Guest column – Things are not always as they appear


[Guest article by Infendo reader Mike Reilly]

If you were to research the state of the video game industry through the most obvious available sources, you would come to the wrong conclusion.  If you surfed the most popular gaming websites, blogs and forums and subscribed to the most popular video game magazines still published, you would assume Xbox 360 and Playstaton 3 were in the midst of a heated battle of technological superiority, while Wii was merely an “also-ran,” barely worthy of mention.  This is the consensus of the hardcore gaming community, the online “gamersphere,” whose l33t skills and fickle passions have driven the industry to ever-increasing profitability.

Of course, the intelligent and attractive readers of Infendo know better.  Wii is the market leader, selling 50 million units worldwide and on-track to be the best-selling video game console ever.  And it has done this completely without the support of the online gamersphere.  Forum trolls ridicule Wii as a fad.  They spew their vitriol about imprecise “waggle” and non-game shovelware.  Within the microcosm of their elitist online community, they create a reality in which Wii is not a competitor to their beloved HD consoles.  It is the only way they can continue to debate crucial topics such as output resolution and timed exclusivity, and ignore the fact that “2 Gamecubes duct-taped together” has brought video games to the masses.

The internet has become a powerful tool for communication.  Email, instant messaging, Facebook and Twitter have made it simple to not only keep in touch with friends and family, but also make connections with like-minded strangers.  It is only natural that gamers, already immersed in the latest technology, would congregate online, and build a culture that celebrates their passion.  And it is only natural that game developers and publishers, many avid gamers themselves, would be influenced by the seemingly overwhelming consensus of their core consumers.  This arrangement has allowed the video game industry to enjoy unprecedented, recession-proof growth which shows no sign of ever slowing.

But, again, things are not as they appear.  When population growth and multiple console ownership are factored into the equation, the growth of the industry becomes stagnant.  While very vocal and dominant online, the gamersphere represents only a small fraction of the total potential video game market.  Selling the same product to a stagnant customer base is a business plan doomed to fail.

The popularity of Wii has brought about a fundamental shift in the way video games are perceived by mainstream society.  Wii’s intuitive interface and emphasis on simple fun has allowed many non-gamers to experience and appreciate the appeal of video games.  More people, and more types of people, enjoying videogames increases understanding of just what is so appealing about them.  In a few short years, public perception of video games has gone from a socially crippling obsession for children and immature men, to a valid entertainment medium for everyone to enjoy.

However, this new public perception of video games as entertainment for everyone is the single biggest threat to the online gamersphere, and the source of their rage.  Suddenly, consumers from outside the gamersphere are influencing the industry.  Sales of Wii Fit and Carnival Games cannot be ignored by publishers threatened by rising development costs and a faltering economy, so resources are shifted.  Hundreds of “casual” titles dilute the marketplace, and the gamersphere is no longer being catered to exclusively.  The elitist gamer culture is threatened by an invasion of outsiders; many who once ridiculed gamers for their passion.  So the gamersphere gets defensive.

“Wii is a fad.  It has no good games.  Wii gamers only play Wii Sports; they don’t buy more games.  Wii is collecting dust in the closet.  Wii games are not real games.  Only Nintendo games sell on Wii.”  Rather than embracing the fact that more people than ever are enjoying video games, the elitist hardcore gamersphere is angered that their once-exclusive domain is being infiltrated by players who have not earned the right to be called gamers.  The celebration of hardcore gaming prowess is diluted by the inclusion of “casual” Wii owners.  The once crucial online gamer culture that drove the entire industry is becoming irrelevant.

And, of course, the most devastating betrayal came at E3 2009, when MS and Sony revealed their own motion control solutions to capture that lucrative “casual” market, and further alienate the hardcore gaming elite.  Watching the gamersphere forced to praise Natal or Sony’s “wand” as revolutionary is pitiful.  I almost feel sorry for them.

It is no secret that Nintendo has aimed to disrupt the video game industry, with great success.  More interesting, however, is their inadvertent disruption of the online video game culture that has driven the industry for the last decade.  The unique relationship between the gamersphere and the industry has eroded, and while the online community continues to scream its unwavering consensus, no one is listening anymore.