I often harken back to the early days in my gaming career, the simpler days when I could walk into my local Gamestation (back when it was around) and go through the shelves to find games that I could actually afford as a little sprog. Sadly those days were fleeting, and dissipated during the dawn of the HD era, where AAA games ruled the shelves, pushing middle market games into the distance.
But what is the middle market? To answer this we first need to look at the primary gaming market as a whole. At the top, we have the AAA industry, those blockbuster games with more than enough capital to sink into marketing or creation. Then at the bottom we have the indie scene; studios ran by a handful of developers, relying on word-of-mouth and highly experimental design. Sandwiched in between is the middle market, a sector which is much smaller than either of the two, taking aspects from both the AAA scene and the Indie scene. And below all of this is the shovelware market, which is better off being ignored.
It’s a very vague but implicit boundary as to what can be considered a “mid-market” game. These are games that aren’t necessarily small scale, but also don’t have a raging budget like bigger publishers usually have at their sides. These are games that rely heavily on providing a solid concept, usually with more substantial gameplay and less focus on marketing or presentation. These types of games were extremely common a decade or two ago, filling a space in release schedules whilst gamers waited for the next big game. Even heading back into the sixth generation of gaming, many of the massive franchises we know and love today started out in the middle market of gaming. Hitman, Elder Scrolls and even Call of Duty, started out as cheaper alternatives to blockbuster games, later going on to break all sorts of sales records.
Sadly, this was not to last, due to the rising tide of the indie development scene and the ever growing presence of AAA publishers. The market began to close up slightly, forcing middle market games into a space they couldn’t truly profit in. The latter of these reasons was possibly the largest reason the middle market dissipated: the higher emphasis on “bigger is better”’ style design saw many smaller developers attempting to either emulate the success of another franchise or to prioritise presentation. This managed to put entire publishers out of business. There was absolutely no way to keep up with the AAA scene that was ruling the physical front and publishers could not even touch the lower price band of gaming thanks to the growing demand, quality, and popularity of indie games.
A few publishers did however manage to find a way around this with some larger developers pushing out games for well-known franchises in a more bite-sized fashion. Sony was possibly the best example of this, with the likes of Ratchet and Clank, The Puppeteer and Sly Cooper being released with interesting gameplay hooks at a price that was half that of AAA titles and double that of indie titles. Even compilation disks for both past games and indie releases hit at a similar sector of the market. It was thanks to releases such as these that the middle market would be able to just about hang on until the current generation.
And here we are now: Wii U, PS4 and Xbox One. Higher graphical fidelity, more power, higher budgets. Despite this, we are finally seeing a strange return for the middle market. Albeit, not the same one we’re used to.
But why is this? First of all, the AAA scene is not the powerhouse it was once known to be; we’re seeing more flops, a steady decline in consumer trust and – most of all – far fewer releases. It’s a culmination of the three that has caused a need for more modest releases to fill these blocks between the next big game and the last one. The market is hitting a slight renaissance in a manner of speaking, but with three forms of games taking shape in this new middle market.
First of all we have the ‘classic’ middle market. Lords of the Fallen was a prime example of this last year, releasing with a lower price point and a design similar to other games but different enough to stand out. It was for this reason that I picked up the game. Nothing else interested me at the time; my local store’s PS4 shelf was littered with multiple copies of the same game. Lords of the Fallen added diversity, something this generation of consoles badly needs. Another such example, which threw me massively by surprise: The Last Tinker. A game that embodied everything about the middle market, with its strange style, interesting gameplay and cheap price, so much so that it was the inspiration for this entire article.
Nintendo, beating to the sound of their own drum, have been no stranger to this section of the market. Splatoon and Captain Toad’s Treasure Tracker have shown just how well utilization of the middle market can be. These titles provide a much needed filling into the cavity of Wii U releases, a factor which has caused the console to surge in popularity over the past year or so. These are games that have achieved significant financial and critical success without the need for intense marketing campaigns or homogenous ideas.
It isn’t just new releases that are trending in the gaming limbo; the digital scene is creeping in as well. Throngs of previously digital-only games are hitting store shelves with budgeted physical releases. This was something that started to emerge slightly in the previous console generation, but the titles were usually too short to justify the price tag, or they were full of errors that the digital version didn’t have (here’s looking at you Telltale’s The Walking Dead). This is an excellent addition to the physical library of the newer consoles as it gives those who don’t typically have trust or knowledge in digital media (children for example) the chance to just pick a game up for cheap in their local store and enjoy it then and there. It also aids the collectors out there, those of us who really enjoy having a boxed medium that we actually own.
The third aspect of the returning middle market is both good and bad. Remasters. Those of us with a PS4 or Xbox One will be far more familiar with this, with these “remasters” serving as a petty method of filling the dwindling release roster. It all started with The Last of Us Remastered, which was admittedly, a fairly deserving remaster of a game that definitely benefited from the extra upgrades. But then we were “treated” to more: Payday 2, Dark Souls 2, God Of War 3 and even Bladestorm. Games that were already up to modern standards anyway. Although it is understandable that many people didn’t play these games originally, there is a visible issue in gaming if the majority of major releases for the newest consoles are just slightly upgraded versions of games that came out nearly a year ago.
Overall, this is something gaming definitely needs and something that was unexpected. Many speculated that these games would die out completely thanks to a large emphasis on graphics; but the high budgets have only served to decrease the amount of AAA titles, leaving more room to move for both indie developers and medium sized publishers. For the common gamer this is excellent. Many don’t need to wait for months to get the next big release, their consoles gathering dust. Instead they can just walk into their local store, look at the shelf and pick up a brand new game for cheap, offering them an entire new franchise they would never have known existed, pushing the popularity of the franchise and spurring on the whole cycle yet again.