Posted in Aion, Fallen Earth, World of Warcraft

A Nice Niche To Call My Own

Um, not that kind of niche.
Um, not that kind of niche.

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!

6 thoughts on “A Nice Niche To Call My Own

  1. Words are contextual to the environment in which they are used. The environment is in perpetual motion, therefore a definition is only true the second it is committed to print/word.

    It probably wouldn’t hold much water in court: but I think you’ve nothing to worry about being a contemporary blogger.

  2. I might be off, but are you saying I was putting FE down by calling it niche? Because if anything, my take is that in regards to the MMO genre, niche games (currently) are generally more suited for my tastes than the current crop of AAA titles, DarkFall first and foremost. While I’m not playing FE currently, I have a ton of respect for what it tries to do and think it delivers on it’s promises. My point with comparing it to Aion was to try and explain why to some (but clearly not all), the appeal of FE may be difficult to understand.

    As for FE itself and being niche, it is for the following design reasons: Sci-Fi, post-apocalyptic setting. Class-less system with the ability to gimp yourself. Function over style graphics. Complex (by AAA MMO standards) crafting. (I’m sure there is more, but that’s what I saw when I was playing it) FE being niche has nothing to do with the number of people playing it, never will. A ‘mainstream’ MMO that has 100 subs is not called niche, it’s called a failure if the intent was to grab that mass market. The ‘niche or not’ aspect comes down to design and market plan. If your game sets out to get 1000 subs, and you can keep your staff and servers with that 1000, you are a successful niche game. If you need 1m subs to keep going, you are aiming for the mass market.

    EVE is still a niche game among the MMO genre by design, even though it has more subs than many AAA titles. A niche game done well (EVE) should continue to grow as more and more people are turned on to that ‘different’ style of gaming, but it takes longer because of those differences. So long as you have played a few MMOs before, you can jump right in to Aion and know 95% of what’s going on. The same can’t be said for games like FE or DF.

  3. Or just use the word properly… A niche is a subset of a larger market. That’s it. It doesn’t imply size or anything else. How you segment it (by category or genre or demographic or ?) is the thing that is debatable.

    That’s the part the MMO community has never really been able to label. How do you define the niches?

    And that’s important because we shouldn’t be comparing two games like EvE and WoW that barely even resemble each other. It’s not really fair to either game.

  4. If the game’s fun, play it. We pundits have a lot of gall claiming why other people like the things they like without actually having any evidence aside from logic and a few anecdotes. Maybe it’s just better to write about what you find fun and how that can be better done. It’s what I try to do, at least. Presuming you know the destiny of a large market–as I do occasionally, but with good intentions–may get you some readers, but in the end it’s just puffing smoke into a volcano: it doesn’t have any effect and it’ll be gone in seconds.

  5. I think there’s a touch of overthinking going on here with all this “niche” talk. Because the “niche” being filled by Fallen Earth is actually a really big one, at least by MMOG standards — before it there was essentially no “hardcore” avatar-based 3D MMOG that wasn’t either completely broken or really old. That sounds like a lot of qualifiers, but it really isn’t; there’s a decent market of ex-Vanilla WoW players, ex-UO players, ex-EQ1 players, and so forth out there, and Fallen Earth has something for a lot of them.

    But with Fallen Earth in place, it will become harder for the next hardcore MMOG to make its mark — we’ve got a hardcore space MMOG, a hardcore avatar MMOG, and I’m not sure that the hardcore MMOG market is really so big that it can be subdivided much farther.

  6. @ Syncaine – Oh no, I didn’t think you were putting it down by using that word, just that I’ve seen it used several times as a subtle putdown of a title, as in “Oh, that game is niche, it doesn’t really matter” sort of thing.

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