Saturday, January 12, 2013

Where Have All the Niche Games Gone?

There used to be a game called Phantom Dust. Well I say there used to be a game, its still there if you know where to look. Phantom Dust was a sort of arena-based Third Person Shooter except the game used the old school card game formula instead of guns. Suffice to say that the game was as difficult for its developers to explain as it was for me. While you will find people who played it loved it, by in large, it was ignored.

It is something I’ve hit upon in previous posts; I believe that the current and future state of the industry is no longer conducive to the niche market. Even quality games such as The Secret World and Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, have had unrealistic expectations twinned with unsurprisingly ‘disappointing’ sales. Between the high costs of gaming and the longer turnaround time in development, niche games no longer find easy paths to get to market. So even when publishers have realistic expectations with regards to games such as Atlus’ Catherine, they become the exceptions that prove the rule.

It is for this reason that I believe that Sony’s PSN, Microsoft’s XBL, along with PC platforms like Steam, are the next great frontier for niche games. However, none of these platforms are perfect and all suffer from a clear lack of vision in regards to the health of their platform. In this coming year we will see each company reveal long term plans for their online platforms, and while an eye will always be toward maximize profits and market share; it is we gamers who will decided with our wallets what is at the forefront of online gaming and distribution.

Here is a small list of some of my favorite niche games from the last era, a small picture of what was, what might never have been, and what can be again.

Jet Set Radio Future was the sequel to the hit Dreamcast game Jet Set Radio. The Xbox already had a leg up on the PS2 even before it launched as it wasn’t the system that had killed my beloved Dreamcast, the controller was a blatant knockoff of the Dreamcast, but Jet Set Radio Future was the icing on the cake. Back then Halo was a huge hit but a small property for anyone who didn’t love First Person Shooters. JSRF as it was called to those who loved it was unashamedly different from everything else on the market. From the music, to the narrator, to the style of travel, to a combat system based on tagging; JSRF was like bringing Bebop to a generation that had only known Big Band and Swing.

Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords often gets ignored in favor of its shiny brother; a sequel made by competent second tier RPG maker Oblivion, KOTOR 2 was completed start to finish in just 12 months. Using a modified engine from the original game, the game is remarkable for many things, not the least of which is its truncated development time. In a feat worthy of Heracles himself, the game had a solid storyline and combat that made its big brother seem obsolete.

Back before open world became a fad, before BioWare dropped its RPG love on us, and before JRPG’s stopped being popular, there was The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. Ahead of its time in any way that mattered; Morrowind was big, beautiful, and an unbelievable experience. The GOTY edition was the first time that an expansion hit the Xbox, and was packaged and priced at a deal that made every RPG fan fall in love. It fell into all the traps that its predecessors and successors would fall into, buggy launch, lousy combat, and nearly irrelevant storyline; but for all that Morrowind was the trailblazer and the magnum opus that proved it could be done. Though the fourth and fifth of the series have come and gone, Morrowind will always be remembered for being first, and being the best.

Honorable Mentions: Otogi, Crimson Sea, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Deus Ex: Invisible War, Gun, Hunter: The Reckoning, and The Thing.

Addendum: Like most writers, I stuck to what I know, which is why you don’t see any PlayStation 2 games here. For the most part the PS2 was a system I owned to play JRPG’s.

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