Wednesday, March 19, 2014

This Miraculous Money Of Old People.

Who is this game aimed at?
As a crunchy old fart of the indie gaming industry (started company in 1994, blah blah blah), I often get e-mails asking for advice for getting started in the biz.

My first piece of advice is always to keep your budget and scope under control and expect a rough ride. All of the easy money in indie games is long gone. But enough bad news.

My second piece of advice is: If you're small, there's still a lot of money in games for old people.

Don't fight for 13 year olds. The big-budget, big-marketing AAA lords of the industry have them locked up, and they aren't letting go. If your little game is all first-person zappy-pow for the adrenaline set, you may have a problem.

(Oh, and it's so poignant that anyone thought the Thief reboot might have any of the charm of the original games. Thief 2 is still one of my all-time favoritest  games, but I gave up hope the reboot would be good for me three seconds after it was announced. Teenage boys don't have the patience to lurk in shadows for five minute waiting for a guard to pass, so that was never ever happening. Every AAA game now has to have Titanfall/Grand Theft Auto nihilistic boom appeal, for the kidz. "But teenagers aren't allowed to buy Grand Theft Auto!" Ha ha ha you are adorable.)

But games for grown-ups? Short games? Intricate storytelling? Slow pace? Turn-based? Hard puzzles with actual thinking? Art? AAAs have given up. This is the land of the small and nimble now.

Why? Because of The Way Things Are ...

The Fundamental Fact of Video Games Now

There are two unquestionable, fundamental facts behind pretty much every debate about games and what they should be like and where they should go.

One of the key memories of my childhood was my dad coming home and telling me about this cool thing he saw and how much he thought I'd like it. It was a weird thing called "Pong."

I'm old, but I'm not THAT old. I'm a few steps into middle-aged. And yet, I have experienced pretty much every step of video games as a thing regular people do. That is how amazingly young the art form is. One not-too-old person can have seen the entire thing.

In the beginning, young people were the target audience. Old people tended to avoid those weird, electronic contraptions. Video arcades (a thing that used to exist) were full of kids and young adults almost exclusively.

And then we grew up. We matured. (These are not the same thing.) We had kids. Our tastes changed. Our supply of free time changed drastically, but we still loved video games. We grew up with them. And when I say we, I mean men and women. It took longer for females to get into gaming then males, but the percentages of each who play games are now roughly equal.

Games are in our DNA, but they've struggled to grow up with us. Which leads us to Fact #1.

Fundamental Fact 1: Video games have never had a large percentage of its audience be women and older people, but that is rapidly changing.

Who would look at this image and say, "I want to know more."? Who is this being sold to?
We Change. The Games Don't

But who is writing the games now? Back in the day, it was mostly young men. Now it is ... well, it's mostly young men. Video game makers are paid a pittance and worked like dogs. They tend to leave the industry early on for jobs that pay more for fewer hours and give you a shot at raising a family.

The industry is then happy to harvest a new crop of young, cheap, starry-eyed victims: Plentiful, desperate and loaded with debt. Clutching expensive DigiPen degrees good for nothing else, and the cycle continues. Which leads us to Fact #2 ...

Fundamental Fact 2: Video games have never had a large percentage of developers be women and older people, and this is changing slowly, if at all.

Put facts #1 and #2 together, and you get the key corollary ...

Corollary 1: The audience for computer games is split into two factions. There are young men (at which almost everything is and always has been aimed) and everyone else.

Add these three statements together, and you have the heart of every debate in video games. I'm going to move fast and engage in gross overgeneralizations from here on out. These are all things indie developers looking for a niche they can occupy and flourish in should bear in mind. I've been getting feedback from gamers of all backgrounds for a long time, and I feel like I'm on solid ground.

One. The Role of Women

Probably the most passionate argument going now.

Women want to see themselves in the games they play as more than just eye candy.

A large number of young men see themselves represented just fine and may kind of lack the empathy to see the issue from someone else's viewpoint. Criticizing the games they like is often taken personally for some weird reason, resulting in a lot of angry arguments on comment boards.

I'll tell you something I learned in 1994, when I started writing RPGs that had interesting female characters and an equal number of male and female player icons: Including women in your audience is highly profitable.

(Hot market research tip: Buy and play To the Moon.)

This is not for kids. Though, trust me, it's hilarious to watch them try.
Two. Game Length

Young people have little cash and tons of time, so they want their games to stretch 20, 30, 40 hours. Young people finish the games they pay for. A game like Gone Home that charges twenty bucks for two hours of fun will make them angry.

Old people have more money but limited time. They almost never manage to finish the games they pay for, and it sucks. A game that costs only twenty dollars and provides a satisfying experience they can actually finish is awesome.

(Hot market research tip: Buy and play Gone Home and Stanley Parable.)

Three. The Impact of Violence and Death

As gamers age, many of them are starting to have kids and experience the deaths of those they love. They are far more likely than young people to be extremely disturbed by, say, the heaps of dead children in The Last of Us. I'd bet money that most of the people who game me flak for complaining about the hideous violence in Tomb Raider are young.

I was really pleasantly surprised by the number of reviews of Bioshock: Infinite that called it out for its violence. The term "ludonarrative dissonance" got kicked around a lot, but that's not necessary to describe their basic problem: They kept getting pulled out of the touching story to watch their character flay the faces off of racists with his horrifying robot hand.

Often, the more of a personal experience you have with death and violence and what it really means, the less tolerance you have for that kind of thing. Games that really understand and depict what violence means can be both unique and incredibly effective.

(Hot market research tip: Buy and play Papa & Yo.)

I was going to put a Gone Home image here, but it's already been overexposed, so here's another shot from To the Moon instead. Such a good game.

Four. Storytelling

Old people want it. We've heard a lot of stories, seen a lot of movies. We're harder to impress and harder to surprise. Just having a story isn't enough for us anymore.

As much as I rag on video game reviewers, it was a huge relief to me to see them take a break from their 9/10 Grand Theft Auto V reviews to point out that the main characters just aren't very interesting. Because they aren't. We're old. I've met lots and lots of people, and that makes poorly drawn, fake people much more bothersome to me.

People tend to develop more empathy as they grow older, and experiences that enable you to experience life in someone else's skin can gain passionate adherents (and thus make money).

(Hot market research tip: Buy and play Papers, Please!)

So What Happens Now?

Well, it's great news for indie developers, who seem to be the only game writers who've realized that there are a lot of markets out there. The AAA developers are on their high-poly, mega-budget death march, fighting tooth-and-nail over the young, male portion of the market. A portion that is a smaller percentage of the video game audience every year.

As a result, people who make thoughtful games like Papers, Please and Stanley Parable will only do better and better.

These days, most major movie studios have sub-companies that make artsy movies. I honestly believe that the big publishers will do more of this as time goes on. After that, it's up to old people to spend enough money to justify more investment.

Until then, the indies are always there. Underserved niches keep us in business.


Edit: Tweaked the description of the Thief reboot to make it less unkind.

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