What is the mass market, and what do they want? What actually qualifies as mainstream? Those phrases - "mass market" and "mainstream" - have been tossed about very flippantly by the videogames industry over the last few years, and in retrospect, there's been very little analysis of what those terms actually mean to this medium. Admittedly, my own contributions in this column are probably as much to blame as anyone else in this regard - which is partially why I'm so convinced that now, as Nintendo's Wii launches to a media reception so laden with the words "mass market" that it's astonishing any other words can fit in edgeways, is an absolutely vital moment for videogame creators and publishers alike to step back and consider the real meaning of that term.
Conventional wisdom says that videogames are not mass market, and that they would very much like to be mass market - because as the name suggests, that is a bigger market, and hence more lucrative. Conventional wisdom points to the inroads made by products like The Sims, Singstar, Eye Toy, Nintendogs and Brain Training in bringing gaming to older generations, to women and to "non-gamers", nods sagely and says "more of this, please."
Bowing to this wisdom, we - and the specialist media and videogames publishers and developers themselves are as guilty of this as the mainstream media - make the implicit assumption that all of those things which we have traditionally enjoyed in videogames aren't suitable for the mass market. We look at shoot 'em ups, racing games, action adventures and so on, and describe them as "hardcore"; the implicit subtext behind the coverage and marketing of most core, triple-A titles is that if you were one of the greasy mongrels who queued up for your console of choice on the night of launch, you'll love it to bits, but you probably shouldn't show it to your mum, your dad, your sister or your girlfriend, because they'll never understand.
This is a gross oversimplification, and one which needs to be shot down - because it is responsible for some of the most persistent and poorly conceived product decisions this industry makes. It feeds off the idea that what "mass market" consumers want to do is play the digital equivalent of Desperate Housewives (thus leading to regular moans about how we don't seem to make games that tap into the soap opera market and, god help us all, the Desperate Housewives tie-in game), engage in casual, non-narrative led gaming, and get drunk with their friends and treat the console as a glorified karaoke machine or some other form of party game. It leads to countless projects being funded which aim at creating "a game which appeals to women", normally in the form of some atrocious and borderline insulting shopping, clothes-wearing and gossiping simulation - or better (by which I mean worse) again, the occasional effort at creating games to appeal to some other segment of society, such as gay men.
The very existence of this kind of thinking - and the prominence it is given within the industry - is perfect evidence of how immature much of the "creative business" thinking in this sector actually is. In the headlong rush to abandon the "mass market unfriendly" narratives games currently offer - space marines shoot aliens, cars drive really fast and crash spectacularly, wizards and sword-wielding barbarians battle against dark gods - we have forgotten something blindingly obvious.
These narratives are already mass-market. In fact, they are among the most mass-market stories which the world has to offer.
The industry has become so used to dismissing its own products as hardcore or niche that it has actually thrown a whole nursery school of babies out with the bathwater. Games industry conventional wisdom says that a narrative where space marines shoot aliens can't possibly be mass market - but yet Aliens is one of the most iconic films of the last thirty years. Independence Day was one of the top-grossing films of its decade. Need I mention Star Wars? Our conventional wisdom dismisses wizards and barbarians and their fantasy trappings as being too hardcore to appeal beyond the existing gaming audience, but it's perfectly obvious that franchises like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings have become a core part of global culture, with a universal appeal which far exceeds that of almost any videogame.
The problem is not the themes of videogames. It's an altogether more bitter pill to swallow, but the problem is that with a few unique exceptions, videogames aren't using those themes in an effective, gripping or mature manner. All too often, games fall short because while they do everything required to satisfy certain segments of the core gaming audience, they miss out on key aspects which would vastly expand their appeal - and from the gamer's perspective, it can sometimes be hard to tell why a certain game achieves a level of mass market recognition, when another does not.
Take Halo, for example; a game which, by any standards, is an excellent first person shooter (in which, true to videogaming form, you play a space marine who battles aliens), but which is arguably no better - and in some respects is worse - than many other first person shooter titles on the market. However, Halo has achieved a degree of recognition in popular culture which extends far beyond the core gaming audience; it has been played by vast numbers of people who would normally never give a first person shooter a second glance, and has become so popular that despite the development problems afflicting the Halo movie, it seems likely to be made for the largest budget ever earmarked for a videogame franchise movie.
Why? Not because the moment to moment gameplay experience of Halo was brilliant - although that's clearly important - but because of elements which went far beyond that. Halo had an interesting, involving plot; it had great characters, good dialogue, absolutely fantastic, atmospheric locations, and a wonderful sense of dramatic timing. It had convincing voice acting and utterly fantastic music, with an iconic theme which was equal parts stirring and haunting. These elements elevated Halo beyond the level of most videogames - and certainly, you could argue that the storyline was no better than many Hollywood popcorn blockbusters, but then again, most videogames fail miserably even at reaching those levels. More importantly, it made Halo interesting and accessible to countless people who wouldn't give the majority of FPS games a second glance, and gave the game the momentum it needed to become a major cross-media franchise, not just 10 hours of mindless alien-shooting fun.
Halo is far from the only example of this - and it's worth noting that there are also some games and franchises whose appeal goes far beyond the existing gaming audience, but remains niche in its own right. Silent Hill is a good example; a game whose audience, in my own experience, is primarily female, and which has successfully tapped a whole new group of people but whose own commercial success, while perfectly respectable, is not enormous.
This is another core truth about the mass market which the industry has failed to realise. The "mass market" is a myth; the reality is a huge collection of individual niches, some larger than others, but none of them all-encompassing. There is certainly scope for videogames to expand into new niches, as the example of Silent Hill - and indeed of Nintendogs, or Brain Training - displays. However, more importantly, right now videogames are failing to effectively harness their existing niches. Weak narrative, poor direction and pacing, unsympathetic characters, excessively complex control systems, bad music, graphics glitches and a host of other sins which are often forgiven readily by the hardcore are preventing the bulk of this industry's product from having any impact with the vast majority of consumers - and even our military sci-fi or swords 'n sorcery fantasy titles are utterly overshadowed by Hollywood's most vacuous blockbusters.
The question currently being asked in the games industry is, "what new kinds of games can we create which appeal to the mass market?" This is the wrong question. The right question is, "what is it about our existing games that limits their appeal - and how can we change that?" That's a harder question to ask, because videogame creators - from designers right through to publishing bosses - like to believe that their existing products are absolutely fine for their markets, and that it's now time to conquer new markets. Until that attitude changes, videogames will never achieve the success within our culture that other mediums enjoy.