Now, don’t get me wrong — even though I find Syncaine’s speaking for everyone trying Fallen Earth these days to be a bit presumptuous (and according to some of the comments readers have left here, erroneous), it’s water off this post-apocalyptic duck’s back. Not everything is for everyone, and I’m perfectly okay playing a game that might not have widespread appeal or millions of subs. It’s fun for me, that’s the bottom line, ta da.
But I do have a bit of a quibble with his digging up the age-old “mainstream (mass market) vs. niche” examination, because if there’s anything that we bloggers have proved decisively, it’s that nobody can agree on what “niche” means in this genre, and what it applies to. I mean, I will gladly label Fallen Earth as niche, but still be fuzzy on what that exactly means.
When it comes to categorizing games this way, are we talking about how the game is specifically designed, or how many people are playing it, or what demographics are playing it? Three different things, there. If a game’s designed to fit a very specific, narrow role and gains widespread appeal and popularity, is it still niche? If a game’s created to appeal to a mass market but only gathers a few hundred loyal subscribers, can we seriously, with a straight face, call it anything but niche?
I feel that these loose definitions stem from a matter of perspective — what’s niche to you might not be to me, and so on. World of Warcraft might be 11+ million subscribers worldwide, but if I was to ask everyone at my wife’s work and at my own what WoW was, I’d bet dollars on pennies that only a small fraction would have an idea. If I was to ask about Aion? I’d be lucky if one of my teens even heard of it. What’s a big fish in MMO circles is small fry in the larger ocean of video gaming as a whole, and teeny tiny when compared to all forms of pop culture and entertainment.
If the accepted definition of niche is “a specialized market”, then we could drive ourselves a little batty charting out all the ways our MMOs are specialized: PvP, fantasy, scifi, crafting, sandbox, free to play, browser based, minigames, economy model, etc. Everything is a subset of a subset of a subset. Maybe those add up and create a very popular subset, but still.
Not to mention that MMORPGs are still a baby of an entertainment genre, changing radically from year to year. What was a mass market success in 2001 might be considered laughably small today — a shift of time and perspective.
Sometimes I wish we could just retire the word “niche” in our circles, because it’s often used as a way to slam or demean games we don’t like, even though pretty much all of our MMOs are niche in one form or another. As Mark Jacobs entitled his blog, “Online Games Are A Niche Market”, and as Syncaine himself expressed, it’s all one big happy genre!