Niche Gaming

October 11, 2009 at 7:15 am | Posted in General | 2 Comments
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Wotcha everyone,
World of Warcraft brought MMO gaming to the masses.  Despite what you hear about 94 trillion accounts (and how much you believe it), and what you think of the game as a whole, World of Warcraft did MMO gaming a huge favour.  It brought MMO gaming to the masses, it brought it into the popular consciousness, and most importantly it brought it to the attention of games publishers.

Suddenly it was worth investing in an MMO.  No longer were they a game style for the uber-geek.  They were mainstream, and there was money to be made.

But every time we get a new game coming out, the term “WoW-killer” pops up.  Just as every new smartphone is an “iPhone-killer”.
Gosh.  Don’t you just feel the love from all the hot marketing buzzword action?

Personally, I wish World of Warcraft a long and healthy life.  But it’s as if the nasty marketing men want us to believe that only one MMO should exist; we  live in a culture where big numbers = success.

The number of friends you have in your MyFaceLiveSpaceJournalBook, the number of subscribers to your MMO of choice, the number of views to your blog; it seems to be a quantifiable way of gauging success, but it’s not.  It’s not a sign of how popular or good you are, it’s just a sign of how good you are at collecting.

I’ve been reading up about Fallen Earth.  It’s interesting to me, as it increasingly sounds like a great game, and all the buzz I’m hearing about it is from people who are playing, as opposed to media hype.  But many people are using the term “Niche” when talking about Fallen Earth, and almost as if it’s an apology; having a small number of players makes it a failure, surely?
Well, no it doesn’t.  It just makes it small.  Small is not bad.  Ask a satsuma.  It’s juicier, it’s easier to peel, and it never outstays its welcome.

I like to think of “Niche”, when talking about games and gaming, as having a specific rather than broad appeal.  What appeals to me about Fallen Earth is the post-apocalyptic world and the sandbox nature of the game.  Fantasy is the mainstream of MMO gaming;  having used table-top role-playing games as a source, it’s hardly surprising.  Add to that the reluctance of money-men to gamble on something new, and you get a genre that is predominantly fantasy-based.  And thanks to the game model that World of Warcraft established (quest-based levelling, with raiding at high level) a sandbox game where you have to (gasp!) find your own fun is most definately niche.  And there’s no reason for that to change, especially when you have players screaming that a game doesn’t have enough content.  Which means quests, raids, and instances.

When I were a lad (cue Dvorak) getting bread from t’mill five mile every day wi’ just me socks on (if it were frozen, o’course.  Summertime we just wore 6″ nails through our feet) we made our own fun.  The “internet” was a bicycle rim, and a “computer” was a stick for making the rim go as far as we could.  “Content” was the weird kid from down the street who had a leather football.
Niche is good.  Something designed to be as popular as possible across as wide a group as possible is most often bland and uninteresting.  Let’s use Pizza as my model.  It’s a superfood.  It’s a starter, it’s a main course, it can even be dessert.  Fantastic foodstuff.  But not everyone likes Anchovies, Pineapple, Garlic and Pepperoni on a pizza, so my local pizza place of choice probably only makes one of those per month (mine, and I’m trying to cut down hence once per month).  Their Hawaiian’s are much more popular.  Their Mighty Meaty, as well.  Cheese and Tomato is most probably the most popular of all.  But my niche pizza is fabulous.  It’s everything I want in a pizza, and I don’t care that no-one else likes it.  Cheese and Tomato might well be non-offensive, but it’s also non-tasty.

I want tasty gaming too.   I don’t care if a game has more players than World of Warcraft.  I do care that a game has something more than just the ability to spend time on it.

Niche gaming is something to be embraced, not feared or derided.  I’d prefer to play a game that had one server and 50,000 players that I really, really wanted to play than play a game that was bland but had 4 million players over umpteen servers.  Why?  Let’s look at Eve.

Eve is fantastic.  You don’t play a person.  You play a ship.  You don’t get any quests.  You get PvE missions that involve shooting other ships.  Or delivering stuff.  Where’s the content?  It’s in the detail.  By having such a detailed crafting and technology system, the game is its own content.  Alliances mean something because it is players that run them, create them, and destroy them.  You don’t just defeat an opponent in PvP; you can crush him technologically and financially.  You don’t choose to do something because the quest-giver will give you xp and shinies.  You do it because it matters to you.  Compare that to the cut’n’paste questing in World of Warcraft, or Lord of the Rings Online, or Everquest 2.

I wish I loved Eve as much as some friends do.  But the one thing that I can’t do is identify with a spaceship.  It’s a lump of metal, not a “person”.  If I could get past that one little thing, I’d be all over Eve like a rash.  I love the freedom, the ability to do what I want, not what the game demands.

But I love the fact that it’s out there, blazing in the darkness, a big fat beacon of specialisation in the darkness of all this populism.  It’s a sign that games that appeal to small numbers of players can not only exist, but thrive.  I’m really hoping that Fallen Earth joins it.  Choice is good.  I’m tempted to give them my money just for that reason alone.

Remember, kids, we don’t want World of Warcraft killing off.  We want more choice, so we can find that one game that really sings to us, so we can play for the joy of playing alone.  Niche is good.  Choice is good.

Cheers,
Hawley.

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2 Comments »

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  1. Good points!

    Do you think it’s a niche to want to play with people who play the same way that you do? I mean, I think it’d be great to have a whole game like that … just I know it’d be niche. I just don’t know precisely HOW it’d be niche 🙂

    Fellen Earth doesn’t do it for me, not interested in playing a starving radiation riddled survivor of nuclear holocaust. And the crafting other guys seem to love sounds like a collection-fest to me.

  2. Wotcha everyone,

    I think it’s human nature to want to play with people who play the same way we do, Spinks. That’s how guilds form, for a start. A niche game just means that we’ll have a better chance of enjoying all available activities in game, as opposed to only enjoying one or two.

    We do need to get past the “millions play it, so it must be the best” way of thinking, and open up to the possibilities of smaller, more specialised games.

    23 men on a pitch is a great game of football. Hundreds on the same pitch is a mob fighting over a ball.

    Whether it’s radiation riddled survivors, battleships in space, or one-legged fighting floogs of flargh, the fact that there could be a game that seems like it’s written *just for you* is a really attractive proposition. So good luck to all the niche games that are out there!

    Cheers,
    Hawley.


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