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The Ascendancy of Mass Market Games

by Bob Mandel

There is little doubt in this new millennium that the future belongs to mass market gaming. Every survey exploring the demographics of today's gamers reveals that a larger and larger proportion of them fall into what is commonly called the "mass market" consumers; not the hardcore crowd which has dominated personal computer recreation for such a long time. As computers spread to a wider and wider array of people, and as they realize that these machines can be used for far more interesting purposes than just e-mail transmission, word processing and Internet access, new players are getting hooked on gaming every day. It is quite clear that this trend has required a bit of business adjustment and console offerings appear to have adapted far better than personal computer releases. This article explores how we define the mass market, what functions it serves for players, what companies cater to it, what genres focus on it, what game developers/publishers and hardcore gamers think about it, and -- perhaps most controversially -- whether its growth constitutes a positive or negative trend.
A painting of a frog

Frogger, after they have been run over?

Turning to the definition first, the notion of mass market gaming is fraught with ambiguity. Many choose not to define it at all, or follow the counter-analytical approach of declaring, "I know it when I see it." But the most reasonable characteristics to associate with a mass market title appear to be as follows:

  1. Low minimum system requirements

  2. No need to download patches or updates to get game to run

  3. Solo play option for those without a stable online connection

  4. Fast or nonexistent learning curve, no manual reading necessary

  5. Simple and clear rules and tangible down-to-earth concepts

  6. Intuitive interface using a small range of possible inputs

  7. Likelihood of receiving positive feedback early on

  8. Probability of having a satisfying play session in a half-hour

  9. Little if any gratuitous sex or violence against humans

  10. No gore or blood-and-guts splattered on the screen

  11. Positive emotional theme devoid of dark or satanic content

  12. Appeal to the whole family

The justification for these characteristics is pretty self-evident. The low system requirements, irrelevance of software patches and updates, and solo play option are because many people in this group lack high end computers, don't know how to obtain and install patches or updates, and either lack a fast reliable Internet or LAN connection or do not know how to use them properly. The speedy learning curve, simple clear rules, intuitive interface, presence of early positive feedback, and short gratifying play sessions are because many of these folk have little patience to wade through manuals or online tutorials, deal with abstract or complicated concepts, manage counterintuitive input schemes, tolerate repeated failure, or play for hours on end without moving on to something else. Finally, the rationale for the absence of gratuitous sex, violence and gore (generally signified by an "Everyone" ESRB rating), coupled with the presence of positive emotional themes and family appeal, is that these people are often not single adolescents but rather members of families where recreational play would be most permitted and enjoyed if players of all ages could join in or at least watch.

What does the casual consumer want from this kind of recreation? Based on my conversations with such people, they desire simply a relaxing break from their daily grind. They are far less likely than hardcore players to use games as a means of proving prowess or virility or competitive edge, and far more likely to use them as a means of joint activity among family or friends. They are also less likely than hardcore types to use game releases as means of showing off the power of their computers or the neat connection to fancy home entertainment systems, and as a result care far less about audiovisual bells-and-whistles. They generally seek the same kind of instant gratification one would expect by going out to eat at a fast food restaurant or going out to a movie -- nothing too fancy or innovative, just an expected and at least temporarily satisfying experience that leaves them with a vaguely happy feeling afterwards.

Despite the huge sales racked up by many mass market titles, few retail computer game companies have made this audience a major focus. Perhaps the king of this broad niche has been Hasbro Interactive, at least prior to its recent acquisition by Infogrames. It has in the last few years unabashedly released a whole slew of offerings (under both Hasbro and Microprose brands) falling into this category: these include Atari remakes like Centipede, Breakout, Pong, Frogger, and Missile Command; re-creations of board games such as Clue: Murder at Boddy Mansion, Battleship: Surface Thunder, and Risk II; and the fabulously successful RollerCoaster Tycoon. Remarkably, despite different developers, most of these have been extremely polished high-quality products.

The runner-up in production in this area is Sierra Attractions, with its mass market titles largely developed by Dynamix. Since the mid-1990s, Dynamix has moved from a producer of combat games into one primarily concentrating on family entertainment. This company's releases span the action-oriented 3-D Ultra series, including 3-D Ultra Pinball, 3-D Ultra Minigolf, 3-D Ultra Cool Pool, and 3-D Ultra Radio Control Racers; the hunting genre represented by the Trophy Bass and Trophy Hunting series; the puzzle series of The Incredible Machine/Contraptions; the re-creation of classic pastimes through the Hoyle line of board, card, casino, and word games; and the You Don't Know Jack line of trivia games. Like Hasbro's products, these have all been highly entertaining and largely successful in the marketplace.

There is also a small group of retail computer game companies who create titles largely aimed at children yet still fall into this mass market category (here I consciously exclude companies whose products are "edutainment," using gaming features just to conceal deceptively that their primary purpose is education). The major children's oriented PC game companies are Lego Media and Mattel Interactive, both of which draw extensively off of their successful toy lines: Lego has produced a wide range of offerings including Lego Island and Lego Island 2, Rock Raiders, Stunt Rally, and Alpha Team; while Mattel Interactive has largely focused on Barbie and Hot Wheels computer titles. Of the two, Lego has been far more ambitious, and it has created a number of releases deserving of adult play, but it has yet to achieve the level of success with the over-12 crowd that Hasbro and Sierra/Dynamix have attained. New entrants are moving into this cluster of children's game companies seeking to expand into the adult market all the time, perhaps most notably Disney Interactive.

Regardless of these giant retail company examples, it is indeed ironic that most of the mass market PC games released today are fashioned by small independent developers who largely use shareware systems or online-only sales to get their product distributed. The irony here has two roots: First, what with the mass market being the fastest growing consumer segment, you would expect the big companies to dominate; and second, a sizable chunk of this mass market audience still does not know how to find, download, and install games that are available only in shareware or online forms. So many of these mass market offerings which never make it in pretty boxes at retail software stores die on the vine and fail to receive the exposure, praise, and sales they deserve. Perhaps the fastest-growing and most prolific Internet publisher of such titles today is Real Networks, whose extensive lineup includes such offerings as the action-oriented Solaris, Space Haste, and Jetboat Superchamps 2; the puzzle-oriented Tower of the Ancients, Snood, and Boorp's Balls; and the strategy-oriented Kyodai Mahjongg and Dweep Gold. The company is quite clever in unearthing quality games from tiny (often foreign) developers to bring to the market. While many of these mass market titles are equal in quality to retail releases, it is still too early to tell how successful Real Networks' efforts will be in this direction.

As is readily apparent from the illustrations already provided, mass market computer gaming tends to cluster within certain predictable genres. The most common ones are retro arcade action, puzzle, adventure, racing, board game ports, and construction simulations. Sports titles are in a gray area, where some fit the bill, but others are becoming (or have always been) just too complex to understand, too difficult to win, or too awkward to play for many mass consumers. The only first-person shooter I have ever seen that would clearly qualify as a mass market title is Hasbro Interactive's Nerf Arena Blast, and frankly I cannot think of any major real-time strategy or role-playing games that would remotely fit the bill. Thus most of the areas where hardcore gamers have the greatest passion and enjoyment would not seem to be amenable to the mass market audience. Electronic Arts' recent release Black & White is a textbook example of how a game appealing to the hardcore crowd can look on the surface like it might also have mass market potential but in reality not have a chance: although it has construction simulation elements, the option of playing on the side of good (white), and a cute digital-toy-equivalent to raise and train, its high system requirements, slow learning curve, and long play session expectations take it well outside of what the casual consumer would generally stomach.

Game developers and publishers have generally taken a rather unemotional and business-like matter-of-fact approach to the growth of mass market gaming. Some have created or acquired "budget" divisions to release products in this category, often destined to be sold at places like WalMart rather than software stores. Others are using profits from these releases to fuel hardcore titles that are more costly to develop and take more time to perfect. There is a nagging concern within some developers and publishers, as well as among some members of the gaming press, that if the developers and publishers spend too much time on mass market releases then somehow their prestige will plummet in the virtual gaming world. There are, of course, other distributors who treat games as if they were vanilla commodities like toasters, and they could not care less what their content and approach are as long as they sell.

In sharp contrast, it is probably obvious that many hardcore gamers are downright furious about this trend, resentful that their favorite pastime is being taken over by the mass market audience they look down on as being stupid, simple-minded, and unsophisticated. A case in point occurred after I wrote a very recent piece on Dynamix, when a hardcore gamer wrote me a nasty note expressing intense anger that I would praise the company for shifting from hardcore combat to mass market family titles; in this reader's view, the company has simply "sold out." Other hardcore gamers fear that when this much larger group of casual consumers takes over, there will be fewer and fewer really sophisticated hardcore titles developed and published in the future. One cannot help but wonder if in the distant future the hardcore/casual gamer distinction might not completely vanish.

I just cannot let the stupidity issue pass without comment: Let me utter a pronouncement that will send some into loud screams of protest -- mass market gamers are not more stupid than hardcore gamers. Nobody can convince me that getting through MYST, the best-selling mass market CD-ROM game of all time, does not take considerable intelligence. At the same time, it is hard to argue that making it to the end of Serious Sam, a popular hardcore first-person shooter, takes much brain power at all. The issue is not smart versus dumb, rather it is simply a difference in tastes and experience. Indeed, it is even hard to argue that mass market offerings are decidedly inferior to hardcore offerings using any truly objective set of yardsticks.

The most important question still remains -- is the increasing dominance of mass market gaming good or bad? Well, from the vantage point of societal critics of computer games, particularly those seeking to regulate the industry, this trend must be positive because mass market titles are not the type linked to high school shootings or anti-social behavior. From the perspective of getting the gaming pastime to be viewed with more legitimacy, acceptance, and respect, this dominance cannot help but be a plus. But I must admit that the specter of seeing certain types of highly absorbing releases, requiring both considerable patience, skill and high-end machines, vanish from the horizon would be truly scary.

While in the short-run the hardcore gamers might be right that the ratio of hardcore to mass market releases might worsen, who is to say that today's casual newcomers might not be tomorrow's seasoned aficionados? Although it used to be that high production values were reserved for the "Triple-A" hardcore releases, over the last ten years the technical and play quality of mass market offerings has substantially increased. So while I think it might be better to have the number of the hardcore and mass market gaming products remain balanced, the impending predicament is not likely to plunge us backward into a paralyzing period devoid of innovation and sophistication in this recreational area. The most important prescription emerging here is that developers and publishers of mass market games both need to recognize that casual consumers are not fools, and that they cannot peddle junk to this crowd with long term success any more than they can to the hardcore crowd. We can only hope that the mass market becomes increasingly demanding as quickly as possible to keep game producers focused on striving to uphold the highest standards, regardless of audience.

Bob Mandel is a staff writer, and reviewer at the Adreneline Vault.