The ecosytem of games is a pretty bizarre place right now, for both developers and players.
To illustrate the point, let’s do a quick compare-and-contrast with movies.
For better or for worse, the formula of the US’s Hollywood box office is pretty easy to follow at a glance.
Check your nearest theater’s available films and you usually see a similar breakdown: a large chunk of movies aiming for mainstream “blockbuster” success, a chunk of films aiming for a more critical or prestigious award-season type of success, and maybe a few smaller or more niche productions.
If you follow up on that by checking out the country’s film festivals, you’ll see another big chunk of the film ecosystem: independent films, heartfelt documentaries, experimental films, etc.
For the most part, everything is presented and functions exactly how you’d expect. The blockbusters compete with each other for mainstream appeal and huge profits to justify their monstrous ambitions. The other sub-groups compete with each other for critical praise, award nominations, and trusted word-of-mouth praise. The blockbusters advertise with huge billboards, conventions, and TV interview appearances, while the indie films rely on film festivals and smaller award recognition.
And for a long while, the same could have been said for video games. But not anymore.
For years, it wasn’t hard to know which video games were the “blockbusters.” It was pretty clearly telegraphed: through magazines, through advertising, through the major games websites, and through conventions and conferences. Heck, the brick-and-mortar store might even place them differently on the shelf, essentially letting you know which games are a Big Deal.
There have always been “a lot of games”, far too many for any one person to play, but there were the few each year that were clearly intended as blockbusters. The developers and publishers are aiming for that, it’s advertised as such, and in most cases…I think it’s safe to say that even the sales performance, critical reception, and player reception backed the claim up. Sure, many AAA games are big flops, but often games with big budget and big talent seem to have met the success they were designed to. Similar to a Marvel movie reaching the success that it was clearly designed, from the start, to aim for.
Even when digital storefronts and “indie game development” burst onto the scene, I don’t think this changed that much at first. Just like with films, many games seem to come in with a certain ambition and budget, get covered in a certain way by the press, and get filed into the expected tier of success and reception. I think looking at Super Meat Boy, Castle Crashers, Bastion, and other such games…it’s not hard to see why they were successful. Despite being indie and pioneering a new, risky field, they were still aiming for what you might consider “mainstream” consumer appeal. Because of that, it benefited from the same cycle of press coverage, convention appearances, reviews, etc. as a blockbuster game would.
As a developer, as a journalist, or as a player, I feel like the ecosystem still played out roughly how you’d expect. Just like the US box office usually does.
Individual games may soar or horrendously flop, but there was still a general formula for doing business. And if you were looking to make a game, either in the AAA or indie space, you would probably take look at that time-tested formula (and look at games in a similar genre or budget as you) and have a rough idea of what to aim for to achieve similar success. A rough idea of what steps to take.
But I think there was one aspect that maybe we all took for granted. It’s the thing in the back of mind that I can’t shake, that has changed the most over time. Let’s call it the Watercooler Factor.
Chatting at the Watercooler
If we ignore streaming services for a second, one thing about the US film industry that a lot of creatives probably lament is that most people in the country only have their attention focused on a small fraction of movies in any given year. In a world where hundreds of movies could potentially release in one year, the population as a whole only seems to have the capacity to gather massive attention around 5–10 of them. There are external pressures that force things to be this way, but let’s just take it as a fact that in the end, most “average filmgoers” only have about 5–10 new films on their mind each year.
And, thus, these are the films you talk about “around the watercooler.” They’re the popular ones. They’re the ones you’re probably reading reviews for, they’re the ones selling good tickets in the theaters, they’re the ones that are either topping the charts or getting nominated for awards. For better or for worse, this is the group of films that has “risen to the top” of the public consciousness that year.
If you’re chatting about movies around the watercooler with someone, they’ll probably know what you’re talking about if you bring up one of those 5–10 films.
I feel that games used to operate in a similar manner.
As easily indicated by magazines, advertisements, games sites, conventions, and conferences, and then by big in-store sales figures, a small selection of games rise to the top of each year. Most games consumers are either playing these games, or are familiar with them. If you were to bring up one of these games around the watercooler, your fellow gamer would likely be familiar with what you’re talking about.
Even if you loved a game that was super obscure, you would at least be very self-aware that it’s obscure, and wouldn’t confuse it as being one of those successful blockbusters. So in this hypothetical situation, you wouldn’t bring it up to a stranger.
This Watercooler Factor, the probability that a successful game you brought up in conversation with someone would be a game that they’re very familiar with, and that you’d even both be in agreement of how successful that game is, is the thing that I think has shifted most drastically in recent years. And it’s made the video game industry a much different beast than the film industry.
A Tree of a Thousand Branches…
The games industry has expanded into something much different than what we used to see on the shelves of Blockbuster Video or in the pages of Nintendo Power.
There are just so, so, so many games. There are so many TYPES of games. There are so many types of players. There’s even so many types of business models, and release models.
To look at the “top” 5–10 games of the year and assume that there’s some sort of formula you could follow as a developer to plan for success feels naive now. I mean…how would you even define what “top” means?
If conventions/conferences are any indication, the AAA space does still try to push the idea that there is a subsection of huge titles that are gunning for huge blockbuster success, in the same way that a Marvel movie does. But as consumers we all know that there’s so, so much more going on than just those games.
You don’t even have to go very far to prove that. Look at publications’ Game Of The Year discussions lately, which sometimes try to whittle down a short list from a swath of nearly a hundred quality games worth discussing that were released that year.
Or look at the top-sellers charts or “new and popular” charts on a storefront like Steam, or the Nintendo eShop.
Or look at games-as-service, continuously-updated games that continue to enjoy massive popularity and revenue even years after their initial release.
Or look at Early Access titles and crowdfunded beta releases that may enjoy massive success even before their releases.
The reality of the ecosystem no longer abides by the idea of 5, 10, or 20 games in a year rising to the top, gaining a firm foothold in the public consciousness, and being the topic of conversation at the watercooler.
Actually, let’s do a thought experiment.
If you were at the watercooler in 2020 with a stranger that you know enjoys video games, and you wanted to bring up a game in conversation that you feel is very popular and successful…what do you think the probability is that the stranger has played the game you’re talking about? Or, that the stranger knows a close friend who plays it? Heck, what’s the probability that the stranger has even heard of the game at all?
In a weird way, I’d argue that the probability has gotten lower and lower. Because our perspective of what games are super popular continues to expand and branch out as the pool of great games expands and branches out.
Here’s the weirder truth: if the stranger doesn’t know what you’re talking about, it doesn’t mean that you’re wrong. It also doesn’t mean that the stranger is living under a rock. You may name a massively popular game that earns thousands (or millions) of dollars and has a large, dedicated fanbase, and it’s entirely possible that the stranger has just never heard of it whatsoever. This is something that I would find unlikely to happen in a conversation about Hollywood movies.
There’s no big secret. In our guts, we all already know why.
The games ecosystem has just branched out in so many different ways, in so many different genres and business models, that groups of players can be plugged-in to the news of “popular games” without ever bumping into each other.
So what does that mean for developers?
…and a Pie of Infinite Slices
If you’re a developer, and financial success of your game is important to you, then it might be easy to feel discouraged. There is so, so much competition out there. As with any capitalist ecosystem, there isn’t enough room for them all to succeed. The winners will outshine and drown out the losers, who all have to compete for scraps of attention.
This is all true, and I think they’re valid reasons to feel intimidated.
But there might also be a silver lining to making games in the modern era…
…because ultimately, isn’t the current situation much better than the Hollywood box office model of success?
We used to live in a system where only a small selection of AAA games and a small selection of indie games would rise to the top of the public consciousness. Whether you were aiming for financial success, critical success, or the player’s approval, there was only room for so many games at the top. Just like there’s only room for so many movies.
(There are pretty clear cut reasons that the games market has grown to be so much different than the Hollywood box office, related to consumer psychology, varied prices, varied budgets, how often games compete on a global market rather than narrowed to one country or language, new tastemakers like Youtube and Twitch, desire to buy games frequently versus buying movie theater tickets, etc. but that’s a whole other topic.)
There used to be only so many ways you can cut up this pie. Like a pie, the pool of consumers’ money, time, and attention was a finite resource that everyone had to fight over.
But lately, a consistent stream of new and unexpected success stories in the games ecosystem each year seems to contradict the notion that there isn’t room in this pie for an infinite number of big slices.
Nothing seems to stop incredibly specific, niche indie games from spreading like wildfire and grossing over a million dollars. Just as nothing seems to stop millions of players from loving MOBAs while simultaneously millions of players love online shooters while simultaneously millions of players love sports games while simultaneously millions of players dedicate themselves to MMORPGs. And similarly nothing stops games from succeeding based on thousands of players supporting it through crowdfunding, Early Access, subscription models, small bursts of DLC, or gachapon mechanics.
When a game does well and takes a big slice of the pie, they don’t necessarily take that slice “away” from other developers selling their game.
For some AAA companies, hopping into a crowded space or a trendy genre ends up actually working out instead of being a wasted effort. They end up competing healthily in a crowded space.
On the complete flip-side, for some indies, catering to an overly specific niche market seems to end up benefiting their success rather than hindering it. Only aiming for a tiny slice of the consumer pie ends up having huge financial pay-off for them.
Some consumers buy a video game intentionally to play it non-stop for a year. Or even to dedicate themselves to for years at a time.
Other consumers look around for new experiences each year, or each month, or each week. Always looking to buy something new that catches their interest.
No matter how many times the pie gets sliced, there miraculously always seems to be room to cut off another slice. There is, bizarrely, nothing about the ecosystem that puts an upper limit on who could find financial, critical, or audience success. For a developer, there’s nothing that indicates you’re competing for slices of the same pie as everyone else.
And where does that leave the Watercooler Factor?
Although the potential for any game [or any developer] finding success seems to shuffle and expand each year, there are a lot of other finite limits on even the most passionate gaming consumer.
The gaming press cannot keep up with the massive stream of popular, interesting, and beloved games. They can’t cover them all fast enough, or give dedicated coverage to the ongoing or updating games that are still popular long after their release.
There isn’t enough room in the world of conventions, conferences, or advertising to reflect what’s really out there and what people are excited about.
And most importantly of all, there just isn’t enough time in a human lifetime or enough capacity in the human brain for a person to be up-to-date on everything the games industry has to offer. Not even if you dedicated yourself to only playing “good games” or “popular games.”
Right now, there’s an obscure game somewhere out there with a massive fanbase, selling thousands of copies a day, and you’ve probably never heard of it. And you never will, because it’s weird and it’s niche and it’s not for you.
And likewise, when you come to the watercooler, there’s a chance nobody knows what you’re talking about at all.
Maybe you’re talking about a recent beloved critics’ darling like Control or The Outer Wilds. But someone else is talking about the massive Skyrim modding scene. Someone else is talking about Animal Crossing, and another person is talking about League of Legends. Someone else is talking about the most popular indie roguelites, someone mostly plays Euro Truck Simulator, and someone else is talking about Hearthstone. Someone’s talking about a stream they watched of Getting Over It With Bennett Foddy and Baldi’s Basics. Someone is part of a huge Dwarf Fortress community while another is a part of the huge No Man’s Sky community.
Someone comes up to the watercooler who’s familiar with the fighting game scene, while another is tuned in to the massive visual novel scene. Someone’s excited about Cyberpunk 2077, while another is a huge Final Fantasy buff, while another spends hours playing Osu, and another is a part of the huge ongoing Sims fanbase.
None of us know all that much about what the other is talking about, even if we all bring games that have enjoyed massive amounts of financial, critical, or audience success. We might not have even heard of the game they’re talking about.
And honestly, that’s kind of a beautiful thing.