What Does “Mainstream” Mean?

Quantic Dreams announced that their game Beyond: Two Souls cleared 1,000,000 in sales in 2013.  That’s pretty good for something that got such tepid reviews, but it’s also a game clearly designed for the mainstream public.  Pretty 3D with all the graphic flourishes, big-name actors, retail presence, a good marketing push, and all the other bells and whistles that go with a AAA release pushed Beyond: Two Souls to respectable sales.

Starbound came out December 4 on Steam Early Access.  It had been available for pre-order by its web site since mid-April, and after launching on Steam in its unfinished state it appears to have kept racking up the sales at a steady pace.  It, too, has easily cleared the 1,000,000 mark.  Unlike Beyond: Two Souls, though, not a lot of people would think of Starbound as mainstream gaming.

Starbound isn’t alone in crossing the 1,000,000 mark while still being viewed as indie non-mainstream gaming.  The Binding of Isaac has topped 2,000,000 as of last April, while Amnesia: The Dark Descent cleared a million back in 2012.  There’s probably a few other indie games that have reached the magical million mark as well, but without solid sales information it’s hard to tell.  Don’t Starve seems a likely candidate, especially with its PS4 release and being free to Plus members, but that’s pure speculation.  If Kerbal Space Program hasn’t cleared a million yet it probably will in 2014, and let’s not forget that Minecraft started out on the far fringes of gaming as well.

minecraft-land

The current definition of the breakthrough hit.

The point is that “mainstream” as applied to gaming becomes a word with fairly arbitrary limits.  When we think of a mainstream game what comes to mind is something sitting on the racks at your local Gamestop or Best Buy, created by a team of dozens or even hundreds and with a bank-destroying budget to match.  Basically,  AAA development backed by a marketing behemoth.  The problem with this is that while mainstream is mostly defined by consumer knowledge it’s not the whole story, because unit sales tell how interested people actually are in something.  Everyone knows what cannibalism is but nobody (I hope) would consider the practice mainstream, for example.

So, if a developer is happy that their epic-budget AAA mainstream game sold a million copies, we can take this as the basis for defining what level of consumer follow-through (rather than knowledge of) is necessary to be considered mainstream.  If enough people have heard about a game and are interested in it to the point of spending money, then it has to be mainstream.  Super Meat Boy is in the gaming mainstream, as is World of Goo, Trials Evolution, and Castle Crashers.  They may be marginalized to the overall cultural fringe, of course, but if video gaming as a hobby is mainstream (and it is) then its sales hits can be considered mainstream games, no matter what they look like or system they end up on.  If a computer-only (PC/Mac/Linux) game like Starbound can sell as well as, if not better than, a heavily advertised multi-console title like Beyond: Two Souls, it might be time to reconsider exactly how we in gaming think of the idea of mainstream.