Previous month:
May 2008
Next month:
January 2009

December 2008

The Casual Players Aren't Coming to Your Party

Pacman-christmas-tree Since the Winter Festival is almost upon us, I thought it a prudent time to conduct a brief market analysis of the always fierce competition for domination during the biggest sales period of the retail year. The impression I am getting from the available data is sorry Microsoft, sorry Sony, sorry Lionhead – the casual players just aren't coming to your party.

All chart positions I'm using are based upon the UK charts for the week ending 6th December 2008: the situation in the US is slightly different (Gears of War is a major title in the States, for instance, but in Europe it's about as marginal as Resistance 2) but the same general trends remain in operation.

Let's start with Microsoft, who in the UK have spent an absolute fortune trying to pander to a casual audience which, as I've already suggested, they just can't hit right now. Microsoft have discounted their Xbox 360 now such that it's cheaper than the Wii, and have spent more money on advertising than any other platform license holder this year – I'm seeing twice as many 360 ads as I am Nintendo ads, while Sony has barely come out to bat at all this year, and is looking embarrassingly weak.

How do I know that Microsoft isn't hitting the mass market (the so-called casual players)? They launched three big-hope casual titles for the Winter sales season: Lips (karaoke), Scene It (movie quiz) and You're In The Movies (an EyeToy rip-off). Of these, only Lips makes the 360 top 10 – and that at number 9 – and although I don't know where this title is in the overall sales, it is not in the top 40 at all. I will bet many of the sales of Lips have been to gamer hobbyists who bought it in the hope that they might manage to tear themselves away from their achievement whoring long enough to invite some casual friends around.

Why can't Microsoft hit the casual market? Well there are two key reasons. The first is that the 360 has been designed to appeal to gamer hobbyists – and in doing so, it has allowed Microsoft to steal this audience from Sony in an impressive market coup. Its controller may seem adequate to players who spend a lot of their time playing videogames, but to the casual player it's a daunting device, something they don't generally want pick up, let alone buy. The second and more important reason is that vast droves of casual players have already bought Wii's and the mass market rarely spends money on two consoles in quick succession. Discounting the 360 may help Microsoft put the boot in with Sony, but the 360 just isn't a casual device, and probably never will be.

As for Sony, their casual title Singstar Abba manages to scrape the bottom of the chart at number 40, but this is on the back of PS2 sales – in fact, Sony are advertising it on television in the UK primarily as a PS2 title because they know at least that way they might see some half-decent sales figures. Conversely, their big-hope PS3 title LittleBigPlanet is at number 29 in the overall charts (number 3 in the PS3 charts), while Resistance 2 – the best selling PS3 exclusive this week - is at number 20 (number 2 in the PS3 charts) having fallen ten places. (The best selling 360 exclusive, incidentally, is Gears of War 2, five places higher at number 15).

This Winter Festival, the glory goes to Activision-Blizzard who, capitalising on their success with the previous title in the franchise, have hit the FPS jackpot again with Call of Duty: World of War. It's been in the number one slot for a whole month now. Why, you might ask, is this title selling so vigorously? Well, although it's not what you'd traditionally consider a casual game (FPS controls are far too complex for the true mass market players), the World War II implicit license is the biggest of its kind in terms of mass market appeal and if you have the most popular World War II shooter at any given time you're going to be making a lot of money with it. That many gamer hobbyists are bored of this setting just isn't anywhere near enough to hurt it. And let's not forget the new World of Warcraft expansion that was doing good business servicing the MMO addicts earlier this month. Sales of Wrath of the Lich King are now tailing off, of course – these expansions sell solely to hobbyists, so they rack up big sales only at launch.

Speaking of sales that are big at launch and then drop off, both Far Cry 2 and Fable II are doing better this week. Both hit high in the charts during their launch week, then dropped like a stone. This week, they are up a significant number of places (at 17 and 19th place this week, versus 28 and 35th place last week). What's the secret? Discounting. Both are being sold at half price already, barely a month after release. This is a sign that neither is doing as well as was hoped or expected. (Much, I imagine, as with Ubisoft's new Prince of Persia which comes in at a disappointing number 30 in its launch week. Expect cheap copies to be available soon).

Fable II, you might recall, was supposed to appeal to a casual audience – and I will say this about Lionhead's sequel, they've done a pretty good job of engineering the game with elements with hypothetical mass market appeal (the glowing trail and simple control scheme for instance). The trouble is, no-one seemed to realise that Fable II could never sell in significant numbers to a mass market audience because it's set in a fantasy world – and not even high fantasy or sword and sorcery (the popular kinds) but a kind of mock-Enlightenment setting. This never was nor never could be a casual title in the sense of hitting the sales figures Nintendo can currently command. And worse, in trying to appeal to an audience they couldn't hit, they actually alienated some of their core audience – the trail seems to have been used as an excuse for not providing adequate maps, for instance. It's perhaps the finest game to come out of Lionhead so far, but just like the corporation that owns it, namely Microsoft, it should never have been courting an audience it couldn't hit.

Is it even necessary to mention that Nintendo continues to dominate the casual market? Mario Kart Wii is at number 2, both Wii Fit and Wii Play are still in the top 10, while Brain Training is at number 4 an astonishing two and a half years after release (helped by another aggressive advertising spend this season). The only bum notes are Wii Music, which has fallen to number 21, one place ahead of the PC version of Grand Theft Auto IV in its launch week, and the new Animal Crossing which debuts at number 26, although the real test of this title is its long-term sales, which have the potential to be substantial.

Here's the most important thing to understand about the mass market for videogames: these players – the ones who aren't even remotely interested in the kind of videogames the hobbyists want to play – have very specific tastes, and when something takes off with them it continues to sell, and sell, and sell. But these players don't buy many titles – when they find the game they want, they generally just keep playing that. Great news for Nintendo, who then see that game word-of-mouthed to new casual players month after month, but bad news for everyone else who can't even get a foot in the door for this market.

So I'm afraid Microsoft, Sony and Lionhead will have to stop waiting for the casual players to arrive at their party, because they're just not coming: they're at Nintendo's party. And for now, at least, that's where they'll stay.

The opening image is a Pac-man Christmas Tree that can be seen in Madrid, Spain this year.

A Game Has Never Made You Cry

Tear For a long time, the games industry debated the question of whether a videogame could make you cry. But as I hope to demonstrate, this question is either irrelevant, or a game never has nor never could make you cry.

Over on Raph Koster's perpetually interesting blog, a discussion recently broke out pursuing once again the question of the boundary work: what actually constitutes a game? Are titles like Wii Music – which lack explicit goals – really games? The term “imposter” games was bandied about, although I prefer 'non-games' myself. Discussions like this highlight that at the heart of such debates are the issue of how one defines “game”, and in this there are many choices.

The principle camps that this breaks down into are the systems-focused perspective that considers games to be formal systems with mechanics, goals, challenges, measures of success or some other metric or progressive element. There is vast variety in these positions but for the purpose of this discussion I intend to collect them all under the “games as systems” label. Conversely, there are those who endorse a wider definition of game, such as myself, who principally reach their position by following a line of thought heavily influenced by the French intellectual Roger Caillois. In his observed patterns of play, he casts the net for games very wide indeed – including, for instance, recreational skiing and theatre in the remit – partly as a consequence of the word for 'game' in French (jeu) being also the word for 'play'. These positions I will collect under the heading “games as play”.

It is readily apparent that under the “games as play” approach, the question as to whether a game can make you cry is ridiculous – since theatre comes under this definition, games under these kinds of definitions had always already made people cry, even before the first videogame. You could tighten up the definition to exclude purely narrative forms, but then (as we shall see) we fall into the other trap.

From the “games as systems” approach, the problem is that the formal system aspects of games evokes a number of emotions – Nicole Lazzaro has grouped these into sets in her 4 Fun Keys model – but none of these emotions will make you cry, except perhaps frustration (a form of anger), as happens when a game drives you to such rage that you throw your controller across the room. But these kind of tears are not what the question we are pursuing is talking about: it is referring to tears of sadness or tears of joy – the kind of emotional response that one can have from a story. And tellingly, Nicole's initial paper on her model is subtitled “four keys to emotion without story”. Story has to be excluded, because by the process of empathising with fictional characters it is possible to evoke any emotion in a story.

This is the nub of the issue here: a story can make you cry by empathising with the protagonist (or another character), but a game (when viewed as a formal system) cannot do this. It follows that the only way that a videogame can make you cry is by using narrative tools that have nothing to do with games as formal systems whatsoever. So even though, for instance, many people report that they cried when they played Final Fantasy VII at the fateful scene (and indeed, several other cRPGs also show up in player studies as having provoked tears) the moment that actually brought the player to tears was a non-interactive cut scene. It wasn't the game (in the systems view) that made them cry – it was the story – and there never was a question as to whether stories could make you cry.

Hence this question collapses in upon itself. Under the “games as play” view, the question is entirely irrelevant, and under the “games as systems” view, it is the story-aspect of a game that has made people cry, not the game itself. I therefore conclude that a videogame has never made you cry.

The most plausible objection to this claim that I can see is that by letting you play with characters in the system-aspect, the cRPGs deepen your relationship to these characters, and thus allow the catharsis triggered by the story element. I'm open to this objection, but since a purely narrative form would have allowed you to deepen your relationship with the characters without interaction, it's far from clear that allowing interaction is enough to make the claim of a game making you cry (under the systems view) unless it can make you cry within the systems-play. But when a character dies during gameplay, the option to reload is essentially always present (removing the catharsis from death) – even if you have to turn the game off and on again to achieve it – and if it were not you would be more likely to feel frustrated at being manipulated than to experience the cathartic effect.

One might also object on the grounds that role-playing (improvisational theatre, as in a tabletop role-playing game) might move you to tears, say, in a massively-multiplayer game. But is this kind of storyplay something we can honestly claim is delivered by the videogame itself, or does the game simply facilitate what could equally have happened without the game? Either way, it does not happen often in videogames and when it does it is usually as a consequence of the talents of the players, and not a result of the systems of the game. I am inclined to treat this solely as a a form of narrative and thus not included in the "games as systems" view, but of course this is not the only choice.

Games (under the systems view) cannot make you cry. Videogame titles can include narrative material that makes you cry, but no-one can claim to be surprised that a story can make you cry. Barring some serious change in what constitutes a videogame, the only way they are ever going to make you cry is via their narrative elements, and never by their game elements.

Feel differently? Your viewpoint is welcomed in the comments!

Barking over at Escapist

Resident ihobo wordstress, Wendy Despain, has recently had an insightful article published over at The Escapist regarding the sometimes soul-destroying "bark".

A bark in this sense being the short, one-liners used in videogames (e.g. "Good shot, soldier!"). Wendy gives an amusing break down of how barks affect players and developers.

Go and have a read!

Comments on the article should go to the Escapist site, but thoughts on barks and other sound issues in games can be made here.

Welcome to the New ihobo Website!

It's been a long time coming, but we are finally ready to roll out the new International Hobo website. We've moved over to a new blog form, and will be adding new content here regularly. For a start, the games post that previously went out on Wednesday's at my personal blog, Only a Game, will now be being posted here - so every Wednesday you'll find a new post about game design, the games industry or game narrative. I'll also be digging into the neurobiology of play in the near future so stay tuned if you want to learn about how your brain reacts to videogames. I also have guest posts from Noah Falstein and Nicole Lazzaro, and I hope to have some of my other friends in the videogames industry drop by in the future. There will also be other content besides the Wednesday posts, but these will be more intermittent.

We hope you enjoy the new ihobo blog and we look forward to hearing from you in the comments!

Chris Bateman
Managing Director & Creative Overlord
International Hobo Ltd