Losing (Middle) Ground

If you’ve read quite any of my articles, you probably know by now that I often wax nostalgic in many of my articles, generally longing for what I consider to be gaming’s “golden age”: between the third (NES, Master System) and fifth (PlayStation, Saturn, Nintendo 64) generations, with the obvious sweet spot in the fourth (TurboGrafx-16, Genesis, Super Nintendo). You might also recall an earlier article of mine where I outright said I considered the sixth generation to be a “dark age”. Still, thinking back on that article, there is one thing I have to admit I miss about the previous generation: the mid-tier game. What is the “mid-tier game”, you ask? I guess the best way to explain it would be to explain how it differs from other classifications of video games.

Of course, perhaps the most well-known style of game, at least these days, would be the AAA title: a game with a behemoth budget both in the game’s production and its marketing budget. The Call of Duties, the Halos, the God of Wars, that sort of thing. On the other side of the spectrum, you’ve got the “downloadable game”: a smaller game at a smaller price point. Of course, by this point, simply calling them downloadable games is kind of a misnomer, as you can just download AAA games on consoles and PCs nowadays. Still, that’s the name they were given when they started popping up on consoles and I really don’t feel like coining a new term for it right now. After all, we’re talking about a totally different subject. Then, of course, you’ve got the indie game, which for the most part are just a subset of the aforementioned downloadable game, except it’s made by a developer without any help from a publisher. Well, unless a publisher decides to pick up the game and publish it. Sorry, going off-topic there again.

So, having defined other classes of video games, the question still remains: what is a mid-tier game? Well, in my opinion, it’s sort of a catch-all for any game that, while clearly not a triple-A title, it is also far too large to be viable as a downloadable game. If I had to give it a definition by price point, it would be a $40 game, compared to the $60 AAA game and the $5-20 downloadable/indie game. The “AA game”, another term I’ve heard used but never actually seen a proper example of, would probably fall into this category. I’ve also seen some people refer to them as “budget games”, likely due to the smaller sales price point in addition to the smaller budget involved in the game’s creation. That’s a nice and accurate term and all, but “budget” has a negative connotation: implying that the game is somehow inferior because they didn’t blow $200 million on animating hand signals or paying some celebrity to show up in the TV commercial. I’ll stick to “mid-tier”, thanks.

You’re probably asking why I feel the mid-tier game was important, if I can only define it in the most nebulous of terms. Simple: mid-tier games were safer to experiment with. Rather than giving an untested concept a massive budget to piss away when the game fails to sell, a new idea could be given less resources, sold for less and the concept could be properly tested, perhaps leading to a much more substantial sequel if the game manages to succeed on a significant degree. After all, that’s how gaming started: as a by and large experimental field, where extremely tiny dev teams (typically subsisting of one or two people) churned out several games in succession and from these less-reined titles, the building blocks of gaming were formed. While admittedly the mid-tier games of the recent past weren’t quite as important to the development of gaming’s future, they still played an interesting part in allowing new talent to surface and rise through the ranks.
Why am I defending the mid-tier game with such fervor, you ask? It’s simple, variety is always a good thing, especially when it comes to video games. This is pretty much an objective fact. Water is wet, grass is green and more variety is better than less. At the very least, there’s a better chance that you’ll find something you like. When it comes right down to it, having a vast selection of games that were, admittedly, cheaper to make, there’s a better chance you’ll find a great (or even just inventive) title compared to the bland focus-tested sludge that makes up a vast portion of the AAA market, especially these days. Sure, there were several mid-tier knockoffs of whatever the biggest-selling franchise at the moment was, but chances were, there were also other games that weren’t just rehashes of the flavor of the month. Obviously, there’s also the nostalgia factor: many of the games I loved growing up didn’t have the largest budgets or the most advanced graphics, but rather, they had solid or inventive gameplay. That’s really the most important thing when it comes to video games for me, back then and especially now.

I can only really think of a few examples of what I would consider to be mid-tier games. God Hand for PlayStation 2 is a pretty good example. On the surface, the game is hideous and it’s been said that it was released before Clover Studios was able to complete it, but it’s still an incredibly fun game with a hilarious storyline and serves as the missing link between the side-scrolling beat-’em-ups of yesteryear and the melee combat-based action games (Devil May Cry, God of War, etc.) that began to spring up in the sixth-gen and are still widespread to this day. Tim Schaffer’s Psychonauts is another good example, not only of a mid-tier game, but also of a mid-tier publisher: Majesco. Hell, last generation, established companies made their bread and butter from mid-tier releases. SNK Playmore comes quickly to mind, with console releases of both their classic (Art of Fighting Anthology, Metal Slug Anthology, the Fatal Fury Battle Archives games) and modern (King of Fighters XI, NeoGeo Battle Coliseum) arcade games.

This generation, we’ve seen a significant drop in the number of games that were full retail releases that weren’t classified as triple-A games or some kind of compilation of download-exclusive titles and this trend has only been increasing each year, with no signs of slowing down. The homogenization of the market looks like it might get even worse next generation, especially considering the fact that Nintendo has finally made the jump to high-definition graphics. But what exactly is causing the mid-tier well to dry up? While I praise the advent of downloadable games on consoles for reviving the ability to craft smaller experiences more in-tune with my admittedly more old-school tastes, this had the added side-effect of creating an even more perfect environment for experimental games than the mid-tier of old. Of course, that’s not the only thing killing the mid-tier market. AAA games are becoming more and more pervasive by the year, due in part to a sluggish economy and higher costs for game development than ever before. Add that to the fact that many video game publishers are publicly traded and investors typically value a minor short-term gain overall (over more significant long-term gains and even the continued health of the company they’re investing in) and it’s honestly no surprise that mainstream gaming has become such a wasteland of banal, formulated cashgrabs.

Frankly, I think it’s a shame that as the console industry exists today games can only exist in the form of an bloated paint-by-numbers AAA monstrosity or as some dinky little downloadable game (let’s face it, folks, nine times out of ten, whenever a major publisher decides to make anything in the downloadable range, it’s going to be small, overpriced and on the whole, unsatisfying). From a businessman’s perspective that kind of makes sense: AAA games are where the big bucks are at (when it comes to consoles anyway), and anything smaller simply isn’t worth dumping any significant amount of resources into. They’ve only now begun to drop their stigma of being wholly inferior to disc-based titles, due mostly to a flood of indie titles on both PSN and Nintendo’s eShop (let’s be fair, XBLIG really didn’t do anybody any favors). Still, without the mid-tier buffer, a massive divide has formed in gaming and if anything, it’s hurting the established publishers that can afford to make triple-A games more than anyone else. As they continue to keep up with the absolute apex of what today’s consoles (and doubly so, next generation), every game that doesn’t make back at least twice its own immense budget is considered a financial flop and another nail in the company’s coffin.

Perhaps mid-tier is dead for good, but the concept behind it is certainly important to keep around. Massive AAA budgets are draining most publishers dry, and that’s on top of the fact that HD development has crippled all but the largest companies. All it really takes is one or two AAA bombs to bankrupt a company, which just leads to a more fearful (and therefore conservative) industry, which is especially disappointing for any form of media. We saw games go from a nearly-uniform $50 price point in the PS2-era to mostly $60 (with a significant number of $40 titles as well) last gen, and yet we still hear from most publishers that the prices have to go up in order for them to even break even. Something’s got to give. Perhaps the success of indie games like Guacamelee! and the fact that all three first-party companies are beginning to support indie developers with the amount of fervor afforded to them only on PCs in the past will show the major publishers that not every single solitary game needs photo-realistic graphics and a massive marketing budget in order to deliver a worthwhile experience. Maybe the mid-tier renaissance will be a downloadable one, breaking down the current downloadable stigma with regards to console and handheld games and leading to an increase in satisfying experiences. All I know is that it needs to happen soon in order to prevent another industry-wide crash, we lost too many good publishers and developers last generation.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s