It's no secret that the worldwide game industry is a very lucrative business with 20 billion dollars in revenues, and making a successful and critically received game is the hope of veteran and budding game developers. Game development is a very risky undertaking; some game projects can take more than three years to complete. And the return on such investments can often be too little to justify the expense at the end of development. What's all the more ironic in a market with hundreds of different games is that very few games seem to stay on the best-selling lists for a long amount of time. Some games sell well in their first weeks of release but fall off the chart rapidly, while others have a tremendous, lasting appeal. And then you have megahit games such as The Sims and RollerCoaster Tycoon, which have remained in the top-seller list for more than a year, or games such as Ultima Online and EverQuest, which were both released more than two years ago but have held onto a large subscriber base over their life span. Games that dominate sales charts are quite the envy of game publishers--who wouldn't like to reap the benefits of such long-lasting successes?
It is, however, a different matter when it comes to figuring out the secret of such success. What is it about The Sims, for example, that has made it so popular and so successful? What makes it more mainstream or so widely appealing than other games in the genre? This week, the editors are taking a look at popular and mainstream games and asking, "What makes games mainstream?" It's an interesting issue for computer gamers and game developers alike. If you agree with one of our answers, please vote in our instant poll. If you'd like to tell us what you think makes a game mainstream, please
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First: Accessibility is key
PC games are hit or miss--or just "miss" for the most part. Seemingly regardless of quality, most games tend to sell very poorly, whereas a scarce few dominate the sales charts for months, if not years. What makes these particular games so successful? If I knew, I'd probably have a different job right about now. At any rate, I've got a few good guesses.
I know one thing: Violent content may make a game cool, but it doesn't have anything to do with how well it sells. Hard-core gamers are quick to disregard games such as Deus Ex, rather than The Sims--as though the absence of a sniper rifle somehow makes The Sims less of a game. At any rate, The Sims is still at the top of the charts. It's doing something right.
The Sims is accessible. The interface is clean, presentable, and intuitive for the most part. The way you play the game is readily apparent. There's no tutorial--you just intuitively "get it" when you first load the game, and since you already know how to use a mouse, you already pretty much know how to get around in the game. It looks good, though its system requirements aren't very high. It sounds great. The concept is novel and interesting and indefinitely entertaining. The game is suitable for all ages. People bought it for themselves, for their friends, for their children, and for their friends' children. It's sort of the Disney movie phenomenon. It's true that an R-rated movie like The Matrix might turn into a huge commercial success, but if you think about it, your odds are probably better if you try to appeal to as many different types of people as possible.
Another stumbling block faced by PC game developers lies in the fact that, relatively speaking, PC games aren't easy to get into. Take your typical real-time strategy game. Most likely, it automatically assumes you're completely familiar with how real-time strategy games work. This reminds me of a similar phenomenon on the video game side: I'm really into fighting games, and I have played countless hours' worth of Street Fighter II. I've also played countless, similar games that came after it. All of these games relied on my knowledge of Street Fighter II's definitive conventions. Ten years after Street Fighter II, fighting games are still using the same exact mechanics. I happen to love the genre, but it's no wonder to me that that genre's all but dead. None of those games makes any effort to pull in new players--just the grizzled, old Street Fighter II veterans. The fact is, to produce commercially successful games and to keep the entire market healthy and interesting, developers need to think big. They need to try to appeal to the hard-core audiences and new players all at the same time. I don't think that's impossible.
PC game developers face a lot of technological issues also. It's tempting to try to raise the bar by giving your game bleeding-edge 3D graphics and such, but in doing so, you're risking alienating most of the market. Look at best-selling games like The Sims, RollerCoaster Tycoon, and Deer Hunter--these weren't technological marvels. They ran on most systems. You could safely buy a copy as a gift for someone. Granted, some games do manage to sell well as a result of their impressive technology: Myst and Unreal are two good examples. These seem like the exceptional cases, though. Like I said, ultimately the best bet is to try to make a game interesting, accessible, easy to play, and replayable. These qualities don't preclude a game from being hard-core, and they increase its chances of being commercially successful.
Next: Elves are not mainstream
Before I start, I want to apologize to everyone for missing two weeks, and for making people think I was fired. I wasn't, although Greg did have a talk with me and told me that from now on, stuff that we say in meetings is totally confidential and I respect that. Also, he said that I should stop being silly and making people think I'm serious when I'm really joking about stuff like Antonioni films, which really aren't a joking matter anyway. So fine. From now on, I'm going to be completely serious. If you think that I'm not serious about something, there's really nothing I can do and it's totally your problem.
So on to this week's question. I'm not entirely sure of what it takes to make a game mainstream, but I know exactly what makes one not mainstream: elves. As far as the rest goes, I looked up the official dictionary meaning of "mainstream," and it said, "things and stuff that happens a lot, right now." So for example, baseball, Balkan war crimes, and the plays of Eugene O'Neill. Those are things that everyone knows about and are happening every day. A good rule of thumb for what is not mainstream is basically anything that would make a girl think you were a dork if she saw you with it. That's why the first thing you don't want in the game is an elf of any sort. Or a spaceship. Or especially any kind of magic anything. "Oooh, is that a magic wand? Are you a faerie godmother?" You can just extrapolate the rest--I won't bother. Since a lot of elves are magic or at least know magic, that makes them just about the worst thing possible. Imagine for a second that you're on the train going to work, and a cute girl sits down in the seat next to you and wants to talk. Think about what you'd most like to be doing at that time to make her think you are really cool: reading a book about elves (with a big picture of an elf where she can see it), playing a computer game with elves in it on your laptop, or playing a computer game about reading elf books in your spare time. Or maybe you are just dressed as an elf for various reasons. Not very good choices, right? What did I say just now?
It's amazing that computer game makers still try to sell these elf games to the mainstream public instead of taking the easy money and licensing can't-miss properties like Long Day's Journey Into Night or even Hedda Gabler. What gamer is going to want to spend his time journeying through Mirkwood when he can play Mary Tyrone? While it might seem like fun talking to your friends about how you were the one that killed the orcs with your magic broadsword, that's neither mainstream nor likely to make girls on the train think you are really cool. On the other hand, just mention the fact that you feel very strongly about sending Ichiro Suzuki to The Hague, and I'll bet you'll not only have a dinner date for that weekend, but will impress everyone around you with how knowledgeable you are about the important issues in the world today. And if this is in a computer game like Gabriel Knight, it is even better. This is pretty much what a mainstream game needs to do: make your boss think you are very smart and need a raise immediately, or improve your golf game. Otherwise, who is going to waste his time playing a computer game in the mainstream? An elf? Probably only an elf or an orc. And that just doesn't cut it.
Next: License to play
Assistant Previews Editor
This is one of those questions that's incredibly difficult to answer because if any company really knew the answer, then game sales would be much higher than they currently are. Once in a while, a company creates a game that successfully appeals to much of the dedicated PC gaming audience and the mainstream audience at the same time. An example of this phenomenon is The Sims, which has managed to stay on top of the sales charts consistently over the past year while other games surge and then completely drop out of sight. Obviously, The Sims' longevity can be largely attributed to its appeal within the mainstream market, but what's not so obvious is why it appeals to the mainstream market in the first place. Is it because the game essentially lets you have complete control over the "lives" of people living within a computer world? Is it because the game shares some similarities with real life, allowing the mainstream audience to relate more to gameplay? The Sims' success really seems to be the result of a combination of different things, but there's no denying that it has done what very few games before it could do.
There are other types of mainstream games that are deemed mainstream for an obvious reason, a popular license. Whenever you go into a store looking for a new game, chances are you'll see many shelves stocked with games that simply use a proven license as a major selling point. The Barbie games, for example, always find their way onto the sales charts because the license continues to be popular--parents and kids will buy the game regardless of how good or bad it may be just because the product is associated with Barbie. That's mainstream. It becomes pretty clear why licensing is so important and how games that use a license end up being so incredibly poor most of the time--they use their license as a means to attract the mainstream audience when they enter the store because the company knows that customers will buy games based on that alone. That's not to say that every game using a license is bad, since some licenses are actually used really well as a means for supplying game content. But it seems that too many companies use licenses as a relatively easy method for selling games to people that don't know any better.
You see the same practice for other types of games as well. I'm sure that when some customers walked into one of those megastores, looking to buy some appliance, and they happened to catch a game named Pearl Habor: Defend the Fleet on store shelves, quite a few people bought the game. Pearl Harbor fever was at an all-time high, thanks to the movie, and the game successfully made it onto the top 10 sales charts for that week. The game is absolutely horrible, but because of its name, and the company's recognition that the mainstream audience doesn't know any better, it sold really well.
Looking back at the sales charts for the past year or so can be really depressing because so many games that should've made the top 10 sales lists didn't, while so many horrible games crept their way onto the charts because of mainstream sales practices.
Next: Level of difficulty
Downloads and Media Editor
I think that compromise is the main factor that makes a game a mainstream success. You need something that not only appeals to a broad audience but also has a lasting appeal. A commercial success will almost guarantee expansion packs, which means even more money.
Conceiving a game with appeal to a broad audience sounds obvious; ideally you want everyone to purchase the game. But in practice it doesn't always work that way of course. A hard-core gamer is going to want to find any loophole to make him or her play more effectively. A casual gamer just wants to hop into a game and have a good time. Trying to compromise between making a game easy to play yet challenging enough is everyone's dream. Single-player games are easier in this regard because all the developer has to worry about is the individual and the computer opponent AI, if any. Different scales of difficulty can also help contribute to mass appeal.
It gets worse in online games because a hard-core gamer will slaughter a casual gamer. Speaking from experience, it's no fun to get schooled in a first-person shooter or a real-time strategy game. Tribes 2 is a game I'm not very good at. Don't get me wrong--I really like Tribes 2 and think it's a good game. I just don't want to spend the time to set up my configuration files and read all the scripts employed by the best players. Conversely, I have spent the time working on Team Fortress mods for more than four years. I can hop onto a random server and gain the top score or close to it with no problem. And rightly so, because in light of all the time I have put into it, I should be good. But that's also why both games aren't going to be mainstream or best-sellers.
If you look at some of the more popular games right now, you can see the points stated above in practice. Counter-Strike is a popular first-person shooter because it's fairly easy to get into. Half-Life already has a built-in server browser, so finding a game is simple. Once in the game, players can get help or watch how other people play to pick up skills. And no matter how terrible a player may be, a lucky headshot will undoubtedly occur. A newbie who gets a frag feels happy and will continue playing.
The best-selling titles demonstrate the importance of lasting appeal by the number of expansions they have. The third expansion for The Sims was just recently announced. That game already dominates the charts: This week The Sims and both expansions are in the number 2, 3, and 4 positions. RollerCoaster Tycoon and Half-Life have two expansions, while Ultima Online and EverQuest each have, or will have, three by the end of this year. These expansions not only bring in more money to the developer but also keep people hooked and attract more potential players.
Next: The bell curve
First of all, I think it's really hard to define what "mainstream" is. By the dictionary definition of "mainstream," action shooters and real-time strategy games are mainstream today while adventure games are not. Action and real-time strategy games are by far the most generally and widely played games in computer gaming today, but you don't really think of them as mainstream. If anything, such games are perceived as unfriendly or inaccessible to casual and beginning gamers. On the other hand, games like The Sims defy classification although The Sims' gameplay involves strategy. Thus, I think it's not a question of type of gameplay but of difficulty.
Mainstream games such as The Sims, RollerCoaster Tycoon, and even EverQuest in the beginning stages have a few things in common: First, they're not tremendously difficult to play. In other words, the games seem to favor rewarding the player with more immediate successes than with risky all-or-nothing scenarios. Some might call such games mindless or unchallenging in the long run because you're not really at risk of permanently losing your built-up character or your growing empire. In addition, as Craig pointed out, the learning curve for shooters or real-time strategy games tends to be greater and thus more prohibitive or discouraging to newcomers. In The Sims, you have a lot of freedom to do little, and you can even let the game run your household as you watch your person or people passively. Furthermore, its gameplay reflects rather mundane but familiar daily activities that we do in real life, and this familiarity also makes the game easy to get into. In a game like EverQuest, which relies on Western folklore fantasy for its creatures, giant bats, giant badgers, and giant frogs look like you'd imagine them to be, and as such, new players aren't thrown into a strange and possibly alienating gameworld. Thus, familiarity of game content or subject matter can make a game mainstream or not.
In online games especially, the learning curve is a very important factor. Games like Unreal Tournament, and the like are games in which players play to be the best, and they're highly competitive among themselves. New players who don't know the gameplay mechanics have a pretty high learning curve ahead of them, and playing with a computer opponent, even intelligent bots, doesn't really train you for the online onslaught. In cooperative games where each player is expected to pull his or her weight for the team's overall good, new players hardly have a chance of being selected by veteran players, and unless you've got some friends who can help you, entering a game to play on a team is a very risky and potentially unrewarding experience. As such, the reward for playing online comes much later when you've mastered the maps, the weapons, team-play dynamics, and game types, and thus, the time investment involved is definitely something that decreases a game's accessibility as well as its potential to be a mainstream success.
Next: Defining accessibility
Depending on your point of view, it may seem a bit strange that the most successful PC games released in the past few years have all been games that most "hard-core" game players probably wouldn't bother with. According to market research company
So how does a game become a mainstream success? If I had a single surefire recipe, you can bet your bottom dollar that I sure as hell wouldn't tell any of you. In fact, if I had known in advance that
Anyhow, here's one of the most important factors in making a game a mainstream success, and it's possibly the most important: accessibility. It may seem obvious, but the best way for a game to enjoy widespread success is for it to be easy to find, easy to install, easy to learn and use, easy to play, and easy to fit into your schedule. Over the years, developers and publishers have come up with at least a few alternatives to simply shipping games to game stores; like shipping to general retailers like Wal-Mart, using shareware registration, and most recently,
Some of the best computer and video games ever released have been great because of their tremendous depth and complexity, but many such games have had complicated interfaces, complex controls, and unintuitive rules that required players to take time to learn and master. And many people just don't want to take the time out to learn a whole new set of rules. Despite what some hard-core game players may think, it's not because such people are too stupid to learn, it's because they simply don't want to bother. If that friend of yours who doesn't play games tells you, "Oh, that looks too hard for me...why don't you go on and play," it's probably not because he's mentally incapable of playing the game, but rather that he'd prefer to spend his free time doing something he feels he'd actually enjoy. To many people, a game is supposed to be something to be played at leisure, for fun--not fully outlined in a long-winded 50-page FAQ or the subject of a heated debate on a message board. A game that will appeal to a wide variety of players will have as simple, uncluttered, and intuitive an interface as possible.
Such a game will also be easy to learn and easy to play. New games should be packaged with comprehensive, explicit game manuals that are informative, enjoyable to read, and thoroughly unnecessary, because new games should also have a comprehensive, explicit in-game tutorial that walks new players through the basics of the game in real time. And once players have started playing, they should be able to fit a game session into their schedules easily. Good mainstream games let you sneak in a quick game (or a short but worthwhile session), then go on with your life.
Next: Quality is the main factor
I suppose that mainstream games are described as general-interest games that primarily deal with a subject matter that appeals to a wide range of people, most of whom wouldn't normally play games for whatever reason, be it a lack of interest or lack of time. It only makes sense that games defined as such sell incredibly well, which is ironic considering that "normal" gamers tend to look down on mainstream games. The mainstream genre is typified by games such as The Sims, Sim City, RollerCoaster Tycoon, and Deer Hunter. These games, especially The Sims and its expansion packs, dominate sales charts for years after their release. Obviously, no matter what you or I--or any other Quake fan--might think of them, mainstream games are doing something right.
However, I'd argue that a mainstream game isn't defined simply by its content but by the quality of its content. The Sims isn't so successful because it's a game in which you control the lives of people, but it's a good game in which you control the lives of people. Of course, it's the only current game in which you control the lives of people, but if The Sims didn't have a clean interface, intuitive mechanics, addictive gameplay, and an overall unique and humorous air to it, would it be anywhere nearly as successful as it has been otherwise? Possibly so, but probably not. I really do think that people will flock toward truly good games, no matter what genre they fall under. Metal Gear Solid, the Gran Turismo series, Half-Life, Starcraft, the Command & Conquer series, and the Madden series are a few games that have each sold millions of units, and yet none of them would be characterized as a "mainstream" game.
But aside from just being good, those games have another very important thing in common, and that is, they innovated their respective genre somehow. Getting back to my example of The Sims--it's the only game of its kind for a reason: Its design is so unique that it would be nearly impossible for another developer to make anything similar without coming off like a complete rip-off. Games that successfully innovate or breathe new life into an existing genre will generally do well. These innovations are almost always simple and are the kind that makes you think, "Oh! Why didn't I think of that?" Street Fighter II was the first game to offer the formula of pitting a group of completely different and yet equally balanced fighters against each other, and it was immensely popular for years after its arrival on US shores in 1991...why didn't I think of that?
At the end of the day, the aspects that make a game mainstream--and thus make it a success--are more ethereal than they are tangible. The Sims and RollerCoaster Tycoon aren't the only type of mainstream games. Generally, if a game is easily accessible, innovative, pleasing to look at, and believable, then people who are avid gamers and those who have only a passing interest in the hobby will take notice.
Next: The setting
I'm not sure that even the best-selling PC games are truly mainstream, but certainly some have a much wider and more diverse audience than others. Diablo II have had sales that far exceed the numbers for games such as Unreal or Baldur's Gate II, which are successful yet mainly appeal to those who consider gaming their main hobby. Commercial success on this scale clearly doesn't depend just on quality, but more on making a game that is accessible and compelling for someone playing his or her first PC game.
Games often represent a significant time commitment compared to the time it takes to watch a movie or follow a weekly television show or two. In pitting one form of entertainment against another, it only makes sense that people should expect the rewards to be commensurate with the time commitment. The best games have well-defined goals, a compelling setting, and suitable in-game rewards for success. It's easy to underestimate how important a good setting is, but the real appeal of a game like RollerCoaster Tycoon is precisely that it gives you a portal into the world of coasters and amusement parks. And The Sims' strength is that it takes place in the "real world" or a fantastic variation of it. As good materialists, most of us are pretty good at collecting stuff, so Diablo II's virtual economy of rare and unique items makes for an eerie yet effective mirror of the rat race.
While most PC games cater to those already well versed in conventional game mechanics, simple, intuitive mechanics have a different appeal. Anyone can learn to play a classic arcade action game in just a few minutes. It's not impossible to make a PC game interface that's nearly that intuitive, and certainly it's a good thing even for experienced gamers not to have to learn a user interface from scratch. Diablo's point-and-click interface is a particularly good example of how a whole new type of game can be made from rethinking the basic mechanics.
It's also a good thing to have relatively low system requirements, even though I do hate to see games not take advantage of fast hardware. Heavy requirements put many people off of PC games, because everything but games probably runs fine on their system. Someone who bought a midrange PC two years ago reasonably expects to be able to run some newer games on it, and those who don't consider gaming a primary hobby aren't likely to buy a new PC every 18 months just so they can play the newest theme park sim game.
Games that break into the mainstream end up bringing more people into PC gaming, and many may graduate to the more-complex games that have been the hallmark of serious PC gaming. Few games become as timeless as SimCity, Command & Conquer, or Doom, and it took a stroke of real genius for each of these to break into mainstream consciousness. It's natural that not everything will succeed in such a dramatic way, but it's more likely when the basic elements are there.
Next: Readers mix and match games and genres
Which Game Should Cross Genres?
A game concept, which may be a huge undertaking, should combine strategy with a first-person RPG or adventure. Imagine if you will, a centurion or a tribune of ancient Rome, who travels throughout the land, or maybe a Greek Hoplite or Spartan (Spartans were maybe more intent on accomplishing great feats and exploits due to their high regard for heroes) who can travel through slower-paced bits like one does in an RPG, but when he gets to dungeons, caves, ruins, cities, and so on, the game switches to first-person view, complete with problem-solving puzzles, and then the same character gets to command large armies, whether they be legions or phalanxes in a strategy-type format. Would this not be the perfect game?
--Adam Benjamin Letch
Counter-Strike/Deer Hunter. I think you should combine these two top-selling games into one neat little package. Nothing is more satisfying than flashing a deer and then shooting it with a FN P90. Or just grenade-spamming deer, squirrel, raccoon, or whatever into submission. Nothing's more satisfying that getting a deer to surrender. And you can cheat too! Wall hacks. Those deer hiding behind walls won't know what hit them. And with night vision goggles, you can hunt deer while they sleep!
Without going into extensive gameplay and storyline critique, I think we need to see more of the Sacrifice-type genre where there are multiple elements at play. That game presented some RTS characteristics without the long and boring resource collection and base building. It also had some shooter elements where you could blow away enemies, although that required a little bit more work than the simple pull of a trigger. It also incorporated some action-RPG elements, but more sophisticated than the simple "click and go there" command. I felt like I was part of the action--I was in command of my wizard. However, one of the problems with Sacrifice was the repetitive nature of the levels. On the other hand, Giants incorporated some strategy, I think, and shooting action as well. Now Black & White is a different story altogether.
If you take a look back, the Battlezone series (very similar to Hostile Waters) I thought had good potential for a nice combination of simulation, action, and first-person shooter, but the mission goals were such that the shooter side of the game was not taken advantage of. And then there are the traditional RPGs (like Diablo), RTS games (Ground Control, and so on), and the long list of first-person shooters that incorporate very little of any other elements but the genre that they were intended for. Having said that, personally, I would like to see more crosses between Battlezone and Giants in which you would have missions where the shooter side of the game is used and other missions where the spacecraft/simulation side of things is used (to some extent similar to Shadows of the Empire, which only had one speeder mission). Base building could be incorporated into it, but base building or ultimate weapon construction should involve successful completion of shooter missions culminating with stealing of technology or the retrieval of special devices. The simulation part would have similar goals. It should also incorporate a squad-type system such as FreeSpace, but your squad should also be able to be ordered around in first-person mode like in Giants or Sacrifice.