Women and minorities are ignored. Prices are too high. Games are too long and too difficult. These aren’t the complaints of disgruntled consumers but observations from top gaming executives at the South by Southwest games festival in Austin, Texas.
On Sunday in front of an audience at the Hyatt Regency, the panel of experts explored why the industry has been failing at converting non-players into players. The main culprits: An over-reliance on $100 million-plus blockbusters, a difficult learning curve and a lack of diverse narratives.
While Wall Street analysts and industry boosters like to cite financial figures that show the game business as one that’s bigger than the film industry, such numbers mask an uncomfortable reality: the number of dedicated gamers is not growing.
“The actual universe of gamers isn’t expanding that much,” said Alexis Garavaryan, who works closely with indie developers at Microsoft. Garavaryan noted that players have more choices regarding where to play today, and an influx of casual gamers on mobile devices isn’t necessarily creating repeat customers.
“ Core gamers haven’t expanded that much,” he said. “They’re just more fragmented.”
The panel, which also featured Jack Mathews, co-owner of Armature Studio, and Kynan Pearson, creative director at Bluepoint Games, sought to unravel the reasons why. There wasn’t a ton of room for optimism in the hour-long discussion. In fact, one audience member during the question and answer session accused the panelists of being all “doom and gloom.”
If the conversation could be boiled down to one core thesis, it would likely be that console and PC games have simply become too intimidating for the uninitiated. There’s a high barrier to entry, in cost and learning curve, as most top-shelf games today are sold for about $60 apiece and then require players to master a controller with a dozen-plus buttons. Then many games expect players to invest upward of 20 hours, minimum.
“If you look at every single entertainment medium that exists — watching television has gotten easier, everything is on demand,” Pearson said. “Watching movies has gotten easier — you can basically view movies without effort. You used to have to go the theater or put in a tape. … Video games are the only medium where it’s gotten more and more complicated to even get to the point of playing a game.”
With games, consoles and powerful PCs can be pricey, and then there’s the operating system that has to be learned. Often, games need to be updated, and players will be asked to log into online accounts. Pearson argued that film, television and music are more instantly accessible than any game.
Worse, Mathews pointed out that today’s games are more complex. He mentioned the original “Super Mario Bros.” from the early ’80s for the Nintendo Entertainment System, telling the audience that anyone could learn that game within a minute.
“They would jump around, they would die a few times and then they know what’s going on,” he said. “You hand someone what’s considered an easy game now, on this game controller that they’ve never touched before? There’s no chance. You give them a first-person-shooter on easy mode? It might be easy. It might be chock-full of tutorials that tell you exactly where to go, but there’s no intuitive sense of what’s going on. That’s an issue.”
In fact, panelists agreed that one of the major blunders in recent years was the fact that publishers did not more wholeheartedly embrace Nintendo’s Wii system. The console captured the imagination of the public, as it simplified controls and relied heavily on motion-based systems. Yet it lacked the horsepower of Sony’s PlayStation 3 and Microsoft’s Xbox 360, and the industry focused its biggest blockbusters on the latter two consoles.
The Wii was viewed as a more casual system. It was argued that a potential opportunity in converting Wii customers into more avid video game consumers was missed.
But that’s not the first time the panelists said the video game industry has ignored an audience.
“One huge chunk of the population that we have not embraced are women,” Mathews said. “There are not very many games designed for or really appeal to women. One of the big ones … was ‘The Sims.’ ‘The Sims’ was a huge leap forward for that, but then it stopped. Other ‘Sims’ games happened, but nothing else moved in that direction. I always thought that was a real big misstep.”
He added, “It’s a real shame that we’re knocking out that 50% of the market.”
Indeed, Garavaryan argued that simply adding female characters to games won’t in and of itself create a new audience. The games themselves need to change, yet Pearson said studios won’t take the risks to develop games around unproven subject matter.
“One of the most popular genres in things like film is romantic comedies,” Pearson said. “So, the question is, how many romantic comedy games do you know of? Really that boils down to one, which is ‘Octodad.’ Otherwise, you have this whole genre that should totally have all these titles being developed for it and all these experimental ideas going into it but there’s no way to get that funded in today’s market.”
The problem? Game budgets have increased exponentially, to the point where today’s market consists of independent titles made relatively cheaply or big budget titles made for $100 million or more. Marketing costs, Garavaryan said, are typically double the cost of the budget. This creates a risk-averse industry that caters to the proven audience.
This wasn’t the only panel at SXSW in which speakers questioned if the game industry is doing enough to broaden its appeal. Earlier on Sunday, at a talk regarding street-fighting games, game designer Shawn Alexander Allen wondered if games are “outsider art.” On Saturday, celebrated designer Warren Spector called upon the industry to think of games beyond whether or not they are simply fun.
If there’s any hope for broadening the game audience, Sunday’s panelists pointed to the growing independent sector. Indie games have done well enough that big publishers are noticing. What’s more, companies such as Telltale Games are showing that titles could sell based around little more than conversation.
Garavaryan also pointed to Activision investing in a new “King’s Quest” game developed by small L.A. team the Odd Gentleman, as well as Ubisoft’s smaller games such as “Child of Light” and “Valiant Hearts: The Great War,” as indications that the industry may be willing to rethink its current course.
“Some of the systems we built over the years for our target audience may need to move, may need to change,” Garavaryan said. “We need to make our games more accessible. We need to let people come in and discover and get engaged. If we don’t make that effort we’re going to continue for the next 10 years with the same group of people, same genres, same type of games.”
We’re at South by Southwest until Sunday. Join us at latimes.com/sxsw for ongoing coverage of the festival.
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