Previous month:
August 2009
Next month:
October 2009

September 2009

2D Or Not 2D

This post is part of the September Round Table, which is about space and dimensions, and takes the form of an inconsequential rant.

Rant_smallFor more than a decade now, I've had a feeling that there was still a viable space in the videogames market for 2D games in general, and 2D platform games in particular. The moment I started thinking about the problem of reaching a wider audience for videogames in terms of the complexity of controls, it seemed to me that there was an insurmountable advantage to rendering a game in 2D (or at least, to rendering a game in such a way that it could be controlled in two dimensions) but it wasn't until New Super Mario Bros. on the DS sold a whopping 18.45 million units that I finally had some evidence to support my suspicions.

Let me put this in perspective. 18.45 million is about 75% of the units the PS3 has shipped (and about 60% of the units the Xbox 360 has sold); it's more sold copies than any game on either of those consoles, the PS2, the original PlayStation, the Xbox, the GameCube, or the N64. In fact, if you look at the top ten best selling games of all time you'll notice a few things: every single one of them is a Nintendo title, 6 out of 10 of them are in 2D, and 4 out of 10 are 2D Mario games. Even the titles that aren't in 2D like Wii Sports (the best selling game of all time), Wii Play, Wii Fit and Nintendogs have very simple controls because having simple controls is the secret of reaching a wide audience.

Those who object to the inclusion of bundled games into the best selling title list, including the wikipedia geeks, should remember that a bundled game is still sold, and if Microsoft or Sony had a game popular enough to sell a decent number of hardware units they too would bundle it for as long as Nintendo. To not count the successful titles because they can shift hardware units as well as software units is rather disingenuous, no matter how much it may offend the die-hard gamers to admit that their tastes are not reflected in the majority. (Of course, shortages of Wii Remotes helped sell Wii Play, but talk to the mass market Wii players and you'll find many that love this game).

Now I appreciate that dedicated gamers don't care about sales figures – except when using them to lord the success of their preferred console over their less successful rivals, or any other context where the sales data happens to accord to their personal beliefs, or can be manipulated to seem to do so. The serious gamer only cares about “gameplay”, which is to say: whatever a game does that most completely juices their pleasure centre. In this regard, videogame reviewers – who are so serious about games they've found away to get paid for playing and mouthing off about them – could save time in calculating their arbitrary review scores by simply measuring their dopamine levels with fast-scan cyclic voltammetry and converting that to a number.

What does this have to do with 2D games? Well, the fact of the matter is that the videogames industry is basically staffed and run by dedicated gamers, who bring their delightfully biased opinions on games to all the important business decisions. So while Nintendo, with their wacky ideas about investigating what people enjoy and giving development teams the resources they need to capitalise on that knowledge make billions of yen on games that apparently don't count because they're too popular, the rest of the games industry keeps making first person shooters hoping to be part of that 1% of FPS franchises that manage to enjoy between a quarter to a half of the success of Nintendo's top titles.

The net result is that despite the phenomenal success of Nintendo's 2D games, publishers rarely if ever bankroll titles in 2D, preferring instead to compete with each other making games which appeal solely to gamers. And to be fair, it's hard to get a game out to a wider audience without getting the gamers to evangelise, and getting a gamer to choose a 2D title over a 3D title is a challenge at the best of times if you don't have the awesome popularity of the Mario franchise to help.

It doesn't help that by investing heavily in high octane graphics power, Sony and Microsoft enforce an assumption that games on their consoles must be in super shiny 3D, except on their download services which barely manage to reach out to the mass market anyway (and even there, I've heard Sony was resistant to 2D games). 2D titles have been annexed to the handhelds, which Nintendo have effectively cornered for decades now – at least until a few months time when New Super Mario Bros. Wii stands ready to demonstrate that a 2D game can work on a home console. I predict that not only will it be a roaring success, it will have no effect on the other publishers, who will continue to pretend 2D games are a thing of the past.

So, 2D or not 2D – that is the question. Nintendo's answer: nearly 2 trillion yen in outrageous fortune. Everyone else seems to settle for the sea of troubles.

Endangered Games

Endangered games seal.blueback If we treat the marketplace for videogames like the ecology of wild animals, which genres of games are endangered? Which are extinct?

For the purpose of this slightly frivolous piece, a game genre is considered “extinct” if publishers are not investing in making more games of this kind. The genre may well survive on a smaller scale, via indie programmers and the like, but then nothing would be extinct and the metaphor this piece is based upon would fall down. Also, the genre list provided is not intended to be exhaustive or definitive – every genre taxonomy is highly subjective.

Here are the ratings used to assess each genre:

  • Extinct: no publisher funds development of games in this genre.
  • Endangered: publisher funding may stop within the decade.
  • Vulnerable: publisher funding severely cut in this genre.
  • Threatened: publisher funding for this genre significantly reduced or risk of reduction..
  • Least Concern: no risk of extinction.

Simulation Genres

  • Racer (Threatened): the racing game is suffering quite badly in the marketplace right now. While the games continue to sell, the sales figures are significantly down when compared to the previous generation, and although publishers continue to commission racing games, they are becoming wary of the genre.
  • Kart Racer (Threatened): while Mario Kart continues to do excellent business, selling upwards of 16 million on both the DS and Wii, other publishers have largely given up trying to compete with Nintendo in this genre, rendering this genre effectively under threat despite a lead title with incredible sales figures. Other publishers just don't want to try and compete with Nintendo in this space for some reason.
  • City-based racer (Threatened): the high cost of developing city-based racers is making some publishers nervous. While in the previous console generation games like Need for Speed Underground and its sequel were pulling in 6 million, no-one has yet capitalised upon this in the current generation of machines, and the general feeling seems to be that if you're going to build a complete city, why stop at racing gameplay?
  • 2D Racer (Extinct): there was a time when games like Super Sprint were setting the arcades on fire. Now, the 2D racer is not taken seriously by any publisher, and to my knowledge no publisher is funding this genre any more.
  • Flight (Vulnerable): while there are still a few flight games in production, most publishers avoid this genre. Most players can't handle the complex three dimensional controls, which make them a decidedly niche market.
  • Sim (Vulnerable): remember when SimCity and Tycoon games were setting the sales charts on fire? Those days have passed. While publishers are still bankrolling sims, they occupy a much lower priority, and budgets are a fraction of what they once were.
  • Life Sim (Least Concern): while it's just EA's monster The Sims franchises and Nintendo's hugely popular Animal Crossing games that are pulling in the big numbers (Animal Crossing: Wild World sold 11 million, The Sims 2 sold 13 million), the sales figures are brisk and the life sims are out-competing the older style sim games by several orders of magnitude.
  • Sports (Least Concern): again, it may be EA's giant bucket of sports licenses where most of the money is concentrated, but major sporting franchise remain a licence to print money.

Combat Genres

  • FPS and other 3D Shooters (Least Concern): publishers bankroll more first person shooter (and third person shooter) titles than any other genre. Most fail, and even the biggest two franchises (Halo and Call of Duty) are only just pulling in 10 million units, which other genres beat effortlessly. Third place and below pull in a quarter of this figure, and many titles flop badly. Nonetheless, developers love them and the simple design considerations make them low-risk in the eyes of most publishers.
  • Fighting (Threatened): although there are still some very popular franchises, this is another genre which Nintendo has seized control of with its hugely popular Super Smash Bros. franchise (9 million on the Wii). Soul Calibur IV managed to clear 2 million, but other than this fighting games are rapidly becoming a niche market.
    Bob points out that Street Fighter IV cleared 2.5 million and is thus another modestly successful title.
  • Brawler or Beat-em-up (Threatened): the old scrolling beat-em-up genre has had a new lease of life in the form of God of War, but even this sold just 3 million units, which is small for the top franchise in an expensive to develop genre. The third title will almost certainly sell fewer units, because of the smaller PS3 installed base, and this genre is only really surviving because so many film license adaptations lend themselves to the format. Expect publisher interest to wane.
  • 2D Shooter (Endangered): if it wasn't for the vert shooter's tiny but loyal fanbase this genre might already be extinct. But there are still some Japanese publishers willing to bankroll games of this form which at least benefit from very low development costs.
  • Rail Shooter (Extinct): Does any publisher make on-rails shooters any more? The form still appears as sequences embedded in other shooting games, but as a commercial genre in its own right it appears to be dead.
  • Lightgun Shooter (VulnerableThreatened): were it not for the arcades, this genre might already be extinct. As it stands, the continuing decline of arcade revenues puts this genre severely at risk. Fortunately, arcade units still appear in cinemas and elsewhere, where only racing, gun and dancing games survive. In this niche form, the genre ekes out a tenuous existence.
    Update: Sparky and Nels points out that light gun games also survive on the Wii. Resident Evil: Umbrella Chronicles seems to be the front runner of the titles Nels mentions at 1.3 million... not bad, but not great either. The real winner on Wii is Link's Crossbow Training at almost 4 million. Reclassified to "Threatened" in light of this oversight. 
  • Space Shooter (ExtinctEndangered): remember when a new Wing Commander was a major release? This genre is now gone, surviving only in the form of Massively Multiplayer offshoots such as EVE Online.
    Update: Ryan notes that Deep Silver (one of Koch Media's labels) recently released X3: Terran Conflict, so this genre isn't quite extinct yet. 
  • Battlefield combat (Vulnerable): whether it's Omega Force's Dynasty Warriors (regular million sellers) or Pandemic's Star Wars Battlefront (3 million on PS2), this niche market sits uncomfortably in a space which is not profitably enough to warrant further expansion. That a new Battlefront game has not been confirmed leaves the future of this genre in doubt.
  • City-based combat (Least Concern): the Grand Theft Auto mega-franchise remains strong (18 million for San Andreas, 12 million and counting for IV), and publishers are not shy in producing knock offs like Saint's Row which sell a few million. Since city-based racing can be build-into this form has hurt that genre, but the city-based combat genre remains highly significant to the videogames market, despite the incredibly high cost of development.

Environment Genres

  • 3D Platformer (Vulnerable): yet another genre where other publishers are afraid to take on Nintendo, whose Mario franchise still sells from 8 million (Super Mario Galaxy). But no-one else makes this format, which just a few years ago was one of the most common genres in production. The problem seems to be that developers prefer to play platform shooters and “high stakes” platformers, two genres which are radically less mass market friendly than the traditional platformer. Until publishers work this out, this genre will remain vulnerable.
  • 2D Platformer (Vulnerable): in classic 2D, Nintendo do even better – New Super Mario Bros. sold an astonishing 20 million units on the DS. Do the publishers see this as an investment opportunity? Nope. They continue to ignore this genre.
  • Platform Shooter (Threatened): Insomniac, once market leaders in 3D Platformers with titles such as Spyro, moved to platform shooters with Ratchet & Clank and have enjoyed lower sales ever since. Their good friends Naughty Dog sold more units of their platform game Jak & Daxter than the original Ratchet & Clank sold, yet for some reason decided they too would switch to platform shooters. Sales of the franchise fell. But developers are too addicted to gunplay to give it up, even when it's a market loser.
  • High-stakes Platformer (Least Concern): the “high stakes” platformers, such as Tomb Raider and Prince of Persia, are more “hardcore” friendly, but severely lack mass market appeal. Tomb Raider once pulled in 5 million players, now it's closer to 2 million. Prince of Persia started at 2 million and has fallen ever since. So are publishers cautious about this genre? No, they continue to fund it quite heavily.
  • Stealth (Threatened): whether its Metal Gear Solid, which regularly clears 4 million unit sales, or Ubisoft's hugely successful “social stealth” game Assassin's Creed at 8 million units, this genre seems healthy, even if once popular franchises Splinter Cell and Hitman appear to be declining in importance.
  • Survival Horror (Endangered): it might seem strange, given that Resident Evil 5 just sold nearly 5 million units, to say that Survival Horror is endangered, but lets be honest: the changes made to the franchises in 4 moved it a long way from its roots and clearly into the conventional 3D shooter space. Meanwhile, Silent Hill declines, Project Zero never shifted good numbers, and trailblazer Alone in the Dark flounders. The classic Survival Horror genre is very nearly extinct.

Quest Genres

  • Text Adventure (Extinct): despite the enthusiasm of the Interactive Fiction community, the text adventure is long dead as a commercial form.
  • Graphical Adventure (Endangered): were it not for DreamCatcher, the point-and-click and other such classic adventure forms would already be gone. With JoWood's acquisition of DreamCatcher, they may soon be extinct.
  • Japanese-style RPG (Least Concern): the delay of the latest entry in the Final Fantasy mega-franchise has hurt the performance of this genre commercially in the current console generation, but it remains the most popular genre in Japan, and the lower development costs with respect to other upper market videogames keep it a thriving niche. And if you consider Pokémon in this bracket,you have at least one franchise that is shifting tens of millions of units.
  • Western-style RPG (Least Concern): although only two companies are doing big business in this space, both BioWare and Bethesda are comfortably selling enough units to turn a tidy profit. Few other companies will break into this space, because of the severe design challenges facing any RPG project, which means the genre remains fairly stable.
  • MMORPG (Least Concern): it may be dominated by the incredibly popular World of Warcraft, but the gigantic returns of the most successful titles have publishers drooling. Even while most titles in this space fail miserably, publishers have not given up dreaming of getting a slice of the big money.

Strategy Genres

  • Turn-based Strategy (Vulnerable): Creative Assembly's Total War series may dip into real-time, but it remains the success story in an otherwise declining genre. Fireaxis' Civilisation brand is in decline, as is Advance Wars, and little clears the million unit mark nowadays.
  • Real-time Strategy (EndangeredVulnerable): when once-proud franchise Command & Conquer Red Alert is reduced to download-only, you know the writing is on the wall for the RTS genre.
    Update: In deference to StarCraft II (as mentioned by Nels) I have reclassified the RTS to "Vulnerable" - the popularity of StarCraft in Korea is helping to keep some money flowing into this otherwise unpopular (with publishers) niche market.
  • Tower Defence (Least Concern): cheap to develop and absurdly compulsive, the Tower Defence genre even lured in Square Enix for a try with their Crystal Defenders title. It's not clear what sales these low-budget titles are pulling in, but while interest in this niche is high it's not at any risk.
  • Strat RPG (Vulnerable): another niche market, but Japanese developer Nipponichi (who make the Disgaea games) are thriving on the lack of serious competition. Don't expect publishers to put much money into this space, though.
  • Strategic Quest (Endangered): remember Heroes of Might and Magic? It's still kicking thanks to the Russian market's unique tastes in videogames. But it's not the world's healthiest genre by any stretch of the imagination.

Casual Genres

  • Puzzle (Least Concern): the venerable puzzle game, of which Tetris is the biggest success at 70 million units, keeps ticking, and has finally found its own marketplace in the form of the Casual market. A great many of the titles in circulation are “match 3” games (modelled upon Bejeweled, which has sold 25 million units and had 150 million downloads).
  • Time Management (Least Concern): typified by Gamelab's successful Diner Dash franchise, and rooted in the classic arcade play of Bally Midway's Tapper, these “plate spinning” Casual games remain popular.
  • Hidden Object (Least Concern): one of the biggest success stories of the Casual games market are franchises like Big Fish's Mystery Case Files, which offer a Where's Wally/Waldo? style visual puzzle wrapped up in a simple adventure-like structure.
  • Mental Puzzle (Least Concern):another of Nintendo's big success stories, the first Brain Training/Brain Age title sold 17 million units. Other publishers have attempted to get a share of what looks like easy money when you consider how small a budget is required to make such a game.
  • Puzzle Adventure (Least Concern): it may only have racked up 3.5 million units on the DS, but the Professor Layton franchise has shown that simple mental puzzles structured in an adventure-like structure can succeed were classic adventure games failed. Expect other publishers to try and cash in.
  • Rhythm-Action (Threatened): Dance Dance Revolution was a surprise grass roots success, and its regular million plus sales secured a genre previously looking shaky. Then, when Harmonix took their unsuccessful abstract rhythm-action game format (first seen in Frequency and Amplitude) and added a plastic guitar controller, they pushed the format to more than 4 million unit sales. However, there are now signs this niche market is saturated, and publishers may curtail their investment in this space in the years to come.
  • Mini-game Collections (Least Concern): the Wii is saturated with mini-game collections – perhaps because it's all that publishers can think of that makes use of the Wii Remote but is still cheap to make. The odd well-made, successful title such as Cooking Mama (2.6 million on Wii, 4 million on DS) helps keep the dream alive and there are currently few signs of investment slowing in this genre.

What do you think? Are Survival Horror and RTS games really on the brink of extinction? Are publishers getting wary of Wii-based mini-game collections? Share your thoughts in the comments, but please remember that all genre taxonomies are subjective.