I think 2007 was the year the "games are mainstream" idea really started to spread far and wide. The Modern Warfare behemoth was born that year, and Fox News went wild with the "sexbox" "controversy". Soon after, mobile and Facebook games exploded onto the scene, and games officially became mainstream.
More than just a matter of perception, this had very real consequences in the industry, not least of which was the bloated expectations of publishers, developers and investors. Analysts started demanding Nintendo games on mobiles, tech and gaming writers started to profess the death of consoles because Angry birds is downloaded 1 billion times while Call of Duty sells "only" 25 million, any core game that doesn't sell at least 5 million is now regarded as a failure and EA started daydreaming about billions of people playing their games
. Games are mainstream now, so every game has to be played by everyone!
There is only one problem with that: It is just not true. Worse, it is dangerous. As a matter of fact, I believe "mainstream expectations" have as much to do with the myriad problems facing the industry as the much-maligned costs of the HD era.
Despite Facebook and mobiles, core games remain as niche as they have ever been, albeit a big one. Consider: CoD sells around 25 million copies every year, probably most of them to the same people. Let's extrapolate and say 75 million more people play the game without paying for it. We have now unscientifically determined that CoD is played by 100 million people worldwide. Let's say hundreds of millions of people, say, 600 million, don't play the game but have at least heard about it. So according to our totally unscientific guesswork, only 10% of the world's population even knows what CoD is and only a small fraction of that 10% actually plays it. It's a big niche but it's still a niche.
Now how many people have played or at least know about games in general, like checkers, chess, cards, bingo, monopoly and so on? Pretty much the whole world. Games have always been mainstream, and many casual games are nothing but digital versions or digital variations of games people have always played.
Which brings us back to my point: core games are niche and that's not going to change anytime soon. For core gamers like us, games are not just something we do to kill time, we do it because we love it. For some they are even a way of life. We follow game news, we look forward to coming home and booting up our favorite games, we look forward to playing in the weekend, we drool over announcements of the next big thing.
The games we play take effort and commitment. We play them for tens or hundreds of hours, we follow complicated storylines, study stats, skills, weapon loadouts, we grind for loot and experience. For the uninitiated this all looks rather esoteric and scary, unlike welcoming and simple time-killers like solitaire. That is why the likes of Persona, Dark Souls and even Call of Duty will never be truly mainstream, and I believe expecting otherwise is part of the reason studios are closing one after another, even those whose games sell numbers that would celebrated just a few years ago.
In this regard, Japan seems to have the right idea. Many AAA Japanese games only sell in the hundreds of thousands and yet I don't even remember the last time I heard about a Japanese studio closing down. The Japanese market is small and many Japanese games sell mostly (or only) in Japan. Japanese developers know they can't throw 30 million dollars at a game and expect to stay in business. They know their niche and keep their expectations realistic. That means they can't rely on shock and awe, they need to find creative ways to make the game fun and pretty on a tight budget. In my opinion, that is why some of the most amazing and unique games of this generation have come out of Japan.
We are now on the verge of a new generation, one that promises to bring even more shock and awe and even more cost hikes. If things don't change, "next gen" might just mean "a few prettier games, lots of dead studios". Therefore, the sooner core game developers understand their games are niche and start planning accordingly, the better off we'll all be, developers and gamers alike.