Sunday, July 27, 2008
By Seth Schiesel
LOS ANGELES — After spending six 18-hour days schmoozing with game developers and playing dozens of games, I finally met the people who are transforming video games from a niche hobby into the fastest-growing mass entertainment around.
Their names were Thomas, Guadeloupe and Lucia, and I came across them in a departure lounge at Los Angeles International Airport last week after covering the annual E3 video game convention.
Thomas, a British former insurance executive in his 50s; Guadeloupe, his Salvadoran wife; and Lucia, their 12-year-old daughter, didn’t consider themselves gamers. Yet there was Lucia on her pink Nintendo DS hand-held playing THQ’s Paws & Claws, while Thomas explained his obsession with a PC strategy game called Stronghold and Guadeloupe recounted the times she started playing bridge on her laptop at 4 p.m., looked up and realized it was midnight.
“Her older brothers got her into Grand Theft Auto,” Guadeloupe said of her daughter while waiting for a flight to San Salvador, “but all she likes to do is drive around and listen to the radio stations. She doesn’t even really care about the shooting and killing.”
Welcome to the future of video games. In the popular imagination, a gamer is a caffeine-fueled 26-year-old with a paunch, the local pizza place on speed dial and a hard drive full of Internet pornography. And, yes, he exists. But the gamer fueling the industry’s explosive growth is the cubicle-bound Minesweeper fiend, the 45-year-old housewife who happens to be a Bejeweled addict, the schoolgirl who has recreated everyone she knows in The Sims.
For the game industry, these players represent a profitable expansion. For old-school gamers, they reflect a wrenching shift. The industry depended on its appeal to core players for many years. Those players, and the culture that emerged around them, came to assume that this industry should respond only to their needs and desires.
Now gamers have to share their beloved pastime with the great unwashed — housewives, the elderly, even girls. And they don’t all like it. At E3, Nintendo in particular was accused of neglecting its core fans while pursuing the broader market with a new edition of Wii Sports and Wii Music, a lite diversion. Longtime Nintendo fans were waiting for the company to demonstrate new installments in classic franchises like Donkey Kong, Zelda, Mario or Kirby, but the company only showed a fresh game in the kid-oriented Animal Crossing series.
“It’s like Nintendo has forgotten the people who got them here,” Andy McNamara, editor in chief of Game Informer, a top American game magazine, said in an interview. “If you’re a serious Nintendo fan, what are you supposed to do all year, play Animal Crossing and throw Frisbees in the new Wii Sports? We understand that Nintendo has to reach out to that new mass market, but would it really cost so much to acknowledge the fans who have stuck with them for decades?”
As John Davison, former editorial director of the Ziff Davis video game magazine unit and now president of What They Like, a start-up that hopes to explain youth media to ignorant adults, put it, “There is definitely a feeling of betrayal among hard-core gamers as the industry matures and comes to realize that the growth opportunities are not in solely catering to 18-to-34-year-old men, but in also appealing to the rest of the world.”
At Ubisoft’s news conference during E3, the assembled cognoscenti couldn’t stop giggling as the company explained why it was making fashion designer games and sports games for girls. The company was making a shrewd business point. The hard-core players didn’t get it.
Call it nerd rage. Like loyalists of a once-partisan politician who tacks toward the center later in an election cycle, old-school gamers are coming to terms with the ramifications of their favorite’s newfound popularity. Though they have long craved mainstream respectability for video games, players sometimes resent the concessions their champion must make to attract mainstream adherents.
“When we were talking about this idea to expand the total number of customers, I was convinced that this attitude would be good for Nintendo and eventually something that would be very good for the industry as well,” Satoru Iwata, Nintendo’s chief executive, said in an interview last week. “However, I had no idea how many years it would take to achieve. I was not sure if it would take four years or five years or six years. Seriously, I thought it might take seven years or eight years before audiences would respond to me.”
Needless to say, it happened a lot faster than that. The Wii was introduced in November 2006.
It’s not a bad problem to have: being more successful and more popular more quickly than even you expected. Nintendo did say at E3 that it was working on new Mario, Zelda and Pikmin games, all of which should appeal to core players. Like most fans, gamers may be fickle in the moment but fiercely loyal at the core.
They’ll be back.