I’ve often heard Greg Miller of Kinda Funny mention the fact that in the video game industry of today, the mid-sized game developers have ceased to exist, as both Triple-A releases and indie developers consume practically all of the space there is in the market. For the traditional, old-school and possibly somewhat sentimental gamer such as myself, this is upsetting to say the least, since nowadays the only options are either the big titles that are smoothed and, if you’ll excuse my impolite expression, “dumbed down”, so that they will be appealing to as many people as possible, whether or not they’re seasoned gamers; or independent games that more often than not lack the resources to provide a satisfying, robust experience.
Neither of these extremes is a bad thing – the big titles being smoothed is just good business, and that kind of thinking is what has made the video game industry the fastest-growing industry in the world. There’s nothing wrong with small games either – my favorite game of all time is NetHack, which for all intents and purposes is an indie game from a time that wasn’t even a thing. Indie games tend to do creative things that we wouldn’t see in bigger titles, and not every game needs to be a 100-hour graphic-fest anyway.
However, there are reasons to lament the absence of the middle space. In retrospect, those were the games that made all the difference to a lot of gamers of my generation. Back then, I didn’t really view the industry the way I do now, and I didn’t even know what little I know now about the scene, but now that I think about it, these different types of developers and publishers did exist pretty far back – it just wasn’t as clearly visible.
Among the developers of today, however, there are a couple of names I would consider examples of “mid-sized developers” – perhaps not in the actual sense of the word, but rather in terms of the games they make. If Triple-A developers make games for huge masses, and indie developers create small and strange titles that generate cult followings, then mid-sized developers make games for a specific audience, rather than trying to please everyone or make something just to make it, and see if someone likes it. These are simplifications, obviously, but I wanted to define what I mean by current mid-sized developers. Instead of giving an abstract explanation in detail, I’ll just describe my examples of such developers specifically.
In anticipation of Dark Souls III‘s release next spring, I’ve started a Dark Souls binge whose attempted purpose is to finish the previous two titles (and possibly Demon’s Souls as well – I can’t do Bloodborne yet since I don’t have a PlayStation 4) before its launch. Of all new and original games from the last 5 to 10 years, there aren’t many others that have enticed me quite so aggressively as the Souls games have, and that’s a feeling I welcome with open arms – there is still creativity in the industry, and not all worthwhile games are sequels to existing ones.
I’ve noticed there’s a decent buzz surrounding the third Dark Souls game, and the series pops up pretty constantly in communal conversations about noteworthy games. However, they aren’t among the highest-selling games by any means, despite the universal critical acclaim they tend to receive: while all of the games in the series have a Metascore of about 90, the whole Dark Souls franchise just relatively recently passed 8 million sold units, according to an article by IGN’s Luke Karmali from last summer. For reference (even if it’s a bit extreme), Fallout 4 shipped 12 million copies on the day it was launched alone.
The fact that the Souls games aren’t the most widely appealing games in the market shouldn’t be any surprise to anyone, though. The whole shtick of those games is the fact that they’re difficult, punishing, and oppose the player from start to finish; they let you bask in the achievement of your victories for only a brief moment, only to promptly remind you that you’re still weak, feeble and alone, in a world that wants you dead, and won’t give you an inch for free. They’re games made for gamers: actual enthusiasts of the hobby, who aren’t intimidated by a game that forces you to develop actual skills to survive, and who are willing to deal with the bitter feeling of defeat that isn’t present in a lot of today’s mainstream games.
Even though a lot of people don’t think about it that way, the developer of the series, FromSoftware, did something very counter-intuitive when they first made Demon’s Souls (which itself was a spiritual successor for an older series of a similar nature from the 90’s), in that they released a game that wasn’t supposed to appeal to a wide mass in the first place. They ignored the philosophy behind most games today, which is to generate as much sales by avoiding elements in games that would alienate potential buyers, such as high difficulty, steep learning curve, and a genuine feeling of being overwhelmed by the opposition. They could have made the game easier and more approachable, which certainly would have made it less intimidating to a lot of people – but that would have resulted in something much less unique and noteworthy.
FromSoftware does have a history of making games that aren’t for everyone. I’ve also been a big fan of the Armored Core series from the second entry onwards, and those games are somewhat notorious for giving the player very little aid or instructions in how to play the game. It explains the controls, sure, but that’s not really even what the game is about – it’s about developing your own combat mech, which is a process that requires some understanding of the complex mechanics behind the game. Attributes such as weight, cooling and equilibrium must be taken into account if you want to have any hope of building a functional, formidable war machine. It is only through the arduous process of trial and error that you will eventually – if you have enough patience – begin to thrive in these games, and that’s when the fun really starts. The same goes for the Souls games – you need to have the will to press on as you learn how to play, while the game pounds you into the ground again and again.
Thinking about these elements in their games made me realize that FromSoftware is truly an unusual kind of developer. They make games that are their own; instead of fishing for that extra market segment, they develop uncompromising experiences that they know will drive away a lot of people who might be interested, if the philosophy behind the games wasn’t quite so absolute. They must certainly know they could make more immediate profit by changing the way they make their games, but they’re probably also aware that because they don’t, their games have a very loyal fanbase, and the games itself are much more unique for it.
What’s even more curious is that Japanese developers and publishers currently have a reputation of disregarding the traditional video game industry as insufficiently profitable and are thus transitioning into mobile gaming and other areas, yet FromSoftware is a Japanese developer, but they intentionally make games that can’t possibly be sold to the widest portion of the market. So obviously there’s always room for some variation.
Likely my favorite game developer in existence, Obsidian Entertainment is a dying breed: to put it simply, they are a group of nerds who make games for other nerds. While they received some renown for developing sequels to existing games, they’ve since started shifting towards original intellectual property, which in my opinion in something they can’t do too much of – there are so many brilliant minds at their disposal, and their storytelling is up there with the very best.
From my point of view, Obsidian’s games are always saturated with the passion of the people who make them. Few developers have ever managed to make their games feel like the creators loved every minute of the process of making them, let alone consistently doing so across a variety of titles. It doesn’t mean Obsidian’s employees are simply more passionate than other game creators – it just means they don’t make games they don’t care about.
That leads to a problem in today’s video game industry, though. The expenses of a company such as Obsidian aren’t any less just because the games they make aren’t aimed at the biggest part of the gaming space, yet their income is certainly affected. Obsidian just narrowly avoided bankruptcy recently, and even though much of that can be blamed on the nature of development deals they had with publishers, it goes to show that their financial situation isn’t entirely stable. That’s the obvious consequence of not creating titles based on the amount of demand alone.
The company’s situation is also affected from the outside by the industry’s ebbs and flows. Since developers tend to be dependent on publishers in terms of games they can or can not make, Obsidian has occasionally found itself in a situation where their passion for the project wasn’t rewarded in kind. One of the aforementioned deals with publishers that nearly caused them to go bankrupt was the notorious Metascore goal set by Bethesda on Fallout: New Vegas. Bethesda required the game to reach a score of 85 in order to earn Obsidian a bonus, and the game ended up at 84 – no bonus for Obsidian. They have also had games cancelled because a publisher didn’t consider them viable; a fact which led to co-founder Chris Avellone’s departure from Obsidian, tired of pouring his creativity into games that would never end up getting published.
I doubt audience-specific non-indie games will cease to exist entirely, but there are some pretty trying times ahead for people who like that kind of games. The pendulum is sure to swing back some day, opening up more opportunity for developers to make tailored games for more defined audiences, but I feel it’s going to be quite a while until that happens. For now, the giant publishers dominate the commercial space, while tiny indie creators sate the appetite for change that players occasionally develop after immersing themselves in those big titles long enough; only a handful of us sad old men hold down the fort, playing Pillars of Eternity and hoping that developing such spectacular games will one day be fiscally viable again.