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.

I am on Twitter, but who isn't? 

42 comments:

  1. Game length. I guess I must be getting old too, because one problem I have with "complicated" games is, if I get a few hours in and lose attention to it, I can't pick it up again to restart playing. I've forgotten too much. I've forgotten what the plot points were, or even how to play effectively. I've forgotten what most of the key binds are!

    Easier to start a new game that was on my to-do list anyhow, which will hold my hand through the first few hours. At least until I get diverted again...

    Huh, getting older was meant to have improved my attention. Cue my college professors telling me how first-year students have the attention span of a gnat.

    The reason I bring this up is because (who saw this coming?) I made it halfway through Avadon and some of the Avernums. It would be cheap of me to say "Ha ha, he makes really long games" because I honestly had fun and look back with fondness. But I do look forward to seeing how these ideas inform the next generation of Jeff's games.

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    1. Games should check how long it is since you last played and do a TV-like re-cap "Previously on..."

      It would certainly help me every time I go back to playing a game after leaving it for weeks.

      Delete
    2. Mmm. Maybe something like that. Maybe a fast-forward replay of what you've done and where you've come from.

      Mass Effect 2 for PS3 started with a quick "comic book" recap of the original Mass Effect (which was never released for PS3). That was a cool idea.

      One more thought on game length. All of the games Jeff mentions above (To The Moon, Papo & Yo, Papers Please, Gone Home, The Stanley Parable) are short "slice of life" games, limited in scope.

      That's cool, and well argued for. But sometimes that's not what you want. Sometimes you want a huge sprawling epic of the type Jeff writes... even if you know you might not finish it ☺

      Delete
    3. Avadon is probably short by the standards of Jeff's previous games. More to the point, it's linear and episodic. That makes it easier to take again after a break.

      Delete
  2. Funny you bring up "To The Moon" in this context. I liked the game, but I thought the ending extremely immature and cheap. Instead of respecting a life of hardship and the love that grew in it, the game discarded it all and went full "fantasy", as if only the "perfect life" had value...


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    1. (To the Moon spoliers.)

      I think you are misinterpreting it. The game didn't discard the characters lives. The main character did! He hired the company to destroy his memories and rewrite them. The editors didn't want to do it, but they were bound by contract. That's what made the ending so painful and awesome.

      - Jeff Vogel

      Delete
    2. But that's how the game starts. IMHO, after experiencing such a hard but beautiful life, they should reckon that it has more value than a empty fantasy, and only metaphorically take the character to the moon. Otherwise, all you went through means nothing, for it was all discarded.

      Delete
  3. That picture....I want to know more. It's going to bug me to no end not knowing what game that is.
    I don't have much experience with violence myself, but I agree that some games now are getting rather gratuitous with it. I would point out Mortal Kombat 9 as an example, but a nonviolent MK wouldn't sell very well (Just ask Nintendo). For me, while chopping people up in a game is fun, I find the level of detail on display in newer games almost sickening. Most of the time, it goes unnoticed, but then you get the games that make sure you see everything modeled in (For lack of a better example, headshotting with VATS in Fallout 3, complete with slow-motion close-ups of what remains of the victim's neck) It worries me to no end that people still think of videogames as a kid's market. I know no kid with more than 10% of their brain functioning will try to emulate what overkilling they've seen in their games, but I still think that anything more than a decent bleeding, and beheading at most, is far from suitable for kids. And yet, as you said, the kids are less likely to object to such violence than adults.
    I'm sure I could add more to this, but my hands are getting tired and sore (Ever used one of those roll-up rubber keyboards? Not good for whole paragraphs), and I only just woke up an hour ago. I think this is enough to qualify as "my two cents", after all. -runs off to get icy water to soothe hands-

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    Replies
    1. "That picture....I want to know more. It's going to bug me to no end not knowing what game that is."
      That would be Papo & Yo:
      http://www.weareminority.com/papo-yo/

      Delete
  4. Some things have no business being niche. The notion that we've not had a meaningful RTS since Starcraft II four(!) years ago is frankly ridiculous.

    I am "young" and "male" and many of my peers are likewise, so I imagine I'm missing some perspective. However, complaining about length is something you seem to do a lot, and it's a bit I don't understand.
    Why move onto the next game before you've finished the current one? I could understand if you have limited time being unable to keep up with current releases in such a fashion, but as you say there are quite few games catering to such tastes anyway. Do the games just fail to keep your attention? I thought that was an issue prescribed mostly to us younger folk.

    The dichotomy of "there aren't enough games for me" and "I don't finish the games I have" just confounds me - being one who has forgone weeks of new releases to tear through your rpgs when they appear.

    Anyway, I enjoy these posts - your perspective is often novel and worth reading.

    Kohreku, the marvels of google reverse image search would tell you the game is Papa & Yo, an interesting game about the relationship between a boy and his abusive father taking place in a metaphorical world of pretend.

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    Replies
    1. Sam, it's not that us oldsters have too short attention spans; it's that our attention is drawn differently (I was there for Pong, so may I speak? Thank you.)

      Like Jeff said right at the very beginning, it's not just about games that are short, they may also contain "intricate storytelling, slow pace, turn-based, hard puzzles…, art." Maybe more intelligence? but that sounds judemental so I'll avoid using that word, intelligence.

      Getting back to the dichotomy that confounds you--there aren't enough games for me and I don't finish the games I have. Well, let's take the Witcher, which I started and got halfway through. The fact that it could sustain my interest even that long is rare. But now, I feel like I have put enough time into it, and my life is slipping toward the grave fast. So, I am bereft of the completion of the story. Too bad, but no blame because the people who made The Witcher were true to their vision and, I think, made it well. It's just too long for me to play it out, given the rest of life's demands. This gives a clue to the answer to your dichotomy: It's more natural to fritter your life away in large chunks when you're young, and small chunks when you're old.

      Jeff's article points to a different set of aesthetics and wants from people who aren't the traditional young male gamer. That's just the reality, and I guess he's saying the opportunity.

      Delete
    2. > "there aren't enough games for me"

      It's been a long time since I last bought a game that I thought "Yes, this game is for me". And even longer since that phrase was last true.

      I'm tired of young protagonists, I'm tired of grinding, I'm tired of doing difficult sections until I manage to do them right, I'm tired of finding the only way the developer wanted something done.

      I've done it all countless times, now I don't want to do that any more.

      > "I don't finish the games I have"

      Mostly games fall into different categories for me. The ones I don't play (duh!). The ones I don't dare to play (Civ V, Europa Universalis, Gal Civ,...) usually games where a game can last a long time. Games I play but don't finish (Witcher, Deus Ex, GTA IV, ...), they capture my initial attention span, but either lose it or they have some difficult section that makes me stop playing. Games that I play from time to time (LoL, Rogue Legacy, ...) games where a playthrough is relatively fast and not much is lost not playing for some days/weeks. Games I power through (batman series, assassin's creed, tale of two sons,...), these games have managed to maintain my attention span enough to let me finish the games, and they didn't have a section that blocked me much.

      I still play games, but they are no longer for me much more than watching a TV show, so a distraction. I don't have any idea either of what kind of game could spur my love for it. Probably because the ones I'd love to play (or I thinkI'd do) I don't have time to play.

      Delete
  5. To the moon. The game that ends with you crying. I give them permission to market that slogan.

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  10. Really like your thoughts about alternative audience in gaming : if someone take time to develop a game that my parents would play, he would really have something new and valuable in his hands!
    I would like to add to the "limited time" debate over here two more points.
    -We are entertainment consumer in all kind of medias forms and we are bombarded with new stuffs that we want to watch, listen and play. And since there are all kind of bands, games, movies that we want to consume, it will be really easy to someone to pass to the next thing if the first impression is not convincing enough. And our time is very valuable : if I am beginning to think about losing my time (and bigger is the investment, easier I will get discouraged), I will pass to something else.
    -Most of us are developers and our goals in playing games are different from teens/casual gamers : we are studying games, seeking innovations and imperfections. Coworkers talk about games and THIS thing to go and see in it by ourselves. And we have games that we're following and want to play as well... personally, I have a backlog of maybe a dozen of games to play.... that I already own. So be sure that if a game is shorter and more condense, I'll probably prefer it, as a bombarded consumer. ;)

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  11. I am a later comer to this post Jeff but it speaks directly to me because I am a gamer approaching my (first!) half century and I am sadly aware that AAA game developers are clearing not interested in targeting my demographic.

    What I do not understand fully though is why? There are millions of us "gray"mers out there and we have more money to spend then teenagers. As you point out I we are cash rich and time poor so we are prepared to pay for high quality shorter games. Why is this not a winning proposition for AAA developers?

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  12. Dangit.

    I've already been told that I have "Old Man Taste" when it comes to headware. Now apparently I have "Old Man Taste" when it comes to video games too.

    Maybe older players just like games that are... I dunno, better, or something?

    ReplyDelete
  13. Mostly games fall into different categories for me. The ones I don't play (duh!). Xhamster The ones I don't dare to play (Civ V, Europa Universalis, Gal Civ,...) usually games where a game can last a long time. Games I play but don't finish (Witcher, Deus Ex, GTA IV, ...), they capture my initial attention span, but either lose it or they have some difficult section that makes me stop playing. Games that I play from time to time (LoL, Rogue Legacy, ...) games where a playthrough is relatively fast and not much is lost not playing for some days/weeks. Games I power through (batman series, assassin's creed, tale of two sons,...), Gay Porno these games have managed to maintain my attention span enough to let me finish the games, Xhamster and they didn't have a section that blocked me much.

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  15. Jeff, your post touched my weak point. I'm in the middle of production of my first game, changing the direction of my 9 year career and because of my stupid fear I added things as violence and mastering the controls. But it hasn't made me happy with the development and the game. I played all those games you pointed in your post and I think them amazing gems. But I'm very afraid to try something like those games. My current game is a stealth horror thriller 3rd person without weapons. It is being hard to finish something I don't believe in it, it's harder than code, modelling or even the level design. So your amazing post made me think a lot about it. Thank you!

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