More on hardcore vs. mainstream

Here’s what I’m talking about. Joystiq has a post saying a leaked scan from a Nintendo Power interview reveals that Ganon will be back for Zelda: Twilight Princess. The post continues, “The hype surrounding Twilight Princess is growing to Halo 2 proportions, and these latest statements are sure to ignite frenzy amongst Nintendophiles.”

Why is Ganon’s return a big deal? Will that have any bearing on how good Twilight Princess is? What if Ganon returns in a glitchy, annoying boss battle? I’m sure it won’t be like that, but the point is a beloved (or behated, in this case) character is nothing on its own. Comics fans get all excited or up in arms about various villains returning or shifting X-Men lineups, but the characters don’t matter in and of themselves. It’s what the writers and artists do with them that makes a difference.

I referenced the comics situation in my last post about this, and I found the essay I was thinking of that warns of focusing too much on a hardcore audience. A few years ago, comics writer Steven Grant had a weekly column at Comic Book Resources called Master of the Obvious (his latest CBR column is called Permanent Damage). In his second column, from Aug. 10, 1999, Grant wrote about the problems with trying to attract new comics readers while perpetually focusing on superhero titles. He writes:

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying you shouldn’t like superheroes. Be my guest. But the mentality that says the long term goal of introducing people to comics is to get them to read X-Men (or Spider-Man, or Green Lantern, or Wildcats, whatever) has killed the business. The idea that any story worth telling is worth telling as a superhero story … has killed the business.

Now, the video game industry is in far better shape than the comics industry was in 1999 (though things have gotten a bit better for comics since then); a direct comparison isn’t fair. But Grant’s larger point holds up for video games. Focusing on too narrow a segment of your audience, even if it’s a fervent one, is an obstacle to real growth. For Grant, the focus should be on the people who were excited by the smart, nontraditional comics that arose in the 80s: Love and Rockets, the Sandman, Watchmen, etc. He says:

Those readers are the great untapped resource of the comics industry. There’s no reason to believe they couldn’t be enticed back — if there were comics they wanted to read. … To get them back, we have to make comics interesting again. … Designing the right costume isn’t going to make it happen. The only thing that’s going to make it happen is getting fresh content — real content — into a medium stale to the point of extinction. Which means endlessly reiterating the material we dug as kids in an effort to recapture the excitement we felt then has got to stop. A comics industry that is conservative in nature is not an industry that can compete on the entertainment landscape. The past is the past; it’s not the road to the future.

Again, he’s describing a much more rigid, backward-looking, and constricted business than video games. But the overall point holds. There are millions of people who hold fond memories of video games because of old-school Pac-Man obsessions, but may be turned off by the Grand Theft Auto attitude and geeky multiplayer shooting matches. Bringing Ganon back doesn’t register to these people. It’s like redesigning Spider-Man’s costume: Outside the faithful, who cares? Sure it’s good to keep the faithful excited and engaged, but that should be a small part of efforts to grow the business. Despite The Sims, Nintendogs, DDR, Guitar Hero and plenty of others (such a list illustrates how much more successful video games have been than comics in expanding the audience), there’s still too much of a superhero mentality in the gaming world. Until that changes the fabled mainstream will remain out of reach.

— January 25, 2006

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