Thursday, December 11, 2008

Why are some games "Niche"

Seems to be a battle of words raging in one particular post here, that I thought maybe we should bring it to the front.

What makes an MMO a "Niche" title.

First, I will state, I never came up with this wording, yet it seems from the comments that others believe I did. I am using it based on how I feel that title is doing and what it does well.
Others can use it as they see fit.

But let me define what it means to me.

What exactly is a Niche first...lets define that.

"a position particularly well suited to the person who occupies it"
Ok, so it refers to a person and a place it occupies. Can it even be used for a company in that respect?

"recess, recession, niche, corner (a small concavity)"
This seems to place it in an corporeal form.

So, if we look upon these, a Niche for an MMO to me would be...

"A game that has settled itself into a small place, and is unique to it's position"

I look at it as doing something particular that garners a group of favoritism among it's base...

Whether this is good or bad, is also subjective.

The MMO genre for example is it's own Niche. It does something well, and that is create a world that more than one person inhabits to play together if they wish.

Hmmm....interesting choice of words...

So, then how do particular games get placed into their own "niche" away from the overall reaching MMO title.

I put it back into this definition of doing something specific well.

This is why I have placed some games into this title.

If the game does not have a wide reaching collective use, then it is "niche".

How does this work?

Lets take a genre within the game to start. Why is Sci-Fi more niche, than Fantasy?
You rule out certain audiences as you enter each genre.
Fantasy has a wider scope due to everything from Fairy Tales from young children age, on up.
Are you more likely to read a child a book about Snow White and the Dwarves or about Aliens?
Sci-Fi seems more grim, more hardcore due to words that are not always accessible.
Will the child understand what a truth spell is for example? Or Pentothal?
Science Fiction has always tried to sound more erudite.
Fantasy uses a more simplistic approach and morals system as well. Usually we know who is good or who is evil also. Black and White, yet Sci-Fi can be further reaching with gray areas of who is right and who is wrong.
This is not to argue black or white situations do not exist in Sci-Fi, but to give an example...
We watched an episode of Stargate last night, where an alien asked for help. This alien has taken the lives of humans before.
The humans though have found one type of serum that helps the alien lose the need to feed on humans.
Yet, now the aliens have taken on an alternate disease due to this serum.
Was it right for the humans to do this? And is it ok for them to let the aliens die?
Now again, this is not to say this cannot happen in Fantasy as well.
But, you are guaranteed that the majority of Fantasy has these black and white lines. We know who is good, and who is evil (even though using WoW as an example here, people state that there is not a line...I beg to differ...example: Eating people is not a moral high ground in our moral society)
I could go on about things like bombs and guns, and how this reflects today's society, and as such, we as a people tend to stray from that reality to enter a world where magic lives when we look for escapism...blah, blah...
Instead, try a search on why science fiction versus fantasy shows fantasy wins in sales.
Read this little tidbit to get an idea of why some believe this is so...

And this gets to the other crux of a niche. Big sales vs "Niche" sales. Some believe that just because something sells more than something else does not make the lesser product niche.
This goes back to defining a small location, or a particular spot.
Some games do not sell well in various locations...this makes them niche.
Some games do not sell well due to subject matter (sci-fi)...niche.
Someone Runescape niche? 1 million players. I think not..
Lets look at it this way...
Is Runescape easily accesible? Yes.
Does Runescape do well in more than certain locations? Yes.
Can you be Casual or Hardcore? Yes.
I would not call Runescape niche.

Then why would a game like LOTRO (yep, here it is) be a niche title?
Lets try to look at this based on what we know of the game.

It is a Fantasy. People love fantasies...right?
It is like WoW, the largest MMO available..right?
It has other features like housing, dress up, etc...right?

So, why has LOTRO gained this connotation?

Placing itself into a particular place in the genre itself.

When we look at WoW, and take away the Fantasy trappings, we still have a multitude of mechanics, which makes the game a far reaching title for players.
PvE, PvP, Casual or Hardcore, Raid? No Raid? RP? You name it...many mechanics within a single genre.

But, again, LOTRO can do these.

But, limitations exist.

A player cannot PvP right away. There is no factional PvP except in specific areas.
As has been noted by many an LOTRO player, a large percentage of the base is Casual. And the game does Casual well.
I found this post which explains the niche ideal of LOTRO explanation of the type of player in LOTRO.

"- Lord of the Rings fans (people that loved the books and probably liked the movies).
- People that couldn’t care less about shiny gear. Most of the comments I hear about people’s gear is about appearance attributes such as matching or looking silly rather than looking god-like or powerful.
- Casual Social types: people that enjoy small groups of friends that play semi-regularly and solo on occasion.
- Explorer types (Middle-earth is large and thanks to the rapid expansions by Turbine, there always seems to be new areas cropping up here and there).
- People that enjoy horizontal game play where you can get things which do not necessarily make you more powerful or advanced (eg: houses) along with the vertical, achievement type at which WoW excels (eg: leveling, “gearing up,” etc)."

So, it is not so much how big the population that makes a game niche, but how it delivers the end product.

This much is noticeable though...Niche games does equal low populations.

This is how the discussion of niche started.

WAR is another good example of a niche game. It looks like WoW, plays like WoW, but where does it lose the WoW moniker of far reaching, and why does it not have a million scrips or more?

Forced PvP.

A game that put's limits on your gameplay is definitely niche. It puts you into a "small recess" and does not offer an alternative way to do the game.

Thus niche equals a smaller player base.

So, when asked about Guild Wars, some believe it is niche.


It does PvE, PvP, Casual, Hardcore, Grouping, No Grouping....

And has the audience to prove it is not niche. At 6 million in sales...this is not a small little game trying to gain recognition.
It is not a "little corner" of the market like Eve Online.

And this is where the total argument goes to niche or not niche. What really defines a niche market. We can say all MMO's are niche, yet a large segment of the market has made them mainstream. Yet only a few are really mainstream.

So, in the future when we discuss Champions Online as niche (Superheroes, a very dedicated group, nerdy, and not widely encompassing) or Jumpgate (no avatars?) as makes sense.

Until LOTRO opens the Rohan area as full on PvP, or with large scale battles that people can join or avoid, and increases it's player will stay niche.
Until WAR opens a PvE server alongside the PvP server, it is niche (swap those for LOTRO).
Until Age of Conan lowers entry requirements for hardware to the game, it will stay niche..(of course, hardware can catch up to AoC, and it could become mainstream...time will tell for that about that Xbox 360 port also...MAJOR mainstream...)

Do you have a reason these are not niche? What game is called niche right now, but has mainstream written all over it.

Let me know...


Tesh said...

"Whether this is good or bad, is also objective."

I think you mean "subjective" there.

Nice article!

I'd add a couple things that you allude to:

"niche" is almost a four letter word that rabid fans toss around to denigrate the games they don't like, completely oblivious to the meaning of the word.

"niche" and "profitable" are not mutually exclusive. Stardock has made a decent living providing "niche" products. In fact, that's almost the backbone of American commerce; the little "niche" local store that provides services or products that the "mainstream" just can't manage.

Openedge1 said...

"Subjective" is the right word. Will fix...hehe.

There is no doubt no one is being objective here...
"niche" is almost a four letter word that rabid fans toss around to denigrate the games they don't like,

And I will totally take the burden upon myself as I use it the same way...yet, I feel it is correct in this respect.
As to profitability, this is not even the issue either (unless you are Tabula Rasa)...
When we discuss the MMO genre, we need to look at the population issues when we look at niche.
I think that is my #1 concern.
The niche games continue to have low pops and causes issues with the playability of those games.
Could you imagine even a console title like Halo with a minimal number of players?
It would not work.
Stardock can create a "niche" for itself based on what they are releasing.
Casual single player games...
And it is not a bad word.
I think in the case of MMO's though, niche DOES become a bad word, and that word spreads and kills any further growth for that game.

I have argued over this hundreds of times.
LOTRO and the setting was major ripe to wipe up from WoW.
This should have been the perfect game to pull subscribers in large hordes (hehe) from WoW.
It did not...
Why do you think that is?
What is missing?

I blame the niche.

Anonymous said...

If AoC was ported to the 360 then I would definately have another look at it.

The combat system suits a console experience but I think the game needs a hell of alot of work done on it for it too be a BIG success.

Maybe Blizzard should try to port there next MMO or even design an MMO for the console market?

Openedge1 said...

Console totally equals mainstream as well.
Any niche game could be pulled from that title just by moving to that system.
For one, they streamline controls for a wider audience.
Two a larger user base equals an instant larger base of players/subscribers.
Turbine has discussed a game for the console...take DDO or LOTRO, put them on the 360 and goodbye niche.
And I am totally agreed that AoC would work 100% and be a success.
As to AoC needing a lot of work, they have already done that, the problem is no one knows thanks to their poor launch, and everyone having an attitude about giving them a second chance.

Sad really

Anonymous said...

True words Openedge - would you play a MMO on your 360?

Openedge1 said...

Most definitely. I still wonder why no one has done this.
Could you imagine a whole new market like that open to players?
Especially with a good MMO.
Aw hell, I would play LOTRO on a console (of course there are caveats for developers needing to use specialized fonts, which Turbine still cant pull anything larger than an 8 or 10 dpi out of their ass for skills and
But, yes, give me an MMO that is good (FFXI reliance on the keyboard was bad...must have true voice access and no keys needed), and I would buy it AND play it.
(Wishes Agency was coming to the 360...but, would even think of buying a PS3 for it)

Brendan said...

An interesting post.

I think an argument can be made that virtually *all* PC games are niche compared to console games -- with a few notable exceptions, the only one in the MMO genre being WoW.

As it pertains to the more specific issue of the MMO market, there are two schools of thought on this, I think.

The first is that subscription-based MMOs are niche by nature, and that WoW is a freak outlier that resulted from a perfect storm of timing, company reputation, expansion of broadband and so forth. This view basically puts WoW in its own category, and looks at the rest of the MMO market today with the pre-WoW market as the baseline for comparison, and notes continuity of niche levels of success, rather than failure as compared with Warcaft.

The second view is that WoW changed the MMO market fundamentally by adding tons of players to the marketplace, which has resulted in a proliferation of MMO releases in recent years. In this view, the market is no longer niche, but the larger number of players in the market has been split between a larger number of games, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, noone has been able to create a subscription-based game yet that competes well with WoW. So in this view, MMOs are not niche in general any longer, but there are titles that are "niche" titles because for this or that reason they cannot compete well with the market-defining game in the genre.

Guild Wars, I think, is evidence that the MMO market is not niche. However, because it is not a sub-based game, it's very hard to compare it with subscription-based MMOs, because the calculus of the average player as to whether to buy/play is different depending on whether the game has a monthly fee.

Unwise said...

I don't think Turbine ever set out to compete for Blizzard's customer base, at least not directly. They never had anything like Blizzard's resources, and so fighting them head on without some hefty financial backing would have been folly.

DDO hadn't exactly set the world alight, and AC2 before that was a disaster, so they of course chose to play safe by copying Blizzard's successful model and applying it to a popular franchise.

I think their strategy was to tap into the success of WoW indirectly, by making a game for those that had enjoyed WoW for its levelling, but had later been disenfranchised by its distinctly less casual end-game.

Almost every design decision Turbine have taken has gone in favour of casual players over hardcore ones. They understand that hardcore players are fickle, hard to please, never satisfied with the volume of content you provide, and will jump from game to game looking for the next big thrill. Casual players on the other hand are less demanding and more likely to stick around in a game for a long while if you don't go out of your way to piss them off.

I'm not sure it's fair to expect that LotRO should ever have had a serious chance of taking on WoW. LotR is a great licence, but it's also extremely restricting with regards to what Turbine are allowed to put in the game (even if the addition of the Rune Keeper does throw that into question somewhat!)

LotRO could never have been a 2 faction PvP game, for example. The lore simply does not support Orcs having anywhere near the amount of autonomy that would be required for questing, crafting and exploring. Monster Play is as far as they could go in that respect.

Scott said...

*first experience with the Chrome browser*

I'll bet AoC on the 360 will perform quite well compared to the randomness of the PC version due to myriad system specs out there. I'll be interested to see how they handle the UI though.

Edge, so you tried out FFXI on 360 then? I keep reading where everyone prefers that to the PC because "it was designed for consoles and it shows" whatever that means.

But it sounds like you're saying you'd prefer say, AoC on 360 on *ONLY* 360 servers and the game was voice-only and never needed a keyboard (or the chatpad device, or virtual keyboard)? I don't know... a big part of my MMOG experience isn't *seeing* that other people are playing, it's interacting and chatting with them. Without the ability to communicate (and trust me, you don't want me on voicechat first thing in the morning -- nor do I want to be subjected to listening to everyone else voicechat. Refer to any public XBL game for every possible reason why.) Otherwise those players could just as well be NPCs to me because they're just "there."

I've been curious to try FFXI but, at the end of the day it's just a several-year-old Japanese grind+forced grouping game from what I can tell. Who knows, maybe AoC will actually find its mark on the console.