The Sledgehammer – Version 2.0

February 21, 2008

Why Try to Be Everything to Everyone?

Filed under: Games — Tags: , , , — Brian Lutz @ 10:23 pm

WARNING:  This post contains gratuitous video game nerd content, and will probably bore some of my regular readers.  The standard fluff you’ve come to expect of this Blog will return shortly.

It’s been quite a while now since I’ve done much writing about anything video game related here.  This doesn’t mean that I haven’t been playing any video games lately, (for the last little bit, most of that time has been spent on Disgaea: Afternoon of Darkness for the PSP, which is the type of game that will make insane completist RPG fans and MMOG spreadsheet junkies forget to eat for three days in a row if they let it,) just that I haven’t found a lot to write about on the subject lately.  After the deluge of high-quality games that showed up over the course of the last couple of months in 2007, there’s been a bit of a lull for the past couple of months as gamers digest the pile of late 2007 offerings.  With this week’s Game Developer’s Conference this week comes an early glance into what gamers can expect in the coming months, and the strategies that the companies are pursuing in that time.

By all accounts, Sony has the most to gain from 2008 at this point.  With an apparent end to the high definition movie format war falling in Blu-Ray’s favor (at what cost this was accomplished remains to be seen)  and the shipment of system-selling games they ordered back in ’06 set to at least partially arrive this year, they will most likely improve over last year.  Over the course of the past year, Sony also seems to have toned down their rhetoric and worked toward getting past the ill-advised hyperbole of Kaz Hirai and Ken Kutaragi into a more customer-friendly public image.  With games like LittleBigPlanet and Echochrome on the PS3 and Patapon on the PSP coming up in the near future, they also seem to be moving in directions that would have been unheard of at the height of the PS2’s popularity.  Part of this is the result of an industry-wide move toward more casual-friendly games fueled mainly by the success of the Wii, but it does also to some extent indicate a greater willingness to cater to niches in gaming than they have previously shown.

It is because of this that a comment (via Kotaku) made by Phil Harrison about third-party games on the Wii at a GDC lunch earlier today seems a bit puzzling:

“Due to competition with Nintendo’s unstoppable games…Your addressable market is only 40% of the installed base.”

Keeping in mind that this is an offhand comment made at a lunch meeting that I’m probably reading way too much into it by bothering to write about it in the first place, there are a couple of things I would like to address here.  First of all, with few exceptions, it doesn’t matter what game you are trying to sell, nor what platform you are trying to sell it on, it is unlikely that you are ever going to ever sell anywhere that many copies of your game in the first place.  It takes a must-have system seller like Halo 3 (which as of the beginning of 2008 had sold 8.3 million copies to an installed base of 17.7 million users according to Wikipedia, standard grain of salt applies) to even approach that level.  If even one of the system’s defining games sells to less than 50% of the system’s user base, then what will?  Granted, Halo 3 is definitely not for everyone.  It’s M rating and unfriendliness to a lot of casual players endure that.  Games that are more friendly to casual players (such as Viva Pinata) rarely appeal to hardcore gamers.  

About the only way to get a game in front of anywhere near 100% of a system’s potential or actual userbase is to pack the game in the box.  One of the reasons that the Wii has sold so well to a crowd heavily slanted toward more casual gamers was the inclusion of WiiSports in the box with the system.  As I have said previously, as a game, WiiSports is nothing particularly special, but packing it in the box with the system turned it from a novel (if somewhat mundane) game into a major system seller.  On the other hand, if you’ve already put your killer app into the box as a pack in, what do you do for an encore?  Beyond WiiSports, you’ve got a few top-tier Nintendo titles (Super Mario Galaxy and Super Smash Brothers Brawl come to mind,) a few well-regarded if not necessarily record-breaking third party titles, and a mountain of shovelware in between those.  In a way, Mr. Harrison does have a point that the first-party games for the Wii do have a distinct advantage over third-party titles, but he seems to imply that there is some sort of inherent bias in the Wii’s userbase against third-party titles.  I don’t necessarily think that this is the case, but as an (occasional) consumer of Wii games, the difference that I see is that by and large, Nintendo’s first-party games are a known quantity and generally show, whereas when you get into third-party games you find yourself wading through said pile of shovelware to try to find the worthwhile titles within.

 This is not a phenomenon exclusive to the Wii, although it is far more prevalent on Nintendo platforms than it is elsewhere.  In some ways, the PS3 might actually even be less susceptible to this phenomenon than the competition.  With the higher costs and longer development efforts required to get a game out on the PS3 (or the Xbox 360, for that matter,) the platforms become a lot less attractive to the shovelware makers who are interested primarily in putting products on the shelves to catch whatever movie tie-in they can get their hands on.  Mr. Harrison should remember that during the last generation, the PS2 was the platform of choice for many of these games, owing to its large installed base and relatively low (at least once established middleware solutions were in place) development costs.  I seriously doubt that many of those games appealed to anywhere near 40% of the PS2’s huge installed base.  In some ways, not having the customers need to wade through all the crud on the shelf to find worthwhile games to play on your platform is a good thing, but Mr. Harrison should remember that the fact that your platform is too expensive for people to develop shovelware on isn’t always a good thing.


1 Comment »

  1. The Xbox 360 isn’t anywhere near as expensive to develop for since, being based around directX, middleware solutioins such as Unreal Engine 3 were able to be implemented much more quickly. Not only that, but DirectX itself gives developers a huge leg up, as seen by relatively quick turnaround on game development, and yes, by shovelware like Bomberman Zero and Hour of Victory. I also expect the PS3’s development costs to be reduced significantly once middleware solutions become capable of pushing the bar they way they are on the 360. Remember, people were bellyaching about the PS2 being insanely hard to develop for as well. The Wii, of course, is largely based of the Cube, so middleware solutions are already in place, with only the mystery of making the motion-sensitive controls feel appropriate and not like a tacked-on gimmick. And not all Nintendo first-party games turn into multi-million sellers. Games like Pikmin and Fire Emblem would love to be in the same elite category of mascot games as Mario, Zelda, Pokemon and Metroid.

    What I don’t understand is why the console “war” is so damned important to people. We have a market that can easily support all three consoles, with each console doing supremely well (the 360 in North America, the PS3 in PAL territories and the Wii in Japan). Why does anyone care as long as good games can profit on each console. Play what you like is what I say.

    Comment by yukoasho — February 21, 2008 @ 11:35 pm

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