Zack Hiwiller has recently posted one of those essays that makes you nod your head in agreement and silently tell yourself that this is what you’ve been complaining about for years. Sports games are too hard. More precisely, they are very difficult for new or lapsed gamers to get into; they require you to have been familiar with the evolution of the genre or particular series.
And a lot of the same can be said about certain war and strategy games.
Marketing departments read the message boards and assume the lunatic fringe that wants to have to press forty-seven buttons to drive to the hoop because it would be ‘realistic’ and ‘deep’ is a representative sample of the audience. Actually, there is some truth to this, because modern sports games have alienated all but the lunatic fringe, so they really are are representative sample of the audience.
Welcome to the growing divide between the hardcore and the casual. Supreme Commander is for hardcore RTS gamers only. Try picking up a flight sim that is both realistic and accessible. Forge of Freedom, at its best, is not for people who haven’t already spent days mucking around in the newbie zone.
There is self-selection when it comes to sports game designers. There is a push every year to add new features to gameplay, which to most designers means: “Complicate this for reasons of depth”.
It’s a truism that game designers should make games that they like to play, but it’s a good thing strategy and wargames have the Total War series or Civ. Because if it was all Dominions 3 and Panzer Campaigns, the genre would become increasingly marginalized.
I haven’t played many action sports games in a while, but I love the management sims. And I wonder how many of those are also intimidating to people who’ve been out of it for a while. One of the nice things about Europa Universalis III is how much more accessible it is than, say, Hearts of Iron 2 or Victoria – it’s a sign that Paradox “gets it”. On the other side, Dominions 3 remains a great but truly intimidating game, only made friendlier by finally getting the manual the series richly deserves. And I’m a fan of the ProSim games even though there’s no way in hell that they can be considered user friendly. Of course, I can only speak for my own opinion.
In any case, sports and strategy games are hardly alone in catering to the hardcore. Even though forums generally represent only a small fraction of a game’s user base, developers and marketers use this base as a guideline for where energies should go. MMOs have this issue (made a little easier to manage by the more developed cultures of community management and inherent class struggles.) Simulation games have this problem. I’m sure that even “casual friendly” games like The Sims have a hardcore audience that makes demands on developers.
(Hiwiller article found via Game, Set, Watch.)