The near infinite number of subgenres in the gaming world has allowed niches to be created and filled. Beneath the obscurity and limited identities, getting a video game to cater to a wider audience involves a number of tactics, many of which rely on accessibility and apparent gratification. There are so many things that a developer can do wrong to make a game unappealing to a mainstream audience, so many things that have since resulted in new niches appearing down the line. Due to so many subgenres, different categories of games are becoming isolated from each other. A great JRPG isn’t likely to appeal to a fan of traditional, side-scrolling shooters. From these divisions comes a strong desire to stick to the guns. Each subgenre has its own set of rules, principles and beliefs, so it’s rare to see something escape its own obscurity and become something that can earn a significantly higher level of expanded success.
But over the last couple decades, we’ve seen quite a few instances where something originally thought to be impenetrable by a mainstream audience actually achieved a reverence and success from them. Games with obscure mechanics, unorthodox design, or intimidating aesthetics somehow earned themselves recognition beyond their most dedicated of supporters. How does it happen? What can give a game the edge it needs to “cross over”?
One of the most notable advances of “crossing over” beyond a genre’s walls was the explosion of the MMORPG in the late 2000’s, specifically the juggernaut of Blizzard’s World of Warcraft. While MMORPG’s weren’t anything new during that time, with successes like Everquest, Ultima and even browser games like Runescape, the widespread cultural conquest of World of Warcraft became undeniably inescapable. The fundamentals of established RPG’s like it were set in place, but World of Warcraft became a phenomenon that surpassed even the longest-running MMORPG’s of all time. It wasn’t something limited to the most die-hard of RPG fans; it became one of the most iconic gaming properties of the new millennium. But why is that? What enticed not just hardcore gamers, but also those who had never touched a computer game in their life? What was the conversion point?
Before that question is answered, think about a look at another formerly niche game series that earned itself an unexpected fanbase: the Souls series. Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls and Dark Souls II were notoriously difficult games, titles that were intended for the toughest of the tough, the most hardcore gamers around. A punishing level of challenge that successfully emulated the no-holds-barred games of yesterday like Ghosts ‘n Goblins brought the Souls series into the Pantheon of tough-as-nails experiences, with barely any breathing room or solid ground to speak of. With other successful games embracing the idea of player empowerment and overcoming colossal obstacles, the Souls series pulled a 180, giving an insane level of challenge and making the player feel powerless in a world that wanted them dead. An intimidating prospect from the get-go, the Souls series was destined for the most masochistic of gaming crowds. On the contrary; From Software unexpectedly created a series that became a paramount achievement for starved gamers. It might not have been the most prominent of mainstream successes, but with millions of copies of series titles sold, the treacherous design and punishing difficulty somehow found a beloved place in gamers’ hearts.
With World of Warcraft and the Souls series in mind, it’s actually pretty easy to decipher what exactly lets a game “cross over” beyond its most core fanbase. Basically, to allow a game to become more accepted by outside audiences, it needs to do two important things: highlight the positive aspects of the genre’s design and tone down the negative aspects. It seems simple enough, but it becomes especially difficult to do when trying the preserve the genre’s identity. Simply adding guns to your typical 3D platformer won’t make the game palatable to fans of FPS games, and even worse, it can muddy the solidarity of the genre’s core principles. Looking at World of Warcraft, one of the most positive features of its genre’s design was a massive and open environment. MMO’s before it used the idea of vast and expansive worlds and World of Warcraft showed off its seamless exploration and bottomless reserve of scope at nearly every turn, limiting load times and encouraging exploration beyond a set area. Massively multiplayer online games were built with the concept of scope in mind and World of Warcraft allowed the scope to breathe, highlighting the excitement of trekking far off into the distance and finding new adventure beyond.
At the same time, however, a major negative of the MMO genre was the constantly maligned “grinding.” Repeatedly fighting low-level enemies to farm experience was a frequent chore to many, preventing incoming players from feeling dynamic and involved. Grinding might have been slow, but World of Warcraft remedied that problem not by removing it, but by offering quick recovery time and infrequent moments of pause between actions. The genre was condemned for repetitive and generally unfulfilling tasks and processes, but World of Warcraft disguised the tedium with ample pace breakers and many more moments of getting involved. Blizzard hid the genre’s weaknesses behind thin veils that actually made the game a more fluid and accessible experience. Gamers weren’t intimidated and bored by tedious quests and quickly got hooked with a fast-paced and engaging MMORPG.
The Souls series used similar ideas of hiding weaknesses and promoting strengths. As one of the poster-childs of difficulty, Demon’s Souls was a notoriously punishing game on the PS3, but it was praised for that difficulty instead of condemned. The challenge was the game’s greatest strength, but it required a serious analysis to make it appealing instead of frustrating. To amplify the positive aspects, From Software introduced its own variety of “permadeath”, where progress is lost upon death, but can be re-earned by revisiting your place of defeat. Though it remained very difficult, the ability to regain your souls and progress not only offered players a second chance, but also increasing the game’s intended value of your stats. The game’s difficulty remained tough throughout, so to make the value of your items even more important, the player is given a second wind, one more opportunity to get back on track and regroup. It’s tantalizing, but it hit that perfect note between an overwhelming challenge and the flicker of light in the dark that could turn the whole thing around. With that viewpoint, difficulty became another tall wall to climb, but not an impossible one, making the difficulty’s appeal less of a scary thought.
At the same time, the challenge made the negatives less apparent. The notable trouble of super difficult games was a sense of recurrent failures, and while Demon’s Souls based a lot of its design on learning from repeated deaths, the teasing re-earning of items upon visiting your blood stain offered an artificial, but still extremely satisfying sense of progression. In that regard, progression was never completely out of reach; From Software was able to use the extreme difficulty to amplify reward and downplay tedium. Like World of Warcraft, Demon’s Souls successfully made the best aspects of classic gaming design shine brighter, while making the frustrations much less intrusive.
The result of these pivotal and ambitious design choices allowed the games to earn newfound followings, mostly from demographics and player groups that would completely ignore them otherwise. Blizzard and From Software didn’t need to add anything auxiliary, eliminate any key features, or fancy up the games’ aesthetics. Instead, the designs of their respective games stayed true to their genres of foundation and minor changes were introduced that ended up making a ton of difference. Gamers were able to ignore recurrent problems with the games that would otherwise turn them away, while finally getting a clear view as to why the genres were so appealing to begin with. World of Warcraft and Demon’s Souls were able to cross over, earning unexpected followings and achieving freedom from their restrictive niche appeals.