It’s easy to define a group when they wear similar clothing like Juggalos, or carry the same holy book like Mormons. It’s harder when the group is more of a catch-all that is newly being formed. Now that gaming has gone mainstream enough that nearly everyone plays games of some form (yes Facebook games count, I hate to admit), there is a group of gamers emerging who would be defined as the ‘cult’ audience. To draw a parallel, it’s just like the people who think Evil Dead 2 is better than Army of Darkness, or the people who feel that Iggy Pop deserves all of the praise that went to David Bowie. People who go against the general grain of opinion and defend their views vehemently.
In gaming, this group partially represents the old core group. The nerdy outcast who reads a lot and wears glasses with 1up stickers on them no longer represents the mainstream of gaming. Sadly, that torch is now carried by bros wearing visors and housewives rocking the skirt-on-spandex combo. There’s a bit more to it than that though as this group also represent people who are newish to gaming, but come from other dissolving social niches. For a rare break from my normal content, I’m headed for the realm of sociology to describe who these people are and what brought them here.
Now before you jump to conclusions, I am using this as a catch-all term. I’m not referring to people who wear dark makeup, a group of nomadic pillagers or a form of architecture. Though it does relate to all of the above somewhat. The last decade saw a huge surge of interest in vampires, werewolves, zombies and everything that looks like the sets of Evil Dead. You know what I mean; wispy trees, fog, decrepit structures and such. For a brief period, this was considered quite cool and any product aimed that direction would sell. Then Twilight came along and Tim Burton decided to focus on destroying treasured stories and the whole thing went to shit. Most of the people who were just along for the ride traded in their jackboots for hipster clothes and dumped their Smashing Pumpkins albums for Snow Patrol, The Postal Service or some other such drivel. Left are the people who were truly in it because they see a foggy castle silhouetted in the full moon and it gets their knickers wet.
Several series of games did very well by aiming at these consumers. Castlevania, Shin Megami Tensei and Silent Hill are excellent examples. These series have of course tried to break out of their own mold now and sure enough, this is now a cult genre. Some truly fantastic games have stepped up to the plate though and become cult classics by pleasing this audience. Examples include Deadly Premonition, Odin Sphere, Alice: Madness Returns, Amnesia: The Dark Descent and the Disgaea series.
You know who you are people. Like my brother, you’re still rocking the mop hair, acid-washed jeans and Lizzy Borden t-shirt with torn off sleeves. Sadly for you, your favorite music is 20 years out of vogue and not looking likely to come back at least until the above mentioned hipster music is long gone. Just like the IROC Camaro, you’ve entered Cult Classic status. The best thing about this group is they’ve stayed strong in their allegiance for 20 years with little or no encouragement. Sure, every once in a while a band like Tenacious D will pay a little tribute or a game like Brutal Legend will take a steel pick to your heartstrings, but you are mostly out of luck. Hopefully this will be the decade where someone besides Tim Schafer (sorry Tim, I love you, but I have to single you out because you work so hard for us and get screwed every time) will cater to your selective tastes.
Fortunately there is a silver lining in that you have members among the rich and famous. Sure Jack Black may not be someone you would want marrying into your family, but people buy stuff with his face on it and his love is pretty much carrying this group in popular culture at the moment.
Remember when gaming, comic books and Star Wars were for nerds? Yeah, me too and boy do I miss it. I mean sure, it’s great to finally get to see all of your favorite things come back, but the results have been mixed at best. The problem is that we want these things to maintain the level of nerdy sophistication that we remember. It’s no secret to a fan that Star Trek is really a show about exploring intellectual topics in a scifi setting and that Star Wars used to be about spirituality and finding it in mad universe full of idiots who have the death penalty in 12 systems. You won’t find a lot of that in the Cartoon Network and J.J. Abrams versions. Every time I get into a conversation about JRPGs and someone has no idea that the titles of the Xenosaga games come from the writings of a certain European intellectual who may have inspired Adolf Hitler (just a little), I die a bit inside. I mean, what’s the point if you miss the point?
The key for the gaming industry is to realize that this group is still there. Sure, you can sell a lot more copies of a new Silent Hill game by making it more like the low-brow gorefest that is Saw, but you’ll lose the fans who made it what it is. Fortunately a few developers do get it. I know I’ve been heaping a lot of praise on Alice 2, but never has a game more deftly separated the learned from the ignorant. If you don’t know the whole legend of Lewis Carroll and the times in which he lived, you won’t get much more than a decent action game out of Madness Returns. For someone who lives to read and loves to know, that game was an arrow aimed straight at your heart.
Another class of gamer who has been sorely used and discarded are people who are actually just good at the hand-eye function that gaming boils down to. It’s kind of like how because Spider Man was such a successful movie, Hollywood has to beat the superhero movie into the ground. When finally even Lobo has gotten a terrible movie adaptation, we may see the end of it. Just so for the people who rocked Guitar Freaks, Street Fighter and Time Crisis. Those concepts have now been dumbed down for the masses and thoroughly worn out by a greedy and thoughtless industry. Sure, there will always be a new Ninja Gaiden game that redefines frustration, but the learning curve of games in undeniably flattening out. Gone are the days when developers would say “You don’t wanna fall on spikes? Tough shit.” Now games like Braid and Prince of Persia have made the ‘redo button’ a standard in action games and as we saw with Venetica, not including an autosave/checkpoint system is the critical kiss of death.
Hopefully games will continue in the direction Obsidian took with Fallout: New Vegas. That game introduced a Hardcore mode that put everything ‘Fallout” missing from Fallout 3 right back in. If you don’t like it, turn it off, you still get all the content. I truly hope that this ‘best of both worlds’ philosophy catches on, but it does take more time and money and that is unfortunately a hard horse to sell these days.
I could go on, but in my eyes, these are the core of the new cult audience. I truly hope that more developers come to realize that by hitting closer to 100% of an audience that makes up less of the whole, money can still be made.