually working on iOS platforms and can therefore see this as an expansion of your addressable market rather than a worrying step away from gaming.

That's good; that's the right attitude. If you're a platform holder, of course, it's all a bit more worrying - especially if you're Nintendo, wondering if you've done enough to get the 3DS over the hurdle it needs to surmount this holiday season - but for the industry as a whole, iOS' success is now our success, too. It's not a zero-sum game any more.

Core games great, but their greatness is accessible only to people who already play games and are deeply involved in this world

That said, it's hard not to be a little gloomy about the state of the "traditional" end of the games industry this Christmas. It's not that there's a dearth of high quality product on the shelves - far from it. Modern Warfare 3 just smashed sales records in its first week at retail, earned widespread glowing accolades, and its multiplayer modes presently fill my living room with colourful language several nights a week. Battlefield 3, while overshadowed by Activision's franchise, has outperformed its predecessors by a seriously impressive margin.

Skyrim has done wonderfully for itself and appears to have absorbed the lives of a good half of my social circle, including many people I wouldn't have taken for hardcore fantasy role-players. The minority who are playing Zelda: Skyward Sword instead say nothing but wonderful things about it, but I haven't even had a chance to play it yet. Given the depth of my personal love for The Legend of Zelda, that says extraordinary things about the games on the shelves right now. I don't know when I'm going to find time to get to Zelda, given that I've also got Arkham City waiting for me, and Uncharted 3, both of which inspire little other than superlatives.

It's hardly a bad time to be a core gamer, then, although it might be a bad time to be a core gamer's wallet (or their long-suffering partner, for that matter). Yet there's a common thread which links all of these games and which gives a slightly less positive account of what's going on. None of them, I'd argue, are outward looking games. They're all great, but their greatness is accessible only to people who already play games and are deeply involved in this world. That's fine; that represents plenty of people, and I'm not about to argue that Arkham City or Modern Warfare 3 would benefit from modifications to make them more appealing to a broader demographic, since they clearly wouldn't.

Rather, I'd like to ask where the outward looking games actually are. In spite of the qualify of what's on offer this winter, a cynic might suggest that there's very little new here - very little that innovates and opens up the world of gaming to a wider audience, that strives to open people's eyes and say, "here, this is what games can do - I bet you didn't know that".

Such products have been part of the winter line-up for some years - with the present trend in that direction started, I'd argue, by the appearance of Sony's Eye Toy and Harmonix' Guitar Hero at the tail end of the PlayStation 2 generation of hardware. The DS and the Wii are two absolutely key exemplars of this trend, but karaoke game Singstar and quiz title Buzz also belong in that hall of fame, as do the later expansions upon the Guitar Hero model such as Rock Band. It's easy to dismiss this entire category as "casual", but it's also lazy and unhelpful. These were games and platforms that bridged a gap between gamers and a wider audience that weren't opposed to being engaged in games, but needed to see products that appealed to them. Not everyone wants to slay dragons or shoot burly marines.

Where is the industry's new Wii? Where is the new Guitar Hero? Where, even, is the new Buzz? Nintendo is still plugging away at this sector, of course, but no matter how promising the Wii U may be, it's still a year away and a rather unknown quantity - while the 3DS, as likeable a platform as it may be, is little other than a direct evolution of the DS. The closest thing to a fresh, engaging new effort this Christmas is probably Kinect Disneyland Adventures, but Kinect itself, unfortunately, seems to have made a bigger impact among the enthusiast community using it for interesting things as a PC peripheral than it has among game developers and consumers. I hope Disneyland Adventures can enjoy strong long-tail sales, but feel that Microsoft has work to do in terms of re-positioning Kinect as a desirable peripheral for its console.

I'd like to see the industry focus more on building the kind of bridges that we were so enthusiastic about only a few years ago, when the Wii, the DS and Rock Band ruled the imaginations of executives

Naturally, there are plenty of places that you can point to if you want to indicate innovation taking place in the games business. There's iOS, for one, which brings us back to the start of this column. There's the resurgent PC indie scene, and even the rather more tightly controlled and staid Xbox Live and PSN environments. All manner of interesting stuff is happening with regard to new business models and new game design, and we're finally starting to iron out the idea that a game which incorporates a business model into its design from the outset is intrinsically more "cynical" or "exploitative" than a game which is going to be stuffed into a box and sold for forty quid. (Of course, it can be more cynical or exploitative, but that doesn't have to be the case, and in the best instances, absolutely isn't.)

I worry, however, about the notion that we're entering an era when the traditional games market focuses on making ever more refined and attractive iterations of existing titles for a core market, while all innovation and progress takes place in social, mobile, freemium markets. Those markets are exciting. They're important. They're rapidly changing and evolving, and they're going to be an important part of our business in the future - but they're not everything. The idea that because people have a phone in their pocket which can play freemium games, they just won't go out and buy the next Rock Band, or the next Wii, is predicated on an utterly false assumption that this is a zero-sum game. Different experiences, different social contexts, different motivations.

This is a great time to be a core gamer, and I'm happy about that - but in the interest of next year and the year after also being great, I'd like to see the industry focus more on building the kind of bridges that we were so enthusiastic about only a few years ago, when the Wii, the DS, Rock Band and all the rest of it ruled the imaginations of executives everywhere. Those initiatives didn't turn into immortal, golden egg laying geese, of course, but they did create hundreds of millions of dollars of sales and cracked open a previously untapped market hungry for videogame experiences. iOS and Facebook have gone even further, of course, but the opportunity hasn't gone away. 2011 has been a year of wonderful games, but also a year of intense navel-gazing - an inward turn for the traditional sector of the medium. Let's hope that 2012 sees us looking outwards once more.

Latest comments (12)

Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 6 years ago
Novelty game titles such as singing, dancing, fitness, etc. might just make way this year for the novelty platforms, i.e. iPad and Galaxy Tab. Those are definitely two devices bought by the same people who just bought a Wii for Wii Fit. Tablet "PCs" are also no paragons of productivity when it comes to getting actual work done.

I think it was natural how console gaming entered the mainstream and it is just as natural how other grown-up toys replace it now.

I foresee gaming to hit the mainstream really big again, once somebody can pull off a good voice controlled game, mimicking the structure of a police procedural from TV, or something similar trying to work with people's curiosity. The voice recognition is in place, iOS and 360 both have it, the software to make sense of complex grammatical sentences still needs some time, as well as the ability of games to enact on it.
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Ben Hallett Developer 6 years ago
"It's not that there's a <a href=''>surfeit</a> of high quality product on the shelves - far from it."

I don't think that word means what you think it means.
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Rob Fahey Columnist, GamesIndustry.biz6 years ago
Argh - well spotted! Accidental relic of an earlier draft - the word should be "dearth", obviously.
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Show all comments (12)
Dominic Clarke Game Developer 6 years ago
What I've noticed this year more than any other is that gamers are incredibly well catered for. I almost feel like a phoney calling myself a gamer these days - such is the little amount of time I can devote to them, I only get to sample a tiny slice of what's on offer. It could be that gaming has reached saturation (i.e there is no "new audience").
Personally, I'm dreaming of VR headsets to shake things up...or that mad setup that the gadget show had for BattleField 3 simulator: [link url=
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Dave Herod Senior Programmer, Codemasters6 years ago
I think people want to make games they would like to play themselves. Game developers are all (or at least used to be) gamers who do what they do because they love it. It's certainly not for money or fame, because at the developer level there's not a lot of that to go round. Tell game developers their next project will be a game aimed at non-gamers to "broaden the market" and a fair chunk of them will just leave. I have no interest whatsoever in making a game to entertain your grandma for 10 minutes on Christmas Day, and that's precisely why I left my previous job, when the company stated that was their sole direction going forward. Broadening the market may be good for the industry as a whole, but the challenge is convincing the people who are going to make it not to drift off and find something more interesting to themselves.
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Simon Jones Director, Peppermint P6 years ago
This line on Zelda perfectly sums up my current quandry. I made a massive sweeping statement in the office that I wasn't buying Zelda, not until next year. I had to back track when it arrived on launch day - I'd forgotten that I pre-ordered right back when it was first announced.

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Graham Simpson Tea boy, Collins Stewart6 years ago
Looking forward to the new Bungie persistant world personally.
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Zan Toplisek6 years ago
I think the next-gen consoles will bring what's required to push the traditional games outward again. Microsoft has tested the market with Kinect and will now make it a more integral part of the whole experience. Naturally, new game experiences will be created around that. As for hardcore games, those will still be around, but will now share the stage with Kinect (again, a more integrated approach) in terms of console features/offerings (talking about the Xbox 720 here).

Moving forward, I think AI (not just in games, but also interfaces and other aspects of the console experience) will really gain in importance - we will have systems which will know who we are, will take into account our preferences and such (like Google and Facebook but to an even greater extent), will interact with us, etc. This will then also spill into other industries, obviously.
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Patrick Frost QA Project Monitor 6 years ago
Nice article Rob. Personally I think that bridge games are the hardest games to make and frankly I think that a lot of devs avoid doing them for 2 reasons. Firstly, I genuinely think that they aren't brazen enough to do it. There is still too much emphasis on the "wouldn't it be cool if we could do..." rather than "do you know what would be really fun..."

Secondly, I think pitching these kind of games to publishers would be hard. You would have to have a lot of confidence in any pitch to stop your title falling into the kiddy pool or coming off as vague and trying to be a catch all.

As a gamer, I wish there were more bridge games around. I think it's one of the reasons that I still like having Nintendo around so much is that I get to enjoy those games that land perfectly in that category, like MarioKart even if they are very over exploited IPs.
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Kim Lund Gaming Consultant 6 years ago
Great piece well argued. But for the sake of a hopefully fruitful debate I’m going to claim that you are wrong. This is the year above all other years in terms of bridges being built that transcend games into the mainstream. Reason is spelled “gamification”. Now, before you string me up and fling me into the pit of the nearest Sarlacc, it is important to point out that I am a fierce opponent of the (hi-jacked) version of gamification peddled by people like Gabe Zichermann. But if one ignores that type of one-size-fits-all drone-like badge-whoring model of gamification which pops up everywhere at the moment without incorporating actual game play, there are gamification initiatives out there done right. And those are responsible for some serious bridge building.
With innovations like Guitar Hero, the games industry did the reaching. With proper gamification projects, it is the rest of the world that is establishing the bridgeheads.
Going into 2012 I foresee more people in the world being involved in some sort of game on a daily basis than ever before. That should count for something.

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Tony Johns6 years ago
If only I got make it though university faster so I could try to shake things up by proposing interesting products and try to sell something really unique
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I would counter-argue rather than build bridges, ignore the bridges and build better islands instead. A gamer interested in the experience that a core game like Modern Warfare X provides is less likely to be interested in something like, let's say, Sims Social. However, there's also an audience that likes Sims Social that is probably not the audience for Modern Warfare X (or Elder Scrolls, Arkham City, etc.).

Which is not to say they never overlap, but that I believe it is an error for one studio to try to cater to both audiences, as I believe CCP's fiasco with their NEX store illustrated. I believe it would be an error for Bethesda to try to reach outside their core audience for a different one in an attempt to capture a wider audience. They don't have the skills or expertise that Playfish does, and vice versa.

Let's improve our respective niches, and if there's an audience we're still not reaching, let's create new niche games for them. That, I would argue, was the success of Guitar Hero et al. They were something almost completely new and different. They were decidedly not "bridges," unless we're using the term very differently.
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