Gamer. A simple word that used to have a one primary definition: those that played video games as their main hobby. For over two decades, this group was mostly composed of males aged eight to 34 and were designed with that group in mind. However, as time as passed and accessibility to games has increased from physical media bought at a store typically for a dedicated gaming device to something readily downloaded within minutes for a smart phone, the audience for games has expanded greatly.
Brendan Sinclair, Senior Editor for GamesIndustry International, is acutely aware of how the changing nature of gamers has altered the industry.
“[Gamer] was shorthand for a particular stripe of geeky enthusiast, a label people (mostly boys) with common interests could group themselves under. That’s been steadily changing ever since Sega decided to target an older audience (and by older, I mean 13-16-year-olds) with the Genesis. Sony pushed the age range further with the PlayStation and PlayStation 2. With the DS and the Wii, Nintendo welcomed women and older adults to the party. Smartphones and Facebook made those newcomers essential to the industry. Now we have games for everyone. The face of gamers is no longer little boys from wealthy families; it’s well on its way to being everyone in every developed nation around the world.”
As for the unfortunate culture wars that raged white-hot last year for the gaming industry and still simmer in some corners of the Internet, Sinclair says he sees that as a, “reaction to that broadening of the gamer demographic. As the traditional idea of a gamer makes up a smaller percentage of the industry as a whole, as the companies they grew up idolizing increasingly cater to people who aren’t them, as the thing the cultural label they have embraced for decades appears to be systematically robbed of its meaning and status, it’s understandable they might feel under attack, struggling against the inevitable. It’s just sad that so many apparently seem to think that if they can no longer be the face of gamers, then there’s no harm in scarring that face greatly on their way out.”
Michael Pachter, Managing Director of Equity Research for Wedbush Securities, notes that this has changed the economics for the gaming industry, not just for new comes for for established AAA publishers as well.
“The biggest change is that mobile has brought in a completely new set of players (older women) and has made conventional gaming more acceptable to them,” notes Pachter. “That has a subtle flow through to shifting attitudes of mothers, who are more likely to allow their children to play console games than in the past, helping the publishers. Those companies that focus on mobile are obviously directly affected, so far easier to see the correlation to Zynga and King, but far more subtle to see the impact on Ubisoft or Take-Two.”
William Volk, CCO of Playscreen, has been making games for about as long as anyone, so he’s seen the industry grow up figuratively and literally. As he sees it, “The biggest change I have seen over the past 30+ years is that EVERYONE plays games now.”
“When I started as a play-tester in 1979 the audience was computer hobbyists and mainly boys on the Atari VCS and Mattel Intellivision. The first games I wrote for Avalon Hill, in the early 1980’s, initially reflected that market, but even back then we wanted to broaden the game audience. Controller (Released in 1982) was partly motivated by the Air Traffic Controller’s strike of 1981,” he continued. “The goal for me was always to get more people playing games. Build a game your mom and dad would play. What’s amazing is that this hobbyist market supported a price point of $25 for a 32kb game.”
While personal computers in the ’80s was primarily an enthusiast market, Volk glimpsed the future in a stint at Activision.
“I first got a glimpse of how casual games were going to change the market at Activision (I was there from 1988 to 1994) specifically with Brodie Lockard’s amazing game, Shanghai. While I focused on children’s games and adventures, I used to argue that we should be trying to find the next Shanghai because of it’s wide appeal to users beyond the typical game player of the day,” said Volk. “However my biggest success was with The Return To Zork, a game that was deliberately designed to be unfair and infuriating to users. Twenty-two years later, there are almost 4,000 YouTube videos dedicated to the game. The market in 1993 was still computer aficionados.”
Volk saw that there was “a mass market for games on mobile phones”, though at first the devices were quite limited. “In the early 2000’s these were very limited devices, with screen resolutions as low as 128×128 pixels (sometimes less) and the same sort of memory constraints we had seen on computers and consoles twenty years earlier,” he said. “Coincidentally, this experience we had with these limited platforms, has proven to be incredibly valuable with the design of Apple Watch games.”
“Everyone had mobile phones, so this looked like a place where we could get more people playing games. I was aware of what was happening with DoCoMo in Japan (an vibrant app market) and knew it was a matter of time before this happened here,” he continued. “While we may have jumped to gun too early with mobile social games like The Dozens in 2005, it was clear to all of us that the mobile phone was going to become a mass market platform for games.”
While Volk saw potential in the mobile platform, it wasn’t until the iPhone until he saw things open up. “We could all see it how much better it was than prior phones. In 2007 Sherri Cuono and I launched some of the first games on the device, using Safari […] as the App Store was still a year away from appearing,” he detailed. “The App Store lowered the barrier to entry and soon we saw a virtual tsunami of game titles being released. The financial models totally shifted as well. Games went from fixed price to free-to-play and/or ad supported. I don’t know of any time in the history of the video game industry when it’s been harder to release a successful game, given the competition and the demands of the free-to-play model. As a comparison, there were only 785 titles released for the NES in North America.”
“Unlike the PC and Console markets of the past, most of these iPhone games had broad appeal. Some were simple one-tap titles, others mimicked popular table games, and even a few were air traffic control games (Flight Path comes to mind). The audience was EVERYONE. When I look at the demographics for our Stick Figure Movie Trivia game, it’s exactly the folks who WEREN’T playing games in the 1980’s and 1990’s, mainly women of all ages,” Volk added, concluding with, “Once again history repeats itself with the Apple Watch with very simple casual games that will appeal to a broad base of players.”
Practically everyone games now, it one form or another, and that has changed the equation of what games can be. While there will always be enthusiasts for the medium, and those enthusiasts will will command and demand more attention from developers since they spend more on their hobby on average, the altered nature of how games are consumed (and who is playing) have changed the face of “the gamer” irrevocably.