Being a Niche is Cool

GAMEPLAY

As many of you know, I have been gaming a LONG time. I started Computer gaming in 1977 and have been at it ever since. This has allowed me the unique perspective of being around for the birth and watching the maturing of PC Gaming. I have done a number of break out groups over the years and always I get variants of the same question, what is worse today about gaming than when it started.

I can come up with a number of answers actually but there is one that has recently made it to the top. The concept of game developing for everyone. The idea that when you make a game you need to make it appeal to all gamers and that niche market gaming is somehow bad.

When PC Gaming was taking off there was a sense of focus when a PC Game was made. Sports games focused on the obvious, the sports nuts. Simulators focused on those that looked for a realistic (well near as you could get) experience. RPGs focus on the DnD gamers that wanted to take that experience and move it to their computer. Games where designed for a specific target audience and the game play 
mechanics reflected this.

Over time this specialization among games became muddled. The shooter, which had always been about gun play and having the biggest weapon, began to develop RPG elements. The RPG began to become less about the depth of story and developed many FPS aspects. While these where not the only genre effected by this movement, these were the two easiest to see.

It was not just the overall aspects of game development that saw this, we are seeing this happening inside the games themselves. Look at the RPG, especially the MMO. The original games had specific “classes” with very defined skill sets. If you played a tank you knew you could take damage, dish a little out but would need to rely on other party members for real firepower. However, over time, and because of the desire to please everyone, this “class” division eroded. The “Tanks”, well some of them, started complaining that they did not get the spotlight and glamour of the DPS [
Damage Per Second} guys. Or why should they rely on the healers to stay in the fight longer, why could they not heal themselves. This was across all classes, players complaining that their character was too limited, which was BTW by design.  The Game devs folded like a house of cards because the new way to make games was to please everyone.

This homogenization of game aspects has taken some of the soul out of new and old games. The niche game might not have as broad an appeal and might not generate the raw sale numbers, but it gave a 
game a specific feel. This feel would draw a solid audience, one that would often be willing to stay with a game even if it had flaws to fix. A good example of this is Mechwarrior.

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The Mechwarrior franchise is an icon among PC gaming, one of the early “big” IPs out there with Civilization, Age of Empires and Flight Simulator to name a few. The game was designed to bring the tabletop strategy and RPG to the computer age, and it was successful. It was never a “top” selling IP, but it had a steady, strong, and loyal fan base.

Mechwarrior 4 Mercs saw the franchise end with its release in 2002 and for a decade the franchise fans where left in the cold.  That was until 2012 when testing began on Mechwarrior Online. The fans rushed to back the game, while not a huge audience this fan base spent a lot of money on pre-order for a chance to get back into their mechs.  While I have no numbers to back this up, I would say based on the players I know this was, per capita, one of the highest income pre-orders at the time. I know over 20 gamers personally, myself included, that jumped in with the most expensive pre-order package. (ALL OF US)

As the game entered open beta however aspects of the games lore were thrown out the window and when the die hard fans cried foul,  we politely informed them that the game was not designed for “Mechwarrior Fans” but was going to be more open and inviting. The game essentially was being made a shooter with a MW skin. We soon saw mech balance shifted from the lore of the game to a simplified game play mechanic and silly little micro transaction items thrown into the game.

In the end we have seen this move to make the game for everyone hurt the MWO system. Die hard fans tried to hang on but gradually become disillusioned with the constant small money grabs. Aspects of the game promised to the diehards either where released as shadows of the promises made or as something different. Today we see MWO is on the verge to just falling apart.

As silly as it sounds, if the game had kept to its roots and stayed within its niche, this would not have happened, in my opinion. I know this community well, I started with tabletop before there was a computer game. The niche this was filling would have paid full pricing to have the game that they werepromised. They would have paid a high monthly fee for a good MMO that filled their fan-based hearts.

There are many games that have done this, walked away from their niche and lore and all have fallen short of being as good of a game or as successful as they might have been long term. Niche markets mean diehards and diehards mean a loyal and dedicated fan base that will spend money.

Is this truly the worst change I have seen in gaming over the years? Maybe not, but it is for sure in the top five and it is one that seems the least discussed. People see niche games today and they seem to avoid them. They rush to the next big title that is a clone of a previous title and a homogenization of two or three other games. Instead, take a chance and jump at a niche game. I suggest everyone try something that does not look like it would be for everyone. Many of these will be from indie devs and might seem odd, but a lot of them are pure gold. Doubt me? Let us try one title that was niche, stayed niche and become a big success…. KERBEL SPACE PROGRAM

See being niche can work.

 

The articles content, opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed in SAPPHIRE NATION are the authors’ own and do not necessarily represent official policy or position of SAPPHIRE Technology.
Edward Crisler
Edward is the definition of an “old school” gamer, playing computer games as far back at 1977. He hosted a tech talk show for 20 years and is now the North America PR Representative for SAPPHIRE as well as SAPPHIRE’s unofficial gaming evangelist. You can follow him on Twitter @EdCrisler.

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