So Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen doesn’t want to be seen as a niche game. Visionary Realms’ recent interview saying so was clearly bewildering to a lot of MMO players, but maybe it shouldn’t have been. The game’s design has always sought to please two masters: the backers who seek a group-oriented EverQuest/Vanguard throwback, and everyone else. That’s been evident in the studio’s candid dev blogs and accessibility overtures for years. But the hardcore backers are nevertheless expecting a design philosophy that has largely been left behind by the industry – the very definition of a niche game.
The more important question, at least to me, is why an MMO studio would push against the idea in the first place.
I don’t mean that to imply that there’s no conceivable other reason to do so; for one thing, if you’re trying to attract independent investors, you want to downplay the idea that your game is somehow a minor niche title since that means the investors are not going to be making a lot of money either way. But I think that prompts the question of how things work as niche MMOs in the first place and what that means for the genre as a whole.
The thing about small indie crowdfunding MMOs is, well, they should be niche MMOs. That’s just the reality of economics and what goes into making games in the first place. MMOs are expensive games to make, and crowdfunded games are usually being made with a much smaller budget than even what is a usual budget for these titles in the first place.
Look at Crowfall, if you want an example. That game actually made it from crowdfunding to launch, attracted a number of investors, and was still cheaper than your average MMO to launch… and it’s also indisputably a niche product. You can argue whether or not it belongs on a list of success stories (although at this point a crowdfunded game getting to launch at all is a success story), but it definitely started and has always been billed as a niche product.
And that’s kind of the smart place to be with your game anyway because the mainstream audience is pretty well served.
Consider what we say repeatedly about the “big five.” The idea is that there are five MMOs out there that seem to have particularly high profiles, high profits, and sizable footprints. These are the games that have varying degrees of mainstream appeal and either offer a wide variety of gameplay styles for players to engage in (four out of the five) or had such a huge cultural footprint at one point that nearly everyone has fond memories that can cover for lacking areas (World of Warcraft). Almost by definition, everything else in the genre naturally falls into the “other” category.
There is nothing wrong with this fact. At least one of my favorite MMOs of all time is in that “other” category, as are several others I quite enjoy or titles that I think are pretty compelling and neat on their own. But the thing about being in the “other” category is that just in terms of budget and reach, you are not going to do everything that the big five do with the same gusto and efficiency.
Crowfall is not going to compete with WoW in terms of breadth of content or volume. It simply cannot do that. Not only does WoW have nearly two decades of a head start, it also has much more budget and staff and appeal to start with. So what Crowfall can do effectively is try to compete with WoW by being really good at something that WoW is at best decent at doing, to provide a unique gameplay experience.
A niche title doesn’t mean that the game is worse than a game with a broader appeal; it means that the game is more specialized. That is a reasonable and good place to be. If you can’t be pretty good at everything, you can be very good at a very specific slice of things in order to appeal to the people who really like that specific slice.
For that matter, why would you want to compete with an industry titan when you have only a thousandth of the budget and name recognition? It’s like trying to pick an impromptu fistfight with a boxer; it’s going to hurt a lot and no one is going to care if you technically win. Being a niche title isn’t just a survival strategy but a content deployment one.
Of course, there are two catches to being seen as a niche title. And the first is where I suspect the Pantheon team’s protestations make sense: Sometimes the problem is simply the size of that niche.
There are absolutely people who want what amounts to an EverQuest or Vanguard throwback with aggressive social dependency and social friction, just as there are people who genuinely want the original days of Ultima Online with rampant player predation to come back. The problem is that some of these things require people who aren’t interested in having these things back to participate. If your game is based solely on trying to resurrect that feeling of ganking people who didn’t want to PvP, you’re running into a problem wherein that niche is only composed of the gankers, not the victims. Not every niche can support a viable player population.
In the case of Pantheon, this might be one of the things the developers are a bit anxious about even beyond investors. There’s definitely a population of players who want this game. Is it a big enough population to sustain the game on its own, or does it need people who aren’t the audience to keep it going? Hard to be sure, but it’s a real concern just the same.
The other thing to be aware of when it comes to niche games is that it’s possible for the niche to become oversaturated with too many titles for the people who are actually in that niche. Usually, in those scenarios one game emerges as the clear winner and that’s where people gravitate to playing. There’s only so much time in a day, after all, and by definition you’re playing an MMO and presumably want other people around.
I touched upon that one when talking about the various would-be successors to City of Heroes, noting that the size of the niche is going to impact whether or not a new game actually has players to gain in the first place. That issue looms large over any sort of niche title, especially when a lot of older games already have a still-entrenched population. Sure, EverQuest has undoubtedly changed over the years, but the people who still love the game are already playing it… and it’s also the game where those players already keep all of their stuff.
Ultimately, though, I think we need to work on dismantling any stigma around a game being a niche title. It’s not a bad thing; it’s just a statement of fact. Some games have a smaller niche than others. And it’s a little suspect when a transparently niche game is trying to claim it’s not a niche game because… well, you’re not going to dethrone the big games with a plucky attitude and a song in your heart. Or with denial.