I can’t tell if I’m late to the party on this topic or just on time. Lately, we’ve been seeing a great deal of backlash, pitting “core gamers” against the casual market. Perhaps the most prominent example of this we’ve seen lately would be the journalistic backlash against Cuphead – a game that blends a 1930s cartoon aesthetic with unforgiving gameplay inspired by games like Contra and Gunstar Heroes. Cuphead was originally considered an indie darling by gaming journalists en masse. Unfortunately, once the game was available in a near-final state, the sweet words of the mainstream press turned sour. The impetus for this turnaround was a humiliating video of a journalist failing to make any meaningful progress in the game – to the extent where even completing the tutorial seemed a Herculean feat – and this posting was mocked by core gamers in general. This would lead to mockery from the gaming community at large and be followed with articles on many websites bemoaning the game’s difficulty, asking why there needs to be so much focus on gameplay in video games. The Cuphead fiasco wasn’t the first major scandal to illustrate this disconnect between the two groups and it most certainly won’t be the last. A similar, but opposite reaction came from Ubisoft’s decision to include a new mode in the upcoming Assassin’s Creed: Origins called Discovery Tour, which removes combat and even story progression, allowing players to roam through the game’s recreation of ancient Egypt with little to no actual interactivity. The reactions were mirrored: gaming journalists applauded this move as brilliant, while hardcore gamers considered the entire concept disgusting. The sheer chasm that has formed between the enthusiast press and the enthusiasts themselves is staggering, to put it mildly.
Like I mentioned earlier, I’ve seen several articles from the press about why games should be easier, “more inviting” and less gamey. I’ve seen significantly less in the way of major think pieces from the enthusiasts themselves, defending the practices that have long since decried as “elitist gatekeeping”. As such, I’ve decided to throw my hat into the ring. I’m not arrogant enough to believe that this article will make any sort of an impact on the industry overall, but considering I typically just write these blogs to amuse myself first and foremost, it seems like an interesting topic to tackle. Most times, the motivations of the so-called “gaming elite” have only been viewed through the lens of their detractors. After all, what’s so bad about broadening a game’s audience? That just means more people can play the game, right? Where’s the downside?
I can only speak for myself on this topic, I’ll never claim otherwise, but for me, history is what makes me so wary of these continued calls to make everything friendlier to the mainstream marketplace. I’ve seen so many games in my years as a gamer go from promising niche titles, clearly meant for a small but dedicated audience, to the same homogenized trash that litters the entire media – all in the name of “broadening the game’s appeal”. The best recent example that comes to mind would be Dead Rising. The first game was generally lauded for its high-stakes difficulty, necessitating restarts in order for all but the most dedicated players to complete the game. The second game streamlined the gameplay, toning down the difficulty at the cost of the first game’s unique levelling mechanic – in the first game, experience points would be kept between playthrough attempts – thus allowing the game to remain balanced in a much more inviting way. The third game attempted to tack on an open-world environment, to the detriment of the franchise’s trademark strict in-game timer, but otherwise managed to maintain other key elements of the franchise. But the worst was yet to come: the fourth game effectively stripped Dead Rising of anything even remotely resembling the first game – an incredible feat considering Frank West returns from the first game as the playable character, albeit in name only. The timer was completely removed, the inventory was much more forgiving, the psychopath boss fights and survivor rescuing mechanics were completely removed despite being franchise staples and the gameplay was dumbed down to a shallow parody of a standard action game. But hey, who cares if a series completely ditches its roots, just so long as it attracts a larger audience, right? Oh, turns out it didn’t even come close to Capcom’s projected sales target. Whoops.
There’s this pattern when it comes to both modern series and long-runners that find their way into the modern era. Truthfully, “modern” feels like a bit of a misnomer: this trend has been going on since the previous console generation at the bare minimum. I’ve got it down to a pattern: a new intellectual property based around some niche aspect in video gaming manages to far outpace the meager expectations such a game would have, so the game itself gets some mild tweaks and a larger audience is expected for the next game, leading to a bigger budget all around – particularly when it comes to the game’s marketing. When that game – or one of its sequels that emerge when the strategy succeeds – manages to fail to reach the dizzyingly high expectations the publisher has set for the game, rather than tampering down expectations and working from a more reasonable budget like earlier games, most publishers will decide instead to dilute the original core concepts of the original game to the extent where this new entry will be totally unrecognizable. It happened with Dead Space 3, which shoved microtransactions and forced co-op into the game, turning the once-fledgling survival horror series into another braindead action-shooter. Resident Evil 7 has managed to redeem the series’ faltering reputation, which was nearly destroyed in the previous game. While Resident Evil 5 essentially threw out the franchise’s survival horror roots, it performed well. Resident Evil 6, on the other hand, attempted to appeal to the fans of every style seen in any mainline series entry and ended up with a scattershot game that ended up appealing to no one, reflected by the fact that it missed its sales target by a significant margin.
The worst part about this trend is that we’ve actually seen evidence to the contrary with the regards of the effectiveness of shaving down the unique traits of a gaming franchise. When 2K Games decided to bring back XCOM, they originally intended to transform it from real-time strategy game to a generic first-person shooter. Needless to say, the fanbase was vocal in their displeasure with this shift. 2K relented, deciding to create both their planned FPS title – eventually released as a spinoff titled The Bureau: XCOM Declassified – as well as a brand-new RTS title – XCOM: Enemy Unknown – due to fan outcry. The latter came out first and managed to earn enough sales and acclaim to justify making a sequel, while the FPS spinoff was promptly forgotten soon after its release. As much as I don’t really care for RTS games, I wish more companies had heeded the lessons 2K Games learned from the XCOM franchise.
To put it mildly, whenever I’ve seen “professional” gaming journalists discuss making games welcoming to a wider audience, this is the phenomenon that comes to mind. It never stops at a few tweaks to make things simpler to those not familiar with the series, the endgame always seems to be sapping a beloved franchise of everything and anything that made it unique in the first place and replacing it with the same bland drivel that marketing departments all over the world think Western gamers crave. Video games apparently stopped being about crafting fun experiences and became more about checking off all the boxes that focus groups supposedly crave.
I think the worst part about all of this is that the gaming journalists in question are working from a flawed premise in general. This might come as a shock, but not every video game is intended for every single player. Hell, I’ll probably never be a fan in any capacity of the Final Fantasy, Uncharted, Metal Gear Solid or Pokémon series – but changing them to appeal directly to me isn’t going to do anyone any good. All it’ll end up doing is alienating the fans that loved it in the first place and what are gaming companies left with? Best case scenario, people will buy the first retooled iteration in droves, but after that? You’ll be lucky if the true believers still manage to buy your game: clinging to the desperate hope that if they keep the series alive, maybe, just maybe, the developers will make a new entry in the series that lives up to the best the franchise had to offer. It’s a sad proposition: supporting terrible games with the minute hopes that the series will return to glory, when 99 times out of 100, companies just end up tossing them by the wayside once they fall short of whatever obscene sales target the publishers expect to reach.
In the end, I suppose this is just another symptom of the modern video gaming landscape. Everyone appears to expect that AAA gaming is the only way to make money, when in reality, it seems like games with smaller budgets manage to make more money more consistently. A recent example would be Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice from Ninja Theory. A game that was made with a lower budget and sold at a lower price point, yet managed to make its developer enough of a steady profit that they decided to donate a day’s worth of sales to charity. I don’t know what exactly is causing companies to kill themselves over creating bloated abominations that try so hard to appeal to everyone, they end up appealing to no one. I don’t know particularly what it will take for more companies to reconsider this strategy, but something tells me it’ll be something extreme and nothing good for the health of the industry.