Converting the Mainstream

I’ve been thinking about audiences and demographics lately. The Wii U is launching in a few weeks and if there’s one thread I’ve noticed running through the various podcasts I listen to it’s “who is going to buy that thing?” Of course there’s the obvious answer—Nintendo faithful. Those folks will buy any system with a new Mario or Zelda game on it, but the brand loyalists will always turn out for new products from their favorite thing maker (see: Apple).

The mainstream cultural success the Wii saw isn’t something you can easily duplicate. Ask Rovio. Ask Groupon. Ask Ty. It’s tough. Nintendo will certainly sell enough units to justify its existence, that’s not what I’m questioning.

I’m questioning the audience needed. I don’t know the economics of researching, developing and selling a system, so I’m not sure of the ratio of mainstream/niche adoption required to call a system successful. I’m sure it’s still heavily weighted on the mainstream side, and it will be for years to come. And that leads me to my next question.

Who is the mainstream?

I’m an excruciatingly nerdy 28-year-old white male. I love video games and art and writing. I despise CSI, Two and Half Men, Fox News and The Big Bang Theory. I listen to chip tunes while I work. I thought the Doctor’s romance with Rose Tyler was weird. I’ve loved Spider-Man as long as I can remember. For some reason I keep up to date on what new phones are coming out despite only buying a new one once every two years. I think io9 and Lifehacker are the best Gawker Media blogs. I love Regina Spektor. I am not mainstream.

I would bet if you made a quick list of some of the things you are in to (and some of the things you are not), you wouldn’t define yourself as mainstream either. The entertainment world is fracturing, chasing specificity. I rarely turn on my TV and cruise the 500+ channels DIRECTV pumps into my house. If I’m going to turn on the TV, it’s because I already know what I’m going to watch. I know what I like, where to find it, and who’s making it. That’s probably not mainstream behavior.

Kickstarter has shown us that sometimes a niche product can thrive if it finds and caters to a vocal audience. But that’s not always the case. While the success of Fox News and shows like Two and a Half Men have shown us that mainstream audiences don’t care for thoroughly researched news or smartly written shows. Which is why it’s easy to think of fans of those things as uninformed, culturally stunted dullards, but that’s snobby and elitist, also untrue.

We all have our obsessions (I think I’ve made it clear how much I love Call Me Maybe), and some of them are dumb, like Sean Hannity’s show, but that doesn’t make you dumb for liking them. That being said, I think capturing everyone’s attention with anything other than a sporting event is only going to get more difficult as technology and the Internet become more ubiquitous. Ten years from now, a third of Two and Half Men’s viewers might be considered a mainstream success.

Until our entertainment landscape fractures into a zillion tiny pieces, and the cost of the technology used to make consumer electronic products and high production-value shows drops to bargain basement levels, companies like Nintendo, Sony, Microsoft and Apple have to play to the mainstream. They can foot the bill.

We can do our part by excusing some of the mainstreamness from our favorite products. Thing making ain’t free, and sometimes our thing makers have to throw the mainstreamers a bone. For every five witty one-liners in Borderlands 2, there’s at least two groan inducing “jokes” that feel like they were manufactured and stuck in there for the “I laugh at Charlie Sheen’s awful and lazy sexual innuendos” mainstream people (that goes for just about every AAA video game or somewhat geeky blockbuster movie).

We excuse those things in hopes that they’ll convert some mainstreamers. Turn them in to full-on enthusiasts. The more enthusiasts we have, the healthier our hobby becomes, and the fewer groan-inducing gags we’ll endure.

The conversion test

The big question mark is hovering over the current casual mainstream Wii owners—there are tens of millions of them. There’s never been a video game console as successful as the Wii. Grandparents and soccer moms don’t buy Playstation 3s. But I’m not sure they buy fancy new tech upgrades either.

The Wii U is going to be a great conversion test. Can they bring some of the many mainstream Wii owners into the enthusiast space? The Wii U is confusingly similar to its predecessor. It’s got a dumb, samey name (you would have thought they learned from the 3DS, which should have been called Gameboy 3D or something), and it uses some, but not all, of the original Wii’s peripherals.

Look at this hilarious video Game Informer put up this week. Yeah, it’s going to be an uphill battle for Nintendo.

Can Nintendo pull it off? Or are Sony and Microsoft’s all-in-one entertainment box strategies better conversion tools? I like video games, and I like when other people like the things I like. So I hope the Wii U can convince some of those casual Wii owners to take a deeper look at this gaming thing. Let’s fracture that mainstream just a bit more and pump some more life and longevity into our hobby.

Achievement Unlocked: You Left The Mainstream

12 Comments
13 Comments
Posted by yeah_write

I’ve been thinking about audiences and demographics lately. The Wii U is launching in a few weeks and if there’s one thread I’ve noticed running through the various podcasts I listen to it’s “who is going to buy that thing?” Of course there’s the obvious answer—Nintendo faithful. Those folks will buy any system with a new Mario or Zelda game on it, but the brand loyalists will always turn out for new products from their favorite thing maker (see: Apple).

The mainstream cultural success the Wii saw isn’t something you can easily duplicate. Ask Rovio. Ask Groupon. Ask Ty. It’s tough. Nintendo will certainly sell enough units to justify its existence, that’s not what I’m questioning.

I’m questioning the audience needed. I don’t know the economics of researching, developing and selling a system, so I’m not sure of the ratio of mainstream/niche adoption required to call a system successful. I’m sure it’s still heavily weighted on the mainstream side, and it will be for years to come. And that leads me to my next question.

Who is the mainstream?

I’m an excruciatingly nerdy 28-year-old white male. I love video games and art and writing. I despise CSI, Two and Half Men, Fox News and The Big Bang Theory. I listen to chip tunes while I work. I thought the Doctor’s romance with Rose Tyler was weird. I’ve loved Spider-Man as long as I can remember. For some reason I keep up to date on what new phones are coming out despite only buying a new one once every two years. I think io9 and Lifehacker are the best Gawker Media blogs. I love Regina Spektor. I am not mainstream.

I would bet if you made a quick list of some of the things you are in to (and some of the things you are not), you wouldn’t define yourself as mainstream either. The entertainment world is fracturing, chasing specificity. I rarely turn on my TV and cruise the 500+ channels DIRECTV pumps into my house. If I’m going to turn on the TV, it’s because I already know what I’m going to watch. I know what I like, where to find it, and who’s making it. That’s probably not mainstream behavior.

Kickstarter has shown us that sometimes a niche product can thrive if it finds and caters to a vocal audience. But that’s not always the case. While the success of Fox News and shows like Two and a Half Men have shown us that mainstream audiences don’t care for thoroughly researched news or smartly written shows. Which is why it’s easy to think of fans of those things as uninformed, culturally stunted dullards, but that’s snobby and elitist, also untrue.

We all have our obsessions (I think I’ve made it clear how much I love Call Me Maybe), and some of them are dumb, like Sean Hannity’s show, but that doesn’t make you dumb for liking them. That being said, I think capturing everyone’s attention with anything other than a sporting event is only going to get more difficult as technology and the Internet become more ubiquitous. Ten years from now, a third of Two and Half Men’s viewers might be considered a mainstream success.

Until our entertainment landscape fractures into a zillion tiny pieces, and the cost of the technology used to make consumer electronic products and high production-value shows drops to bargain basement levels, companies like Nintendo, Sony, Microsoft and Apple have to play to the mainstream. They can foot the bill.

We can do our part by excusing some of the mainstreamness from our favorite products. Thing making ain’t free, and sometimes our thing makers have to throw the mainstreamers a bone. For every five witty one-liners in Borderlands 2, there’s at least two groan inducing “jokes” that feel like they were manufactured and stuck in there for the “I laugh at Charlie Sheen’s awful and lazy sexual innuendos” mainstream people (that goes for just about every AAA video game or somewhat geeky blockbuster movie).

We excuse those things in hopes that they’ll convert some mainstreamers. Turn them in to full-on enthusiasts. The more enthusiasts we have, the healthier our hobby becomes, and the fewer groan-inducing gags we’ll endure.

The conversion test

The big question mark is hovering over the current casual mainstream Wii owners—there are tens of millions of them. There’s never been a video game console as successful as the Wii. Grandparents and soccer moms don’t buy Playstation 3s. But I’m not sure they buy fancy new tech upgrades either.

The Wii U is going to be a great conversion test. Can they bring some of the many mainstream Wii owners into the enthusiast space? The Wii U is confusingly similar to its predecessor. It’s got a dumb, samey name (you would have thought they learned from the 3DS, which should have been called Gameboy 3D or something), and it uses some, but not all, of the original Wii’s peripherals.

Look at this hilarious video Game Informer put up this week. Yeah, it’s going to be an uphill battle for Nintendo.

Can Nintendo pull it off? Or are Sony and Microsoft’s all-in-one entertainment box strategies better conversion tools? I like video games, and I like when other people like the things I like. So I hope the Wii U can convince some of those casual Wii owners to take a deeper look at this gaming thing. Let’s fracture that mainstream just a bit more and pump some more life and longevity into our hobby.

Achievement Unlocked: You Left The Mainstream

Edited by Kidavenger

Wii U won't reach the same success as the Wii, everyone including Nintendo knows that, but it will sell just as well as any Nintendo home console ever has, they have all been hits (some more than others). Nintendo has the best brand recognition and is the console that every parent buys their children, every year millions of kids turn 6 and want a Nintendo, this fact is something that people here seem to forget. Nintendo has always gone after this crowd, if they can hold on to those kids for their next console, that is just a bonus.

It's nice that Nintendo seems to be making an effort to get better enthusiast games on their console this generation, but it's a mistake to expect Nintendo to include you in it's target demographic forever.

Posted by Salarn

Could you summarize your post some?

I don't know exactly what you want. Do you want to convert the 'main stream'?

If so, why?

Posted by yeah_write

@Salarn: Sure:

Turn them in to full-on enthusiasts. The more enthusiasts we have, the healthier our hobby becomes, and the fewer groan-inducing gags we’ll endure.

Basically, I think the Wii U has a shot at converting some mainstreamers into enthusiasts, but I'm not sure Nintendo is using the best strategy to do so.

@Kidavenger: I agree, the Virtual Boy and Gameboy Micro aside, Nintendo products sell. For some they're on Band-Aid or Kleenex levels of awareness. That is to say, my dad called our Genesis, Playstation, Dreamcast and Playstation 2 "Nintendos." And I'm definitely not expecting Nintendo to include me as part of its target demographic. I think the fact that they focus on younger generations and stubbornly treat their systems as fancy electronic toys is what has kept them around. Let Sony and Microsoft have the all-in-one boxes. That's why the Wii and the WiiU are great gateway drugs to pure, nerdy enthusiast levels. But after watching that Game Informer video, I'm worried they won't even get casual gamers to take a hit.

Posted by iam3green

i like two and a half men. i find it to be a funny show. i don't like the newer episodes though. i just kind of think that they should of just stopped making the show when cbs fired charlie for that whole thing that happened.

i don't think that wii u is going to be that popular compared to what the wii was. i do say that the console probably going to sell a lot more on ebay again. i kind of think that always happens on the internet when something big and new comes out. i say that the wii is going to be a expensive paper weight. i'm saying is that it's going to be sitting for a while.

Posted by ShaggE

I can't express how glad I am that this thread wasn't the hipster tirade I expected at first.

Posted by Salarn

@yeah_write said:

@Salarn: Sure:

Turn them in to full-on enthusiasts. The more enthusiasts we have, the healthier our hobby becomes, and the fewer groan-inducing gags we’ll endure.

Basically, I think the Wii U has a shot at converting some mainstreamers into enthusiasts, but I'm not sure Nintendo is using the best strategy to do so.

Why do you feel that our hobby isn't healthy? We have more games and more variety than ever, and more people playing games than ever before.

Posted by TheDudeOfGaming

Mainstream or not, and I don't know how many Wii users are casual gamers, but I'll say a lot. Most of them won't switch to a Wii U without becoming more serious about gaming first. And for that you'll need a great game. You know that first game that after you played it you started reading gaming magazines to see what's coming up next? The Wii is mostly about casual games. I certainly didn't pick up gaming because I played a simple shooter on the internet when I was 6. Then again, they might upgrade just because it's an upgrade and they like the Wii. Who knows. But gamers who don't own a Wii might buy the Wii U but only after a price drop, and it certainly won't be as a success (if it is) as the next gen PS or Xbox.

The Wii U is however a more "serious" console than the previous one, and I'm frankly always happy to see new tech hit the market even if I won't buy it.

Posted by yeah_write

@Salarn: I said "healthier" implying that it could get better, not that it's bad now. Although with studios closing on what seems like a weekly basis, I do worry for the state of the industry. It's probably just growing pains. There are going to be some big shifts in how things work over the next generation, that's for sure.

Posted by believer258

The "mainstream" already is converted. Call of Duty 4 helped a whole lot to make games an acceptable past time amongst adults, and now we have some things like Skyrim which sell like crazy. The problem right now is

@yeah_write said:

@Salarn: I said "healthier" implying that it could get better, not that it's bad now. Although with studios closing on what seems like a weekly basis, I do worry for the state of the industry. It's probably just growing pains. There are going to be some big shifts in how things work over the next generation, that's for sure.

Yep, growing pains. Now that video games have grown into something most people can accept as a decent pastime for people of all ages, the people who run the industry have got to figure out how to manage it well. It's still young and still growing, and these are the rough teenage years where it's trying to find an identity.

Posted by Salarn

@yeah_write: @believer258:

I see the point you are making but consider the closest competitor to the games which is movies. Now, I'm hardly a movie connoisseur having only seen 'Batman' 'Avengers' and 'Prometheus' (and 'Wreck it Ralph' planned) this year, I don't think the movie industry needs to convert me to watch Sundance or TIFF movies to be healthier.

Posted by believer258

@Salarn said:

@yeah_write: @believer258:

I see the point you are making but consider the closest competitor to the games which is movies. Now, I'm hardly a movie connoisseur having only seen 'Batman' 'Avengers' and 'Prometheus' (and 'Wreck it Ralph' planned) this year, I don't think the movie industry needs to convert me to watch Sundance or TIFF movies to be healthier.

Yes, and I have a hard time believing that the games industry is going to be much different than the movie industry as far as subject material goes. Superhero games, crime dramas, war shooters, etc., those sorts of things will probably always be the most popular subject material for games, at least in America (don't know about what's popular everywhere else), because that's what the audience is most receptive to, with the occasional sci-fi (Halo) or fantasy (Skyrim) thing breaking into the mainstream. I'm not too scared of that, though. We've got so many different ways for games with lesser budgets and more creative ideas to still get around and make money that it doesn't bother me too much.

Posted by Fredchuckdave

You are somewhat mainstream as you defined yourself with respect to video games. Or put another way the fact that you seek to define yourself by generic societal terms indicates a level of assimilation. The Wii-U won't sell that well because it doesn't do anything for those who only purchased a Wii for exercise; whether it sells as well as the newer consoles kind of depends on what games come out for it; though obviously lagging behind in hardware performance never goes well (RIP Dreamcast).