Broad Strokes

For anyone that’s spent any significant amount of time interacting with the gamer community at large, you’ll know that there are certain specific phrases and subjects that provoke controversy, usually causing a conflict between two diametrically opposed but equally zealous sides of the argument. We’ve seen the big offenders: who has the worst DRM, used games, sexism/racism/social justice/etc. However, there are also those phrases that invoke an overwhelmingly negative reaction, to the point where there is little to no debate. One such phrase fills the entire online gaming community with overwhelming vitriol: “we’ve decided to try to broaden the audience”. I’ll be honest, I’m kind of on their side: retooling games to capture a larger market share tends to leave long-time fans of specific series and genres out in the cold and it’s been done so many times with the significant majority of attempts ending up as diluted failures, as opposed to visionary titles that bridge the gap between newbies, casual players and the long-time hardcore fans.

One has to keep in mind the reason why games tend to get retooled in order to appeal to a wider audience. The answer’s pretty simple: money. Like it or not, the majority of video game publishers are businesses, many are traded publicly on various stock exchanges. Above all, these companies have a responsibility to put the interests of their stockholders above all else, and making big bank is job 1. Of course, the art of making video games in the first place is getting more and more expensive by the generation, and this is especially evident now since we’ve just entered a new generation, with a whole new set of standards to meet, at least with regards to AAA titles. It only takes one big-budget bomb to wipe out a developer now, so there is absolutely no room for error anymore. Sometimes, a successful game isn’t even big enough to keep their dev team running: Irrational Games was recently closed despite their latest title, Bioshock Infinite, selling over 4 million copies.

Despite the understandable reality of the situation, gamers still remain cynical and hostile towards the broadening the appeal of video games, especially “hardcore” gamers. It’s not difficult to understand why this is the case, though. Many attempts at taking older games and crafting sequels for a larger audience have ended up as shallow reflections of their predecessors. Simply put, most of the time, the new games end up being dumbed down. I don’t mean simplified for the sake of streamlining (which I’d actually argue is a good thing), but literally dumbed down. As in a shell of its former glory, a game that resembles the originals in appearance and name only, but retains none of the compelling gameplay that made its old fanbase fall in love with it in the first place.

Of course, there’s another narrative here that’s become more common. Instead of the hardcore gamers fighting to keep the spirit of the original game alive in future incarnations, I’ve seen several game journalists pose an alternate explanation: hardcore games are nothing more than a bunch of big babies who refuse to “share their toys” with casual players. Of course, this is just another phase of yet another on-going narrative within the industry: the culture wars between “casual gamers” and the “hardcore”, but I’ll go into greater detail with that another time. The main thing to keep in mind is that many hardcore gamers feel that games that typically cater to them are being retooled in order to bring in a wider audience, but at the cost of what made that experience special to them in the first place. It was all perfectly encapsulated in the Dark Souls II “easy mode” controversy: a simple mistranslation in an interview led fans of the series to rage over the loss of one of the few modern games considered hardcore and gaming journalists tore into them, like a pack of wolves into a crippled doe. The whole situation was ridiculous, but it illustrates the issue at hand: many long-time fans tend to be left high and dry when publishers appeal to a larger audience.

While modifying games for wider appeal take on a multitude of different forms, I have noticed that there are some common methods that typically crop up, especially in the case where the new games offend the pre-existing audience. Perhaps the top offender is simplifying the gameplay. While this isn’t always detrimental to the gameplay (in many cases, I think it’s actually beneficial), there’s a difference between streamlining the game and removing the game’s complexities. Related is reducing the game’s overall difficulty, usually achieved by removing obstacles and dumbing down enemy AI. Of course, this isn’t always intentional: poor AI and level design are the hallmark of poor designers. One last common culprit of expanding a game’s audience is tacking on a multiplayer mode to a game that is either awkwardly implemented or simply isn’t needed. While this is commonly done to prevent trade-ins and attempts to appeal to hardcore gamers instead of casuals, it still has the negative effect of taking away resources from single-player campaigns.

There’s no better way to characterize the harmful effects attempting to broaden a game’s demographic improperly can have on the game’s overall quality than listing some examples. The first one that came to mind was Resident Evil 6: it attempted to recapture their old survival-horror fanbase from RE4 while holding onto the more action-oriented third-person shooter audience from RE5, but only delivered a bland, mediocre game decried by gamers and journalists alike. Mass Effect 2 and especially 3 were criticized for ditching some of the RPG elements from the original in favor of cover-based shooter gameplay, while Dragon Age 2 had been accused of reducing the gameplay to mindless hack-and-slash action gameplay. Dead Space 3, while otherwise a fine game, was tainted by microtransactions, which EA added under the pretense of “appealing to mobile gamers” and you can probably guess how well that turned out.

Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts has been argued to be an example of this as well, ditching the game’s classic collect-a-thon gameplay (and openly mocking it at times), though the only real evidence we have that this was done to appeal to a broader audience is an interview with the game’s composer, Grant Kirkhope. This practice isn’t even limited to the previous generation: Final Fantasy Mystic Quest was developed because Squaresoft was under the impression that JRPGs were too difficult for Western audiences. However, the most drastic example is probably Bomberman: Act Zero, which reimagined the classic character in a gritty, grimdark reboot with mediocre gameplay.

That’s not to say that there aren’t examples where attempting to broaden the audience for a particular title ended up making it a better game overall. Take for example, Street Fighter IV and its various expansions. As Street Fighter III ended up being a commercial failure for Capcom, SF4 ended up taking on gameplay more similar to that of the SF2 games, with slower, more deliberate action and reduced the complexity of various game mechanics. The parry system was dropped, while “focus attacks” were added in, which ended up being used by tournament players in a number of ways. Perhaps most controversial among hardcore fans was the transition from 2D sprites to 3D models, as this evoked the failed “Street Fighter EX” spinoff. However, the gameplay stayed entirely true to the game’s roots, resulting in a 2.5D game. Old fans of Street Fighter from the 90s ate the game up, and after a brief period of hostility, so did the majority of fighting game enthusiasts. That’s not to say it won over everyone in the community, but with the FGC, you have to realize there’s just no pleasing some people.

My next example is probably going to be the most controversial: the “Super Guide” function that’s appeared in recent Nintendo platformers. Yes, yes, I know it’s generally a win button that’s considered lame by most “real” gamers, but hear me out on this one. First, it’s optional, so even if it gets triggered in-game (after dying 5 or so times), you’re never actually forced to use it. Second, Nintendo’s made a pretty big point of trying to cater to casual gamers as of late, especially compared to Sony and Microsoft. So, with that in mind, Super Guide is probably the best solution to this problem: novice players have a way to continue on without getting stuck at some particularly difficult level and Nintendo has free reign to beef up the difficulty. And trust me, they have: Super Mario 3D World and Donkey Kong Country Returns are incredibly difficult games if you beat them without any help, even if you don’t take their post-game campaigns into account.

One last major case where simplifying gameplay to broaden an audience had a net positive effect was Saints Row 2. While the original Saints Row was your typical Grand Theft Auto knockoff, SR2 removed some of the more obvious design flaws that hurt GTA’s base gameplay: a lack of checkpoints during missions, long drives back to the starts of a missions and being penalized for causing chaos outside of missions. While game reviewers still thought of Saints Row as a low-rent GTA clone, many gamers prefer it, even to the then-recent GTA4. Furthermore, by differentiating itself from GTA in later games, the Saints Row series gained an audience of its own, being one of THQ’s most successful original franchises and was one of their first titles to be obtained after their bankruptcy.

The point I’m trying to make with this article is simple: video game budgets have swollen to the point where what would’ve been considered phenomenal sales a decade ago are simply not enough to keep AAA development going. Appealing to a wider demographic is one way to circumvent that and that’s not an inherently bad thing. What is bad, is using that as an excuse to deliver a shoddier product: one that doesn’t streamline existing gameplay, but rather scraps the elements that made the original game so engaging for its fans. That’s why core gamers revolt every time any publisher mentions “broadening the audience” – because it’s become a code phrase for “here comes an inferior product we’re literally pushing out to exploit casual gamers, but using a cult-classic IP to draw in the hardcore too”. If you ever want to buck that trend, you’re going to have to work hard to make games that are easy to learn but difficult to master, as opposed to just appealing to the lowest common denominator like you normally do. You need to make games that literally appeal to everyone, from the novice casual player to the veteran hardcore gamer. In short, deliver more games like Street Fighter IV and less like Resident Evil 6.

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