Most articles and books about games give a certain skewed image of our audience, the gamers.I can't claim to know what most developers believe but from interviews and articles by some of them I get the feeling that we're looking at a polarized view of game customers from the developer perspective. This could mean serious trouble for games.
By a polarized scale of gamers I mean that in almost all the interviews and articles I read there seem to be exactly two types of gamers. Hard core (or 'gamers') and casual (web games, wii and soduku). Anyone will quickly realize that there must be some space in between these two, but I think most people underestimate the scale of this... eh.. scale.
It's always hard to categorize people, who all have different habits and ideals, but in this case it really isn't that hard because the games industry have spent years defining these two groups. Hardcore gamers are players that spend a lot of money and time on games. They buy the newest consoles and really consume games. Casual gamers are players who would rarely define themselves as gamers. They spend time with really short games with little effort in preparation. Mostly they play games online but for the last year some of them have bought a Wii. Common for them is that they spend very short amounts of time on games and waste little time getting their entertainment, browser based games work better then downloadable and so on. They also spend only small amounts of money on gaming at any one time (micro transactions).
But where are the middle spectrum gamers? Who are they and how many of them are there? Well, statistics provide us with some answers here.
The Playstation 2 became a mainstream machine before the current generation of consoles were announced. Sony's machine has sold something like 120 million units. The current generation consoles, ps3 and xbox360, have together sold something like 40 million units. There is a gap of 80 million possible costumers who've still to adapt to the new technology. Now according to our scale, what kind of games consumers are in this gap? They've chosen NOT to buy the new exiting technology and instead hang on to old and outdated games. These are not hardcore gamers, they are also not casual because they do buy consoles. So who are they? In between gamers?
For another piece of the puzzle lets look at online gaming. Sadly it's hard to find conclusive statistics on players from casual gaming sites. So the closest I've stumbled over is the least casual type of online gaming. Massively Multiplayer Online Games.
World of Warcraft, the most successful MMOG in the western world, currently boasts over 11 million subscribers. It has been online since late 2004 and had over a million players by 2005. It grew really quickly and has had many millions of subscribers for several years. Now we can't know for sure what WoW's churn rate is (churn = players dropping off - new players). But a somewhat safe bet is that it's at least around 5-10%. That's a lot of players. That means that over the years WoW has had at least 20 million players. And most of them never saw end game content. That means that most gamers played the game without reaching hardcore goals, that should make them casual gamers in the polarized scale. But they're hardly casual gamers in the sense of browser based games and non investment if they're playing WoW are they? No, these must also be in between gamers.
These in between gamers are actually an interesting bunch. Because if we do a quick search for games that target this demographic we'll find only a few. One of the most famous, if not the most famous, is Sins of a Solar Empire - a spectacular RTS game by the way - that specifically targets PC gamers that used to play games but don't care to make hardware investments to be continuously shot as cannon fodder for the ruling game elite (hardcore gamers).
An even more surprising move with Sins is that is completely free of DRM. It has no copy protection what so ever. Compared to another current RTS game, World in Conflict, Sins opted for use of 'old' graphics and easy to use installation as well as a really cheap development cycle.
Even without the copy protection Sins has outsold World in Conflict by a longshot. And WiC is a fantastic game.
From the statistics I so lightly touch upon we can deduce that somewhere in the range of 20-80 million "in between" gamers are out there. They are not being actively pursued by the games industry. From my quick look at Sins and World in Conflict we can also see that they are not as prone to piracy as the hardcore demographic. They are in other words; ideal game consumers.
Here the skewed image of our gamers set in. We're not catering to a large part of our target audience. We're simply creating for the top percentage of players and hoping the rest will follow suit. We need to focus on this hard to define group of people, let's hire a marketing company to seek them out. Let's give a million dollar budget to a small studio to make a mainstream game just to see how it turns out at the stores. Let us at least acknowledge that this part of our audience is important.
If we aim for lower specs, go for gameplay that has proved to be fun and make a small but good game. Sell it for a reasonable price and make it as easy to buy as it is to pirate. Not only will we make a game that will sell, we'll probably be more or less alone in a 20-80 million strong demographic part of the gamer spectrum.
This is a huge mistake on the part of our industry. Someone at EA or Acti/Blizz should realize that.
(please comment for improvements or information)