Editorial: Why Games Growing Up And Becoming Mature Can Be A Bad Thing
“Games need to grow up”, “Games need to mature”, “We need to expand the community!”, “We need to be mindful of the broader audience”. We see those phrases a lot. The “we need to grow our community” mantra has even become a staple of the FGC.
Most people see “growing up” and “becoming mature” as signals for the gaming industry expanding and reaching new audiences through mainstream channels, when in reality they couldn’t be further from the truth.
Now don’t get me wrong: growing your community is important, but growing it in the wrong direction can be detrimental in the long run.
We’ve seen a lot of game journalists talking about how gaming “needs to grow up”, because in doing so it can finally “be taken serious” as an “art form”, and once it’s taken serious by mainstream audiences then it will explode in popularity.
Pretentious seat-sitters set atop a throne of virtue signaling, barrel down upon the masses harangues like the feigned panjandrum preaching to the unwashed masses how salvation is just yonder the hill… if only said masses relinquish their thirst for fun and dilly whimsically in the glory of “grown up games” that abandon entertainment values for “mature” and “progressive” topics.
You’ll often find these rodomontades from the likes of regular anti-gaming outlets who have been waging a war on gamers since 2014, including but not limited to the likes of Vice, The Guardian, Kotaku and Polygon.
Smaller niche sites like Super Nerdland have offered some rebuttals to the claims about gaming needing to grow up; but one thing that actually stands out about forcibly trying to make gaming “mature” is that it doesn’t work like that.
The industry is capitalist driven; it’s fueled by the free marketplace of ideas. The ecosystem of growth is based on two key factors of success: visibility and fun.
Now even if your game is made visible it doesn’t mean everyone will find it fun. Alternatively, you can get a game to be a hit success due to being engaging even if it’s not very visible due to word of mouth, similar to the original Natural Selection, or Dota or League of Legends… before it became a billion dollar blockbuster.
However, after reaching a certain plateau, some studios are misled into believing that they need to alter the formula, abandon their core fandom, and expend resources into other areas in order to attract a wider audience. We saw this happen with the Dead Space franchise, where Dead Space 3 abandoned the horror elements from the first two games because EA thought they could reach a broader audience by making it more “broadly appealing” with co-op and more blockbuster action, thus abandoning the core horror audience who made Dead Space famous to begin with. The third game ended up tanking and the franchise was shelved.
Even on a smaller scale games like Natural Selection 2 from Unknown Worlds tried to appeal to the likes of third-wave feminists several years ago as Anita Sarkeesian’s influence spread through the industry. They posted up a lengthy announcement about how they would be catering to the sensibilities of feminists with their designs of “realistic” female characters due to the gaming industry having a history of “depicting female characters inappropriately”. A noble goal… except for the fact that focusing so much on that aspect of the game did absolutely nothing for their sales or user engagement, and the feminist crowd they sought never came.
Pursuing fruitless pursuits in place of refining core components resulted in Natural Selection 2 tapering off in daily active users. Sales declined, and after having an average peak player count of 1,383 daily active users back in January of 2014, they’re now down to only 261 as of February, 2017, according to the Steam charts.
It’s not that making females fully armored made gamers run away, it’s that trying to cater time and resources toward a demographic who doesn’t play games was a waste of time and resources.
Some thought that removing some of the fan-service would help lure in a more diverse and broader audience of gamers who may have been offended by the fan-service. Following the change the Steam charts don’t show any significant gains after May, 2015. In fact, it just steadily declines.
It definitely frames the question: for whom was the censorship designed for?
Putting that time and energy into focusing on increasing engagement with the audience they already had would have seemed like the more important thing to do.
Nevertheless, we saw similar drop-off with other big name games, too, such as World of Warcraft. Blizzard has been attempting to make the 13 year old MMO more appealing to casuals at every turn, but have failed to hit the magic numbers again the way they did so many years ago.
World of Warcraft first released in 2004 but peaked in its subscription base at around 12 million back in 2010, according to Game Rant. Steadily the numbers dwindled over time as Blizzard gutted the game, removed things, added things, and simplified things in an attempt to make the game less hardcore and more broadly appealing to attract a wider audience. Because obviously “growing up” was important. In reality, they ended up losing more than half their subscribers, dropping down to 5.5 million in 2015, as noted by IB Times. During 2016 more than 800,000 people migrated to a vanilla legacy server called World of Warcraft: Nostalrius for a while, and then Blizzard shut it down, as reported by Nerdist.
Blizzard’s attempt to recoup some fans with World of Warcraft: Legion resulted in some boosts to the numbers (although we don’t know how much, according to PCGamesN), but obviously not enough to regain their old standing.
A similar story befell Firefall, which also had a core audience that ended up fleeing after drastic changes were made throughout development it lost a lot of its appeal and quickly declined.
You can literally see that after the 1.1 patch back in September of 2014, the game just died.
User Azrell sums up what happened with his experience with the game, writing…
“This game is a mess of ideas. They started with a planet side/ tribes model and slowly removed every element that made those games fun one by one until all that remained to do was monitize the economy and change from upgrading your character to running on the hamster wheel of levels.”
Ultimately, instead of sticking with something that worked and building an audience from there, attempts were made to try to make the game as appealing as possible to everyone. It failed.
Now in some cases, you can’t blame some of the developers because they were only doing what the media was telling them to pursue: that broadening their demographics would bring in a larger audience. That making their game more “mature” and less “fun” would increase the critical feedback, and that by catering to cultural critics and non-gamers they would be tapping into 50% of an untapped market… or so they said.
The reality is that there’s no guaranteed model for success, but making sure you’re making a game for an audience who wants to play that game should be the number one priority.
How many people, for instance, saw comments made in the FGC about how “maturing” the community would broaden it and make it more appealing to female gamers and families? Well, NetherRealm Studios tried their hand at that by making the women in Mortal Kombat X more appropriate to the standards of what third-wave feminists were comfortable with. They attempted to go for less camp and more drama in the story and “mature” the concept of Mortal Kombat. Unfortunately, it didn’t actually lure in more female or casual gamers to the FGC.
If you check a site like Eventhubs you’ll find that there are more registered users for Mortal Kombat 9 than there are for Mortal Kombat XL.
The real kicker? They only count the registered players for Mortal Kombat 9 from the PS3 and Xbox 360, not PC. For Mortal Kombat XL they count PS4, Xbox One and PC. So even with an extra platform in the books, Mortal Kombat XL still has a lower registered userbase in the FGC.
If what the media said was true, then why is it that the more “progressive” game is played less than the politically incorrect game?
In fact, the studios who have been pushing the progressive agenda have been terrified to release demographic player stats. You won’t find NetherRealm touting the gender divide between Mortal Kombat 9 and Mortal Kombat XL, because if they did it might end up looking like the Dota 2 or EVE Online’s gender divide, where 96% of the audience is male, as reported by VG 24/7.
The simple fact of the matter is that the media is wrong. “Maturing” your game by dabbling in progressive talking points doesn’t guarantee sales, nor does it guarantee that people interested in those talking points are even going to show interest in your game.
For all of the above examples, you can easily contrast them with similar games that have managed to maintain and even grow their audience over time by focusing on what made the games successful to begin with.
For instance, Mario Kart over the years managed to peak in 2008 with more than 30 million sales with Mario Kart Wii. Even on the dead Wii U Mario Kart 8 still managed to move more than 8 million units, as reported by Nintendo Life. They didn’t have to “mature” Mario and turn it into the Need For Speed or Gran Turismo to make the game(s) “broadly appealing”. They just needed to improve on the elements that worked in order to rekindle interest from consumers.
Additionally, Nexon’s Maplestory has been around since 2003. Despite being out longer than World of Warcraft, the game has actually grown its audience over the years. Even though its free-to-play, the active user engagement is quite high. They’ve managed to add around 4,000 new players every two weeks, showing a growth rate of 2.4% at regular intervals, according to Steam Spy.
What’s more is that active user engagement in Maple Story has actually increased since its debut on Steam back in 2012. In fact, they went from peaking at 1,905 in-game active users back in 2013, to 3,503 users in 2015. Even more than that, they managed to hit 3,057 peak concurrent in-game users by the end of 2016. Their daily averages have also steadily increased as well, from 500 users back in 2012 to 1,000 users in 2017, according to the Steam charts.
The real kicker: MapleStory has a large female player base and they cater mostly to casuals. Essentially, it was made for and continues to cater to a specific demographic of gamers, and they’ve never strayed from that. They’ve built onto their base and continue to expand with new content that respects the audience that they have. In other words: know thy audience.
The same applies to Runescape, which launched back in 2001 and has managed to stay afloat for more than 16 years. Misplaced Items shows a graph of the game’s active user population between 2013 and 2017, and they’ve surprisingly managed to stay steady at an average of around 80,000 active users. The same applies for Dota 2 and Team Fortress 2, two of Steam’s most played games and the latter of which is a decade old.
Now some people might argue “But those games are free-to-play!”, and the appropriate response is that Evolve also went free-to-play and still couldn’t maintain its audience.
“Growing up” and “maturing” your game doesn’t mean you abandon the core principles that made your game popular in the first place. Attempting to leave behind the culture that helped establish the base of your success means you’re essentially chasing phantoms, hoping that one of them might end up being that ever-fleeting corporeal success to take your game to the next level.
This doesn’t mean that taking risks should be off the table, it means that trying to lure in an unproven, uninterested and apathetic market demographic by removing fun from the game and attempting to be “mature” is usually a quick route to failure… like the game Sunset.
TL;DR: If you make a successful game and build up a core fanbase, you could lose that fanbase by abandoning them to cater to people who don’t buy or play games.
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