“I’m going to go on the record and say that I believe the middle class game is dead,” said outspoken game designer Cliff Bleszinski (aka Cliffy B.) during GDC 2011. At the industry-only event, the brain behind the Gears of War franchise compared video games to films in that blockbusters and indie efforts appear to carry both industries.
It was a true statement three years ago; it’s even truer now.
The video game industry has been split into two major camps — AAA and indie — while a sliver remains for that on which the business once thrived: the middle-class game.
The middle-class game is one with a budget more than the relative pennies allotted independent offerings such as Papers, Please, but has far less production and marketing costs than Call of Duty and other AAA kings. Games such as Saints Row IV or The King of Fighters XIII immediately come to mind. Unfortunately, the video game middle class — much like its real-world counterpart — is shrinking both in terms of size and economic weight. This is not a good thing.
The industry’s polarized state is due to major players shifting their focus exclusively toward blockbuster games designed to do blockbuster numbers, while smaller companies produce relatively low-cost indie and mobile titles. Gamers’ monies are being pulled toward the top and bottom of the video game heap, leaving developers and their projects in the gap with scraps to fight over.
Gamasutra’s Matt Matthews wrote a wonderful piece about this subject that should be considered recommended reading for all interested parties. Penned in late 2012, Matthews’ article details the plight of the middle-class video game.
Consider games like Sleeping Dogs and Darksiders II, each of which sold under 300,000 units in August and then disappeared from the top 10 by September. These middle-tier titles fall by the wayside when they don’t get the first-class promotions of titles like New Super Mario Bros. 2, which is now over 500,000 units in its second month on a platform with fewer than 6 million owners.
On the high-end, you can’t escape a AAA game’s marketing blitz. Rockstar Games did its damnedest to make sure that every person in the United States knew that Grand Theft Auto V was slated to hit store shelves on September 17, 2013. Grand Theft Auto V was featured in print, television, radio, and billboard ads, so it wasn’t a huge surprise that the game went on to score a whopping $800 million within the first 24 hours of its release — and then crossed over into $1 billion range within the following two days. The combined cash of both the development and marketing exceeded $265 million, so Rockstar Games turned a profit on one day — and has counted checks ever since. It was Marvel’s The Avengers of video games.
When budgets swell, developers and publishers consider anything short of Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto V numbers as a failure — a damned shame. Not only is obtaining such a goal on a consistent basis highly unrealistic, it’s not a long-term sustainable model. Proof positive: Toward the tail end of March 2013, Square Enix announced that its much-hyped and critically acclaimed Tomb Raider reboot sold a “disappointing” 3.4 million units in a four-week time span. The game was considered a AAA underperformer — an underperformer with 3 million sold! Had a middle-class game like Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance pushed that many units, it would’ve been considered one of 2013′s surprise hits and highly profitable for developer Platinum Games (according to VGChartz, it’s sold under 2 million console copies in nearly a year’s time). In fact, Square Enix stated during a March 2013 investors meeting that it suffered several disappointments including Hitman: Absolution (3.6 million units sold) and Sleeping Dogs (1.75 million units sold).
And let’s not forget our friends at Capcom. The company announced that Resident Evil 6 underperformed with a paltry 4.9 million copies sold.
Indie games, on the other hand, lack the massive AAA budgets, but the cream of the crop – Spelunky, Rogue Legacy, Minecraft – benefit from the online community bigging up their merits. Gaming forums love them. Gaming sites adore them. Twitter tweets about them. People like the idea of unearthing a hidden gem and spreading the word. It plays on the internet’s “FIRST!” mentality. Certainly, every indie game doesn’t benefit from this organic buzz, but those that do often fare better than incredibly fun middle-class games like Anarchy Reigns (which lacked big-budget marketing and indie swag). It existed in a post-launch slow burn. Developer Platinum Games may have turned a small profit on the title, but I wouldn’t expect a sequel anytime soon.
Indies also benefit from Valve’s almighty Steam Sale. Developer Q-Games doubled its lifetime PixelJunk Eden income when the title was slashed to $0.99 for an eight hour period during the latest Steam Holiday Sale. That could make it the Clerks of video games. Middle-class games probably couldn’t boast the same results with similar actions due to their budgets, but Q-Games’ indie origins allowed it to succeed.
Unfortunately, the path the industry is walking is one laced with death. NeoGAF compiled a list of studios that closed up shop since 2006 — many of which are middle-class games studios. This can be avoided with a few steps:
- Developers of all sizes need to stay within a realistic budget. Selling millions of copies should automatically equal success. Nintendo understands this. When the House That Mario Built sells millions of copies of, say, Mario Kart, it’s money in the bank and not a subpar showing.
- Explore new titles. Don’t buy into AAA developers marketing machines as their target audience is the bottom line. Don’t just follow the press’ recommended hot indies, either. There’s a wealth of gaming to dig into courtesy of Steam, Gamestop, Amazon, GOG, and other retailers.
- Gamers , there are plenty of solid B-tier titles that are worth your hard-earned dollars. Likewise, games in the 6/10 through 7/10 range (where many middle-class games fall) may be worth a pick up, too. Our very own Tim Torres, in our new video cast, recommends Suda 51′s Killer is Dead as a “low scoring” game that’s fun at the right price.
Sure, that video game middle-class may have produced a ton of ho-hum titles in years past, but it’s a needed space where developers with decent, non-indie budgets can carve out niches of their own. Niches with innovative design that AAA majors that are beholden to stockholders just can’t touch — Platinum Games is the current poster child for that school of game design.
And remember, we wouldn’t have the upcoming Bayonetta 2 without Nintendo’s assistance. When one of the most beloved character-action games of the current console generation has trouble drumming up money for a sequel, it’s a clear sign that the middle-class game is in dire straights.
The industry needs to right itself before things get so dire that today’s equivalent of WCW vs. The World, God Hand, and Gradius – middle-class games from back in the day — are no more.