Editorial: Expanding The Market On The Backs Of The Hardcore

July 25, 2007

In a recent interview with Gamasutra, once and former Xbox 360 big-wig Peter Moore identified the lack of mainstream appeal as the number one thing that Microsoft needs to improve with its game division. “As much as we love our hardcore guys — they’re going to love Halo 3 and Grand Theft Auto IV and all of the incredible games that we’ve got — at the same time, we’ve got to get fun back in the living room on our platform,” he said. “We need to accelerate that reach. That’s the only thing we’re looking at, in terms of what our competitors are doing. I think Nintendo is doing a phenomenal job in providing that fun, unexpected experience, to their credit.”

It’s a mantra that seems all the rage these days, as Nintendo is accelerating towards a position of market dominance, despite continued hardware shortages. And it’s not without a solid foundation in truth and observable fact. In a business like the games industry, where companies have traditionally had to battle for a share of the limited pool of hardcore game sales, the simplest solution to the problem over the past several generations has been to simply expand the market. And expand it has.

But for all this talk about non-gamers, new markets, and unfamiliar demographics, it seems like one group that is continuously left out of the discussion are hardcore gamers. Companies like Nintendo seem to be taking for granted the fact that the people who have, for the last two decades, put them in the position they are today will continue to stay with them forever. And while their continued voracity for titles like Super Smash Bros. Brawl and Super Mario Galaxy is unquestionable, Nintendo has shown little indication that they’re doing anything to expand their IPs aimed at gamers.

While offerings like Wii Fit and Brain Age are ingenious ways to introduce older audiences to the concept of holding a controller, truthfully I think they do little or nothing to actually expand the market for anybody besides Nintendo. It’s a problem that has plagued the company in the past, even before this shift to focusing on the casual market, and it will likely only become more pronounced if Nintendo becomes the industry leader in installed userbase. I can’t help but feel like this is a mistake. During the last generation of consoles, many third-party developers had to limit or halt altogether production of games for the GameCube because users rarely purchased games without Mario’s mustached moniker on them. This trend seems poised to repeat itself on the Wii, perhaps to an even greater degree due to the complexity of integrating the Wii controls into the design process.

The result? The Wii will probably have among the smallest attach rates of any console in recent memory, perhaps ever. Are we really to presume that once Grandma is done exercising on Wii Fit and playing tennis with the grandkids in Wii Sports, she’s going to throw down in some Metroid Prime 3? Casual gamers play casual games. Despite what the PR says, they are not some mythical gateway drugs that are going to make converts out of the elderly. The money is still with the hardcore.

There’s data to support this. A report by the NPD Group found that “heavy gamers,” while making up only 2% of the individuals polled, purchased more than eight times as many games as the average gamer. In the past three months, avid gamers purchased over 13 titles on average, compared with 2 games over the same period for “mass market gamers.” Heavy gamers not only spend more time playing games, but are more likely to play online and take advantage of digital downloads, which open new revenue streams for savvy publishers.

And that doesn’t factor in the fact that hardcore gamers are usually a crucial first step for innovative ideas to make it to the mainstream. Games like Guitar Hero, which over time have come to be highly successful mainstream products, would never have gotten off the ground had the hardcore community not embraced them so enthusiastically at its onset. An $80 game with its own peripheral would have been a hard sell to John Q. Public had it not garnered approval from the gaming community. Now Guitar Hero and its cousin Rock Band are poised to be major sellers in all segments this holiday season, to hardcore and casual alike.

Market segmentation isn’t the end of the world, I know that. The game industry is full of enough creativity, drive, and capital to support games directed at every market. At the same time, I feel like executives are doing themselves a disservice by pushing the casual games pitch as hard as they have, often to the detriment of traditional games. Many long-time fans of Nintendo found their E3 presentation, where Wii Fit took preeminence to Super Mario Galaxy, lacking. And then to hear that Peter Moore say, “We love our hardcore guys but…” It doesn’t feel right.