The Game of the Year we never knew we wanted

If you wanted to get laughed out of a games production pitch two years ago, all you had to say was something like this…

“I think we should create a split-screen multiplayer game, not based on an existing IP, where the main characters are a married, middle age couple. The man should be interested in gardening and the woman should be interested in astrophysics. Also there should be a hilarious flying Marriage Counselling Book.”

Actually, that does sound quite good, but the point is it never should have been made – it goes against every industry rule. Yet, somehow, it did get made, and not only did it get made, it got made remarkably well by a small studio based in Sweden.

As of October 2021 it has sold 3 Million copies worldwide, going on to win Best Family game, Best Multiplayer Game and Game of the Year at the Game Awards because of some truly remarkable features.

Co-Op Gameplay

Challenging puzzles and boss fights that require co-operation

Creative Levels

A huge array of changing mechanics and creative environments

Cinematic Feel

Cinematic and narrative based approaches aimed at older audience

These three elements and how well they work to create an engaging and highly popular game are evidence that the world of game development is changing in an exciting direction. Indie games companies are very rapidly taking their place and fulfilling needs that the regular market is ignoring.

Now in real terms 3 million copies isn’t breaking records – Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed Valhalla sold 12 million copies in its first two months. That said, Ubisoft are a giant company who employ 18,045 people to make and promote their games and Hazelight describe themselves as a close-knit team with only 65 team members.

The reason to bring this up is to highlight something very interesting – that the player base is changing and a perfect storm is coming to the games industry. It’s been brewing for quite some time and looks set to turn things on their head in a way that has possibly never been seen.

First, some facts:

The gaming market is getting older. The average female gamer is 36, the average male gamer is 34.

71% of the gaming market is over 18 years old.

75% of households now have two gamers under the same roof. 67% of parents play video games with their children at least once a week.

During 2020 and lockdown many larger titles were pushed back by delays (causing a reduction of 10% in releases) compared to a large increase in Indie development, who saw a 25% increase of releases on Steam.

(Source: US Market Data, Entertainment Software Association – ESA)

These facts go to highlight something very important.

Gamers are workers. They are girlfriends, husbands, fathers – even grandfathers! They have more responsibilities and less time to play games… and want more bang from their buck – today’s core market demand a varied and flexible experience which is tailored to the casual gamer and focuses on storytelling and cinematics.

It seems that Indie developers, who can respond more quickly and are less tied to larger production companies, are well positioned to make this leap and give their audiences what they want.

There are also some other factors at play.

With Games also becoming more expensive on new consoles, more and more gamers – console gamers especially – are being driven towards subscription based services like PS Now or Xbox Game Pass where they have access to a wide array of games and become used to picking up and putting down games as they see fit.

Many gamers are also returning to PC gaming via Steam, where they can find and play remastered and updated versions of the games they loved growing up – now in the comfort of their home office setup.

All this leads to a very different outcome in terms of the games many gamers actually want to invest in. Bigger titles like God of War and Horizon Zero Dawn, which focus heavily on adult themes and Cinematics, have also shown that the market as a whole is maturing.

That said, there is still definitely a younger market who are hungry for Free to Play IP’s such as Fortnite or League of Legends which provide a proving ground for them to spend their time.

It seems that the gaming market is breaking up into two distinct camps.

Those with more time to burn who want to improve their twitch reflexes (and twitch views) and see themselves ranked among other gamers, and those who want to play at their own pace with a varied and creative experience, but who don’t really care about comparisons with other gamers. 

I think of it a little like soldiers going to war – where one group still want to prove themselves on the battlefield, while the wizened generals who have seen it all before just want to ride into battle and enjoy the fight.

What to do about a split gaming market.

The video games market is a comparatively new phenomenon, but there are companies who have tried a variety of ways to crack the puzzle of having wildly different audiences play their game. Potentially the most successful company at this is Blizzard, prior to being taken over by Activision.

As they released World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade in 2007, they found themselves at the middle of a sensation. The game itself was already very popular, with millions of players. The expansion reset the playing field so that new players could join the game and catch up with people who had been playing the game for a long time. This meant that you had a mixture of experiences – from total newbies to gaming, right through to people who dedicated every moment to the game.

As a more mainstream title it also meant that the user base expanded massively – from lone teenagers right through to parents and even full families or friendship groups who played the game together. Different backgrounds, different experience levels and different wants from the game.

Of course this could have been a disaster, but they had some factors which were on their side. The game was about the experience – players could make real choices about how they wanted to play that would have giant differences in the outcome of their character. From background and story through to skills and playstyle and even who they wanted to be a friend and enemy. Never before had a game been able to cater specifically to so many different types of people.

They also invented a system which helped people who didn’t play often. A catch-up system meant that casual gamers would level up more quickly, gaining a bar which gave 200% XP over three days not playing – so when they did play, they had a better experience.

This is a clear example of a company recognising that there was a potential issue and proactively moving to resolve that issue. This is what companies need to be able to do in the future if they want to cater to both older and newer players.

Three principles for the future of game design:

  1. Understand the player’s skill level – presenting them with challenges which are relevant to their abilities and making the game fun for everyone who plays it.
  2. Introduce incentives to make gaming healthy, promoting breaks, enhancing short playstyles and introducing rewards for those who help others who may be less skilled.
  3. Give the player the capacity to make decisions which give them a unique and varied experience through the game, not just at the “A or B” choice level but at a fundamental level.

I think, given these principles, many companies can avoid the hit from having to pick and choose their target audience and can instead focus on what they do best – making their product the most fun it can be.

Lets just hope we don’t see a wave of split screen copycats which want to cash in without breaking new ground – that misses the point. (NOTE: there is nothing wrong with split screen and it has been neglected for some time but that is NOT the reason they won the award!)

In any case a big congratulations to Hazelight and It Takes Two, their ethos of creating something fundamentally different, unique and exciting is the gold standard in the industry and we look forward to seeing what they do next!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>