Why Nobody likes the popular games (sort of)

Yes, it sound counter-intuitive, lemme explain…
I just read ‘the long tail’ ( http://www.amazon.com/Long-Tail-Future-Business-Selling/dp/1401302378/ ) and although I pretty much knew what to expect and didn’t expect the book to tell me anything I didn’t already know, one thing from the book stuck in my mind:

Everyone has individual tastes, everyone actually, given the choice would like something that is fairly niche. This is why amazon is the perfect example of the long tail, and why the VAST majority of its sales are not from the top 10 or even the top 50.
Books have very low fixed costs, so there are books to cater to practically every niche imaginable. (http://www.amazon.com/No-Idle-Hands-American-Knitting/dp/0345362535/ ) Because everyone can have their book niche easily satisified, a lot of people go out and buy the books they really want to read. There are the occasional mass market hits that everyone seems to read (da vinci code and harry potter), but they are the exception, not the rule.

When the costs of production go up, and the amount of stuff produced shrinks (think triple A PC and console games), things change dramatically. The games that get made appeal to the widest possible subset of people, and many would say are thus dumbed down. So far, so obvious, but the interesting point is that even the people buying them are not getting what they REALLY want. The dumbed down mass market games aren’t really being made because “this is what most people actually want to buy”, what’s happening is “this is what most people will settle for, given that the games they really want are not there”.

So given this theory, I’m suggesting that a hell of a lot of people who go out and buy Halo 3 (for example) would really prefer a slightly more niche, more quirky, more original game, but they settle for Halo 3.

We don’t (sadly) have a good way to measure the extent of someone’s satisfaction with a game, they either bought it or they didn’t. We don’t know if they thought “OMGZ! Halo 3 at last, the game that equals perfection in my book!” or “There are no decent games out at the moment. I guess I could get halo 3, it has some shooting and nice gfx”

Is this bollox? or is there some truth to it? Would the flght sim and point-and-click adventure genre spring back to life if people actually made some of them?
I know a similar thing happens in movies. My brother goes to see a movie once a month at a minimum, regardless what’s on, even saying before he goes that it will probably suck. Are people doing that with games? and does this mean there are vast markets for interesting cool stuff if people will just make it?

With regard to the Halo 3 example, it might depend on what’s being delivered. I bought H3 because I knew it (1) was the one game I would always be able to play online for the life of the 360, (2) allowed for split-screen play both online and offline, so I could play it with my boys, and (3) had enough variety of maps, weapons, and game types to stay fun. I may never play the single-player game, and if I really think about it, bought it because it was bundled with the multiplayer game.

Why is this relevant? Because books, and to a certain extent films, are experienced individually. A game can be experienced either individually or simultaneously with others. With regard to single-player games, I have very specific ideas as to what I want to play. For multiplayer games I’m looser with because I need the masses along for the ride.

Actually there are point and click adventure games being made, Penumbra, Sam and Max, Sherlock Holmes stuff. Actually, awhile back someone posted a link to a gamespot thread that was a list of PC games coming out and there were quite a few adventure games.

Supposedly Netflix does more business in niche titles than the mainstream ones as well. But games and movies are more social phenomenon. We play them as much to play them as to talk about them. The same thing with movies. We go see what everyone’s talking about so we can talk about it too. So I’m not sure. I think the general point is correct, though. People settle for an experience that’s close enough to what they want. That’s part of the reason why I think the notion that market can make specific demands, “The market has spoken, people want X” is bogus.

I was thinking about this awhile back in regard to MMOs (and specifically WoW). I realized WoWs goal isn’t to satisfy 100% of its customers 100% of the time, because that’s impossible since customers want conflicting things. Instead it tries satisfy 100% of its customers 85% of time, which is a much more manageable (but still daunting) task. The simplest way to think about it is like a Venn Diagram, with each feature/mechanic customers respond positively represented by a circle and companies are looking for the combination of circles with the largest overlap.

which suggests (if the theory holds) that pretty much everyone playing multiplayer games is slightly dissapointed, and everyone playing an MMORPG (which needs LOTS of players) is very dissapointed, which i guess explains a lot of MMO bitching.
the flipside is that lots of people love MMos and multiplayer, including my own COD 2 addiction. I reckon that the multiplayer (or MMO) experience itself, detached from the specifics of that individual game adds a lot to the experience. So I can love playing COD2 online, but still be playing a game that is ‘suboptimal’ for me, because I need to play one at least 20 other people are often playing online.

I guess an MMo could do better by having enough different classes, and regions with different art styles, and even servers with different rules etc, that they can effectively have a massively multiplayer niche?
Should I patent that?

It’s all relative, like RickH expressed.

I remember when a local friend picked up an Xbox and Halo and was going and on on about how you could have 8 people in a deathmatch round - my response was immediate and dismissive - [I]“Dude, we have been playing 16-32 player TF matches for the last 4 years”

[/I]But not in our living rooms, not split screen with other people who may be “non-gamers”, not (nearly as) transparently over broadband, etc. There are always trade offs.

I could have the same conversation today and understand the appeal of Halo 3 on 360, everything doesn’t break down in a linear fashion based on bigger and better feature lists. The perfect example is the player limit - ever since the first 64 player Quake 2 DM game everyone has known it’s a bad idea. 32 Player TF/TF2 games are unplayable and ridiculous, so should anyone reasonably expect to see 100+ team Battlefield games in the future? It wouldn’t necessarily be an improvement, that much is clear.

Kind of like ProStyle said, it’s not quite like adding in a bunch of different features. Putting in hyper realistic characters next to anime characters might not work so well, rather they try to find an art style that’s least offensive to as many people as possible. Riffing off the thread in EE, I guess it’s just like Garfield.

That assumes they know those quirky alternatives actually exist.

Analogizing to movies, I’m betting the mediocre “appeal to everyone” games are what’s going to take the hit. There’s always room for really good mass market commonality fare like LOTR, Spiderman, and so on.

What, so now you want to compete with Linden Labs, Forterra, Areae, and SOE in the virtual world space? Yeah, good luck with that.

  • Alan

It depends on the cost. If you make them, someone will play them. However, don’t expect to make your money back.

Books are a funny example. I mean, have you walked into a bookstore lately? The place is wall-to-wall books. I mean, how does anybody have time to read everything? Hint: They don’t.

The catch with the long tail is that everybody wants something different. You either succeed by diversifying (and splitting your resources accordingly), or by consolidating your resources (and trying to compromise, i.e. make everybody equally unhappy).

  • Alan

I guess I’m just a plebe, because I love popular games.

I’m playing the hell out of Halo3. I loved the GTA3 series and I’m looking forward to GTA4. I loved New Super Mario Bros for my DS. Gears of War? Loved it. World of Warcraft? Loved it.

I’m not saying you’re wrong (I certainly have a set of quirky unknown titles that I hold near and dear to my heart) but I don’t think it’s correct to write off all mainstream titles as only appealing to the LCD.

No.

I’m saying that diversity WITHIN a game that has a pre-req of large market size (ie an MMO) is a good thing. Take COD 2, it needs lots of players, but it has team deathmatch, Search and destroy, CTF etc. I only ever play CTF, that’s my niche, but I’m probably playing with people who do a bit of CTF and a bit of TDM. That’s cool. The variety within the game means higher satisfaction for the niche players, which the theory states, ultimately is all of them.

So in an MMO, for example, you should not design entirely for a certain player, but support as many niches within the genre as you can, from people who want to play the economy and trade, to people who want to level up massively, to people there just to socialise. Its a symbiotic thing, with people all wanting a different thing from the game, but coming together in the MMOness of it.

Most MMOs seem geared towards a certain player type, always the leveling up raid-obsessed hardcore player. Why not also have support for casual, more social players, paying less than the $10 a month for restricted level cap / gameplay hours, for example…

Now you’re getting into billing models. Also, there are games that support this already (e.g. Puzzle Pirates, Guild Wars, every virtual world out there, etc.). In fact, except for the flexible billing options, I would suggest that most MMOGs already try to cater to as wide an audience as possible, within their repsective settings of course. And yet some of them fail. Why is that? It probably isn’t because they’re “too narrow.”

  • Alan

I think that there’s one big factor that drives the popularity of games like Halo 3 and WoW that you’re overlooking: Network effects. The more people that play the game, the better a game it is.

The single best thing about WoW, from my perspective, is that I have friends who are playing it. Maybe I’d like EQ2 better, but my real-life friends aren’t in that game. I’m not playing any MMOs at the moment, but if I get the itch for one again, I’ll probably go back to WoW–because that’s where I can find someone who I know.

So, yes, in a sense many people are “settling for” the popular games. But if someone made their perfect game, they wouldn’t actually like it–because by appealing more to their tastes, it’d drive away some of the people who they want to play with.

None of this applies to single-player games, of course.

Anecdotally, what I tend to find with games is that the Sims aside, everyone I know is really excited and passionate about the major releases. BioShock, Quake Wars, Ep2, Portal, Call of Duty 4, Team Fortress 2 - on PC, at least, we couldn’t be happier with the big names. There’s nothing like that level of consensus about books - mention Dan Brown’s name in my office and at least one person will physically spit on you.

I think a big part of that is that games are as much science as art. A bad book can sort of pass you by, but because games ask you to do things yourself, a bad one is incredibly frustrating, and often uncompletable. We can’t get all that excited about a game unless we know it’s going to be well-made, expertly progammed and designed, and that takes money.

Even in the incredibly rare cases when an indie darling gets its craft right and produces something that genuinely inspires the same passion as the big hitters, as in the case of Introversion, it’s not as reliable a process. I’m an Introversion obsessive, but even I’m allowing for the possibility that Subversion might not be brilliant - they’re a small team, they could lose perspective or bite off more than their resources can chew. I have no such fears about Half-Life 2: Episode Three. Eighteen months before it’s likely to be finished, I already know it’s going to be astonishing.

I think a fun mechanic is more universal than an enjoyable chapter of a book. I think a much higher percentage of gamers would enjoy bisecting a zombie with a sawblade than book-readers would enjoy a given chapter of Deathly Hallows. It’s as much science as art.

MMORPGs are young enough that even the big hitters aren’t getting the science right, expensive enough to make and run that there’s very little choice, and experimental enough that few people dare to vary from the one successful template. Despite being the one genre that takes full advantage of that great accelerant, the internet, it may be the slowest genre to evolve.

you seem to be equating money with quality. for me, quality is mostly design. you could halve the poly count in company of heroes, remove all of the voice acting and get rid of the physics and the shaders, and I’d like it 100% as much, but you would have saved maybe a million dollars. Its the design that makes COH such a good game.

Possibly the best strategy game so far is chess, yet its development budget is not exactly sky high. We tend to equate the big name big budget games as being the mega hits because the developers and publishers keep touting them as such. I’d wager more people this second are playing chess as are playing counterstrike and bioshock combined.
And even back in pc game land, a phenomenal amount of people are right now playing Diner Dash. Hardly a big budget game, but I’d guess more popular than Supreme Commander.

Just my opinion here, but that mostly applies only to when they are asked. When presented with actual experiences, gaming and otherwise, people fall into buckets. It’s from those buckets that genres (and political parties) are born :)

A lot of people don’t have a basis for comparison, nor are experts on their own whims and preferences, or change their whims and passions (like a person who comes to hate a game they’ve played for years mostly because they as a person have changed themselves). So they aren’t really settling per se. They just lack a broader frame of reference. This doesn’t apply to the deeper enthusiast, but that person is sometimes giving up the forest for the enjoyment of the trees.

Whether going lateral or vertical though, there is generally room for improvement, no matter how polished or solid something is. And from this layer atop preferences are from where industries (and governments) are born :)

but isn’t it the case that when you give people the choice they go more niche? There used to be 3 TV channels in the UK. then 4, then 5, then hundreds, and people have spread out to watch all those channels. the number of people watching any particular show or show style has dropped because the people who were settling for ‘the generation game’ now watch something on the history channel, or the sports channel, or the fishing channel, or whatever.
The same is true of magazines. there has been a major explosion of magazine publishing in the UK over the last 10 years. There is even a monthly magazine dedicated to a specific fish ->
http://www.bigcarpmagazine.co.uk/
I’m not saying people think that the mainstream is necessarily dumbed down,. I’m saying that given the choice, they would go niche. And I’m not even suggesting that they are aware of it. We never moaned about having only 3 TV stations, but when we had more, we deserted those 3 en masse.

There is a big difference between refining your sorting method and discarding sorting altogether.

Using TV channels as an example, there are a few hundred of them here in America, yet the vast majority of people congregate on maybe seven or eight of them.

If anything, there has been a decline in the availability of individual options: Mom and Pop stores closing down, big chains everywhere, local papers and tv stations dying and the cost of reaching the minimum level of acceptable quality for creating a tv show rising.

I can’t really comment on the TV thing since I really no longer watch it except the few shows I can get online that I’m interested in, but your other examples aren’t necessarily accurate.

If anything, there has been a decline in the availability of individual options: Mom and Pop stores closing down, big chains everywhere, local papers and tv stations dying and the cost of reaching the minimum level of acceptable quality for creating a tv show rising.

Mom and Pop shops closing down? That’s not because people are gravitating towards the same products, but rather super-stores are including more and more products (at cheap mass produced prices) in their inventory. People may be going to the same store, but they aren’t necessarily all buying the same goods.

Newspapers are dying partly because of Craig’s List and partly because readership is down. Again, not because everyone’s necessarily getting their information from the same place, but rather there are just many more places to get that same information, whether it be TV or the internet. Many people think the only way to save newspapers is to make them hyper-local, have them provide very specialized (niche) news to their town and community rather than just cover national news you can get elsewhere.

Local TV stations have mostly been dead for awhile, unless you mean local TV news.