Now that the Wii U is in homes and an industry on the verge of the PS4 and next Xbox, we can only speculate how market trends will evolve over the coming years. What is known however, is how audiences and targeted demographics have shifted over the decades. Technological advances, price pointed games and systems combined with the changing social attitudes towards gaming have all been contributing factors in who the larger video games market is aimed at. Arguably the clearest shift over the past twenty years is how games once largely catered to children, now adhere primarily to an adult audience.
Growing Up with Playstation
The 32 bit consoles had those eye razoring polygon graphics only seen in arcades and the new visual generation had landed. But making use of the polygon count while cutting lag and loading as much as possible meant rationing those triangular renders. Less sophisticated graphics better suited a more cartoonish style for a younger aesthetic so this is one reason the market went more ‘E for Everyone’ back then. The PlayStation was also a new challenger eager to build an easily recognizable identity off the back of a mascot just as Nintendo and Sega had done so seamlessly with with Mario, Link, Alex Kidd and Sonic.
Sony threw mascots at their system all day long with a number of in-house and third-party games easily enjoyed by kids. Gex, Croc, Crash Bandicoot, Spyro, Parappa and Klonoa among many others were more character focused attempts among the huge number of well made children’s games in the PlayStation’s library. Wipeout, Worms, MediEvil, Ridge Racer, Tomb Raider, Cool Boarders and Gran Turismo are just a few quintessentially PlayStation games that catered to all audiences. PlayStation’s mass appeal was soon established.
Not to airbrush out of history the burgeoning adult games that have since formed the games landscape today. Resident Evil and Metal Gear Solid would plant their flags in their far less imposing cubic worlds while games like Fatal Frame, GTA and the multi-platform Doom would become a sign for things to come in future. Games like Doom were rare, now plenty of games are Doom. A whole phone book could be filled with articles on how Doom’s BFG blasted into the world everything from Gears of War, Halo, Resistance, BioShock and KillZone to Call of Duty, Battlefield and more. It is another progression that captures the younger to older focus shift of games media.
The Current State of Maturity
Games are a real contender to cinema now in terms of their social importance, graphical capabilities, budgets and marketing and media saturation. If cinema has the summer, games have the winter and every November, it is game time. Games have learned their business model from the film industry. Action movies being the most lucrative attraction. Blockbuster hits work well in the copied Games format. Grand Theft Auto, Gears of War, God of War, Call of Duty, Army of Two, Need for Speed, BioShock, Metal Gear, all follow trends and approaches seen in action movies for mature audiences. This is how game development has evolved in cultivating the right audience for their product, sorry kids.
There is also a larger adult gaming audience now than there was seventeen years ago. Early crudely rendered 3D games were marketed towards children, since then that game savvy cultivated audience has grown into the adult gamers of today. A market which once catered for those same people when they were kids via their parents’ wallets now goes after their disposable income, their ‘cinema ticket’ and going out money. Although developers would not care to admit it, the children’s market is actually cornered as well, albeit in a slightly unintentional manner through these adult games.
The fact is; many kids end up playing games not legally or artistically intended for them anyway. It is the market’s deluded fantasy that eight year olds are not going to be playing GTA V and talking trash on the internet about it. A great deal of adults however, are not so similarly enamored with children’s games despite how great that game may be. Obviously if a developer makes a big game they need to go where the money is. Slam dunk. The notion that children have been scrubbed out of games to a degree is as ridiculous as it is evident. Games like Little Big Planet, Lego-based games, Mario, Rayman, Sly Cooper, Jak and Daxter, etc. are all children’s games yet usually feature adults playing these games in adverts, reviews and tech demos. Even Sonic was re purposed to suit an older audience in 2006. Nintendo threw the whole family into their ads as part of the ‘touch generations’ campaign but still fall foul of side footing the wee ‘uns away from their own games now and then. Whatever the reasons for this is. It is only fair to suspect that this is something developers or marketers do not know how to do very well anymore or that they fear that a child playing a game alienates a far more sensitive adult consumer, or both.
Among the onslaught of specs and data fired from the stage at the PS4 announcement came the impression of where the consumer market is set to go for in the next gen. The showcase of launch window games made clear that for every kids game there is about 6 or 7 ‘M for Mature’ titles to muscle it out of media relevance. Specifically, for every Knack there’s a Deep Down, Infamous: Second Son, Destiny, Killzone: Shadow Fall, Watch_Dogs, and Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag.
Games like DriveClub and The Witness create a much needed compromise but most racing games do, there’s nothing so blatantly polarizing to youngsters about cars anyhow and it os doubtful anyone under 21 will be playing The Witness in any tech demos or ads. A likely Journey-style move to market for PS4. Given Microsoft‘s motives it is a safe bet that the next Xbox is not going to be a Disneyland of creative kids games either. Xbox’s initial marketing path of going after the niche PC shooter gamer then became a runaway success strategy that inadvertently dictated the larger gaming market by the time the Xbox 360 had established itself. No one would blame them for sticking to their virtual run and guns, given that is their whole bag anyhow.
Nintendo have consistently catered for everyone over the years and although Nintendo’s Wii U has great examples of universally appealing games (like the Wonderful 101, Pikmin 3 and er…that is it) coming out it is seen by many as a ‘children’s console’. Rather than this simply being because Nintendo make successful games for children and families, this popularized outlook can largely be attributed to PlayStation and Xbox catering less and less for this demographic. A progression made clearer when taking into account the huge focus on such audiences in all of Nintendo’s consoles going way back to the Super Nintendo and NES days. Needless to say, the Famicom was called the ‘family computer’ for a reason.
Knack is a step towards targeting something sophisticated to children again on a system more prone to more darker and edgier reaching filmic games. It is a sign that PlayStation is willing to take a risk on a game for kids. However, Knack’s success will be vitally important to seeing a return to form in this genre again or not should it flop.
Stopping Kids from Playing
Many of us grew up playing games and as we grow older, sooner or later more universal games became less appealing. After that, games appealing to younger audiences would also fall off the awareness radar of gamers with more maturing taste. That’s life. However, that is not to say instinctively that there would suddenly be a diminished output or lower standard of quality in games suitable for children, just because many older gamers grew up and away from them. This does however seem to be the case.
There are still great games that are perfect for kids, but less cover star games in this category. Less AAA titles. The Tomb Raider franchise provides a clear example of how audiences have changed over time. Just compare the PlayStation Tomb Raider games, which anyone could pick up to the PS3 reboot which carries a M rating in some places and an 18+ in the UK. Although an isolated example, it is a typical reflection of the transition the games market has made. Not to say that more games being aimed at older gamers, or even going after the lowest common denominator audiences is necessarily a bad thing for the industry or the medium. This is an economically difficult time and business needs to grow. After all, adults deserve games for adults.
The PS4 and next Xbox will be expensive and not something pocket money will stretch too. Aiming these systems at the market that can afford them makes sense. Even with that in mind it is hard to shake the feeling that a younger generation is getting neglected and ripped off, left with a fair share of shovelware, Free-to-play junk or – at best – good quality games in a series long since established. It does feel irksome to see so little exciting new IP’s for the younger set. Maybe Knack can reignite this practice, it is doubtful. The question now is, have developers grown-up enough to make great games for kids anymore?