March of the double Xs

There is a certain kind of game consumer, usually American teenagers or pre-teens, that will happily dismiss any game which doesn't feature rust-brown textures and genocidal space marines, or any game that dares use a primary colour, as "kiddie" or "gay". Not only is this sentiment pathetically homophobic an infuriatingly puerile, it is also entirely fallacious. If these consumers are so insecure about their masculinity that they need to compartmentalise those kinds of games in a simplistic, intelligence-proof way, "girlie" should be the adjective of choice.

Hard-core gamers have recently become quite vocal, on-line at least, about casual games and the danger they pose to their own niche entertainment. They want to play their Halo 4, Call of Duty 5 or Gotham Forza Turismo 18 but fear developers may be aiming where the money is - simpler games aimed at a wider audience. It's a little like when a small indie rock band becomes popular and they change their style to fit the mass market. These hard-core gamers were into games when they were still on vynil! Sadly, though, those days must necessarily come to an end. It's just too expensive to continue building these epic titles that cost millions upon millions of dollars to only be bought by a small fan-base. It's not viable. That doesn't mean those types of games will die out; I'm sure they won't. But I guess they just won't be the main focus anymore.

Then there are the publishers, ah, the publishers. In their drive to reach a wider audience (read: maximise profits) the new target of choice is the "female", or "women gamer". And they handle this new approach with as much delicacy and finesse as the previous "urban street" trend in gaming, where white middle-aged and well-paid pasty idiots were producing games based on "street" and "hip-hop" and what have you, dog. It was embarrassing. And so is the recent line-up of Ubisoft DS titles, aimed at girls, which revolve around babies and fashion. "Girls like babies, right?" Sigh. That is not pandering to the female demographic, that is patronising them.

Where Japan's game industry has fallen far behind in technical terms, it is ahead in another: the market. Strangely we see Japan again ahead of the curve, heralding what will inevitably become a world-wide phenomenon. When you look at the DS, in all its different colours, and the titles available for it, from the lackluster face training right up to Nintendogs, and if you keep your eyes open when you're out and about you'll notice something peculiar: the Japanese game market = women. More or less, anyway.

I have no hard figures to back this up*, but it would seem to me the Japanese female is largely to thank (or blame?) for the success of the DS and, to a lesser extent, the Wii. Going by personal observation alone, one mostly sees women with a DS in the wild. Of course there is the occasional salaryman or school-age kid, but by far the largest group you see playing on trains and in coffee shops is the professional female, aged, at a pinch 20 to 40. I often also see DIY-mod DSs, like pink versions studded with plastic gems. It’s a real fashion accessory. Judging by the current line-up of DS titles and those on the release lists, the female gamer seems to have taken over, in the same way they dominate Japanese television and the high street and have, with their collective monetary power, made one Korean soap-star the richest man in his own country.

The Japanese woman is to the Japanese market what the young white professional male is to the one in Europe; they are the decision makers, they are the target everyone wants a piece of. They have vast reserves of expendable income, living as they do rent-free with their parents until they get married at which point it’s the husband’s turn to provide. They are notoriously fashion-hungry; they had better be part of the next big thing or their status is severely compromised.

Sure, there is still the hard-core, the Akiba geek. They spend their lonely evenings with the most expensive hardware playing the longest and most tedious RPGs, but sales figures would indicate these guys have lost their moxy as a market force. Nintendogs, TOEIC English software, the cuter variety of gaming, like Pokemon on other accessible games, these are all selling like gourmet-branded hotcakes, mostly to the Japanese female. It’s only when extremely high-profile titles are released that the sales charts resemble anything like what we expect. Hell, even Super Mario Galaxy, critical favourite for game of the century, sold well but didn’t sell anywhere near as much as people thought it would. They didn’t have the girls on board.

Obviously this paradigm for success in the Japanese market is as volatile as it is profitable. Fashions are notoriously changeable in Japan and though the DS is riding high now, there is absolutely no way to see what the future will bring. Either way, I predict, absolutely seriously and with a straight face, other companies will help push the DS brand with things like Luis Vuitton DS cases or Prada styli. This is not as farfetched as you may think.

So another lesson for foreign publishers with an eye on Japan: women. Tap into their psyche and treat them as your main focus, and riches beyond your wildest dreams could be yours. They have the money, they have the power. And they are not interested in “imagining babies”. I, for one, welcome our new female overlords.

* You wouldn't believe the amount of research that goes into this blog**
** It's virtually none.

16 comments:

  1. As long as casual games aren't thrown out by developers acting like PEZ dispensers (but the cheap, bad-tasting knock-off), I have no problem with it. Stereotypic games like the Imagine series (which sounds like the start of a bad student essay) and overused themes really hurt the image of casual games.
    Multimillion budget games are also unnecessary and put even more pressure on the game to sell more, leading to more PR which adds to the cost.
    Better invest the money in tools so these games can be made with much less money.
    Who needs motion capturing (which often suffers from bad excecution) if the more powerful consoles could calculate their animations dynamically without shaky limbs or arthritic hands.

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  2. “They want to play their Halo 4, Call of Duty 5 or Gotham Forza Turismo 18 but fear developers may be aiming where the money is - simpler games aimed at a wider audience…It's just too expensive to continue building these epic titles that cost millions upon millions of dollars to only be bought by a small fan-base. It's not viable.”

    I don't understand this bit. Halo 3 is the fastest selling video game of all time. CoD4 is top of most charts as we speak. Those games bring in the money more than any other, the exact games that publishers are trying to create. Halo is hardly aimed at a "small fan-base". I don't have the exact figures, but I'm pretty sure it sold better than Cooking Mama.

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  3. @billy king

    I think that in Europe and N.America the so-called hardcore gamers (read: young males) still are the biggest market for games.

    However this has changed in Japan and the rest of the world is following suit.

    If you compare the sales figures of Japan vs the rest of the world, you'll see what I mean.

    About Super Mario Galaxy: JC is right... I bought this game, thinking that my wife would also enjoy playing it [with me]. However, she hardly has interest in the game. Same goes for New Super Mario Brothers on DS, btw.

    Illustrative: Super Mario Galaxy sold 'badly' in Japan but did much better in other territories.

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  4. Indeed, Halo 3 may have sold a billion units, but that is ONE in a series of high-profile, expensive titles. And of course in Japan it sold nothing (comparatively). Despite the high sales, Halo 3 is very much a hard-core game.

    Tadashi, as a developer I obviously agree 1000% that tools is what we need, but that is an argument quite sperate from the target market issue.

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  5. @MOA

    I agree that those kinds of games do badly in Japan. But then doesn't Dragon Quest, and other similar hardcore RPGs, sell millions over there?

    I can see his point - there's certainly a larger focus on casual gamers now than there was a couple of years ago, but I think it's unlikely that the 'hardcore' games will stop selling at the rates that they currently do.

    At the end of the day it's games like Halo and GTA that break the sales records. It'll be easier to see what direction we're going in next generation. If Sony and MS continue to build powerful, expensive hardware, then devs will continue to make games that push it. I guess it's in their hands what happens next.

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  6. "At the end of the day it's games like Halo and GTA that break the sales records."

    Very true, but don't forget that at the end of the day it's Nintendo that is breaking profit records. A shitty little product like TOEIC English Test costs a handful of Yen to produce and can sell a lot = profit.

    Sales records will mean less and less if the costs of production keep going up. Sure, Halo 3 sold a billion, but how much did it cost to produce and market?

    But yeah, the hard-core type game isn't going to go extinct, I'm sure. I just recon it will move to the sidelines a little while more casual games take center stage, rather than the other way around, as it is now.

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  7. Yes, Halo 3 and its ilk still command a decent audience/market share in the West.
    However, that is only because Western gaming public still is heavily comprised of males. "En Masse" female gamers is a Japanese phenomenon that is about to take over the rest of the gaming world.

    I'm an old gamer. I for one, would gladly welcome fun, artistic games to take over from those hardcore murder-runs with costs spiralling out-of-control portraying violence for the sake of violence.

    Let Okami, Super Mario and the rest bring on the new gaming era.

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  8. I certainly wouldn't mind a more subtle, creative gaming era, but I still enjoy my CoD's and Orange Boxes. Then again, how many FPS's have come out this year? Dozens. How many are worth playing? Five or six tops.

    Maybe those unsuccessful devs could spend their time making unique little projects instead, and let the hardcore line-up be a small, but very high quality and dedicated force. Everyone's happy.

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  9. Cooking Mama has sold a million units in Europe.

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