The Mid Level Game

Cliffy B (the immortal Cliffy B) of Epic Games made headlines yesterday by declaring the middle class game dead. His point was that, as the industry went forward, there would only be room for the huge budget blockbusters, of which there are more and more every year, and the niche indie titles, which appeal to gamers specifically and not to the world at large.

Mid level games, and mid level companies, though, are doomed in Cliffy B’s vision of the future. Effectively, if your game doesn’t move a million copies in a month, there’s no more space in the market. They can’t compete with the big budget games, and they cost too much to be viable alternatives to the indie titles.

Jim Sterling, in the above linked article, has written a lot about this topic. His theory, that these games would succeed if they took a lesser price point and released during the typically dead months of the spring and summer, is sound; inFamous and Killzone, for instance, have succeeded in large part to releasing in the spring. Mass Effect 2 became much bigger than it otherwise would have been by releasing in a month, last January, where there wasn’t much competition—Bayonetta and Darksiders, released during the same month, succeeded for exactly the same reasons. Other games, like Enslaved and Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom, failed because they took the big boys on head first.

This is not my point though; that is Jim’s point. My point is that these games need to stop approaching the big boys not just in chronology and price point, but also through marketing and how the games are actually designed. What we need, I contend, are gamer’s games, games that are similar to films that make money, but don’t make hundreds of millions.

In fact, Cliffy B makes my point for me, through one of his indie examples. The film Black Swan represents what the mid level game could be. It’s not just an indie scraping at the bottom of the barrel: it’s a movie that made TWO HUNDRED MILLION DOLLARS. That is not a small success. That is a game that sells four million copies at fifty bucks a pop, or somewhere between three and four at sixty a pop. If that happened, anyone would declare said game a top shelf title and present it alongside something like Gears of War as an immense success, especially if it cost thirteen million dollars to make (which Black Swan did).

Fact of the matter is, the threshold of success is much lower in video games. Matter of fact, a one platform game costs less money to make than Black Swan did. If a game makes back its cost, which, to be generous, we will declare as 30 million dollars, it’s not a loss for the studio. Basically, a game has to sell more than half a million units to see the black, assuming a pretty extreme, multi platform development cycle.

That’s not a lot. For instance, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, a mid level failure, sold nearly that much in a month of existence. Now, that’s not to say it made a profit, but it’s most likely pretty close to the black. It didn’t kill anything, but it also featured a lot of major mistakes, namely releasing during a crowded holiday season instead of in July, when it would have been competing against a pack of potato chips and Starcraft 2 instead of New Vegas, Fable 3, Call of Duty, Rock Band 3, Civilization V and a number of other games I’ve already forgotten.

The real trick, to return to Black Swan, though, is to offer games that appeal strongly to the core audience. Black Swan is a film-lover’s film: it’s designed to appeal to people who love movies, and go to watch movies in theaters. There wasn’t a lot of emphasis on appealing to a mass crowd, the kind of people who see four movies a year in theaters and rent some DVDs; instead, it appealed to the real hardcore film crowd, and got a lot of them to see the movie. They saw it, and liked it, and told their friends, This is really fucking ace. Go see it. They probably saw it again, and took their friends with them. It went up for a number of awards. It made a veritable shit ton of money.

This is the model the mid level game needs to follow. Enslaved was completely invisible to the mainstream media, despite advertising; to the uninformed, nothing differentiated it from all the other crap on Gamestop’s shelves. The core audience liked it, but also were thrown off by a lot of its bugs in visual presentation, and didn’t feel strongly enough about it to recommend it to five friends, or to push for it to be up for major awards. With no second push of sales, it died at below the black.

The trick here is that, if it had not competed with the big names, the Call of Duty, the God of War, the Final Fantasy, it would have succeeded. Enslaved threw a lot of money at presentation, trying to reach those game’s levels, but the fact of the matter was there was no chance it would ever reach that level. Even if it did, there wasn’t much to differentiate it from other games to the core audience, who would know what it is and make an informed purchasing decision. Many core gamers, the people enthused about the game, liked it but not enough to prosthelytize it, and upon release were put off by its bugs and its relatively bland gameplay. Sure, it did some cool stuff, but it didn’t wow us.

That’s what the mid level game can do. It can wow us. For instance, Demon’s Souls is the perfect example of a game on this level that succeeded. It didn’t try to overreach. It was single platform and it focused on giving us a gameplay experience we could not get through the big budget games. In addition, while it had great presentation, it achieved this primarily through its art direction, which was very unified and assertive. In terms of graphical prowess or big name composition, it didn’t have any of that. What it had was the ability to appeal to a audience, a very specific audience. It did what that audience wanted insanely well, and it got everyone who was interested in it to tell their friends about it. Some of those friends bought it. A lot of them didn’t like it, sure, but they paid for it. The game went up for awards. It got a second wind, sold more, and now we’ve got a sequel on our hands.

It did everything right. It differentiated itself from the big boys, it offered a compelling, unique experience to its core audience, and it didn’t try to compete with bigger titles. That’s the way these games can succeed. Equally successful titles include those ever-similar twins, Prototype and inFamous, which succeeded due to a novel concept (the same novel concept!), gameplay that was markedly different from the big boys, and a release date where they were really only competing with each other. InFamous is widely regarded as being more successful, and this is likely because single platform development is much cheaper than multiplatform.

Compare this to the example mentioned in Jim’s article, Singularity. It was smart in releasing in June, not November, but struggled because it had followed an especially packed spring season; in the previous month alone both Super Mario Galaxy 2 and Red Dead Redemption had released. As a game, it tried to be a big boy; it competed with Call of Duty in its marketing and tried to sell itself, basically, as a cool sci-fi Call of Duty for the summer months. Its problem wasn’t timing, but instead marketing and design. It was sold as a game compared to Modern Warfare 2, and by that comparison it was found to be lacking by many gamers. Further, it tried to appeal to both a core audience and a more mainstream audience; because of this, it was just another big dumb shooter to the core audience and just another crappy game with a name not as awesome as Sniper: Ghost Warrior to the mainstreamers.

What these not quite mainstream games need to do is decide, quickly, whether or not they’re able to compete with the big boys, realistically. They need to look at the market, and realize that the mainstream will only buy so many titles a year: most of these are first person shooters. Further, a mainstream big budget title requires a lot of cash, and the margin for error is negligible: fail, and your game is rented or bought used, months later, by gamers who don’t care about your finances.

The other option, appealing to those who buy over a dozen games a year, is much safer and more cost effective. A big game in this type of gamer’s game genre won’t sell probably much more than a million, but it’s a way to become the next big thing faster than just swinging for the fences and consistently striking out. It is, additionally, much less costly and risky to publishers, and while the margin for profit is lower, you can make the same money with a couple smaller success stories that you could with one reasonably well-selling blockbuster.

And, I mean, it’d probably make for some better games. That’s something we can all agree is a good thing.


  1. David

    The thing is, there really isn’t a mid-level game market. . . yet. Sure, there are games that have widely different budgets (especially in terms of marketing), but anything approaching AAA debuts at $50-60. Publishers need to experiment with price points a lot more; Enslaved at $40 could have sold the 33% extra copies need to break even at the lower price point. After all, it sold so abysmally at $60, that in less than a month its was seeing $25 fire sales at Amazon (which was when I bought it).

    I could get past the quirks and bugs of a Two Worlds II if it was $40, or even $30. That’s my threshold of ‘well, maybe’ rather than saying: ‘damn, I still have a lot of other games to play’.

    • David

      Then again, between spending time with my kids and my carpal tunnel flaring up, I’m lucky if I can finish all of the polished AAA games (and a handful of indies) I want to play each year.

    • I think David is completely right. Cliffy’s analysis is flawed from the start as the market does not see the production costs, only the price. Unlike movies, the business model for games are not restricted by a costly distribution chain (movie theaters) and it is likely to evolve into something closer to how books are sod: with different prices and sizes.

      The future IS mid-market gaming! Something like Deadly Premonition, which is probably the game with the best benefit-cost ratio to come out in 10 years.

      • Tom

        Deadly Premonition was another good example (that I haven’t played). I think more important than the pricing or the specific time of release is actually picking a target market, and trying to get a reaction from them, rather than making a game for everyone.

        It’s like Kurt Vonnegut said: Write for just one person. If you open the windows and show your story to the entire world, it will catch cholera.

      • David

        Love the Vonnegut quote there. A lot of games could benefit from a tighter focus in design.

  2. Tim

    I hope they’re not dead. If they are, all we’ll get now is games filled with chainsaws, racial stereotypes, and broken online multiplayer. I guess that’s Cliffy B’s master plan.