Elitism in games

Elitism in games

By Kraig Walker

July 3rd 2013 at 4:20PM

Aphelio's Kraig Walker on why some forms of elitism in gaming can be positive

[Kraig Walker is chief technology officer at UK cross-platform games development studio Aphelio.]

There’s a shop in the Buchanan Galleries shopping mall in Glasgow that doesn’t like me. It’s true; there are a lot of shops in there that I myself don’t like, but this time, the fingers on me.

There is no signpost above it, no logo. A roofed facade juts out of the rest of the store unit, blatantly ignoring the building’s three foot rule on exterior shop displays. The windows are partially shuttered. The interior appears to be lit only by desk lamps. Subtle wub-wubs of dubstep waft through. Come in if you dare.

Left Out

“This can’t be a very successful shop,” I thought to myself; “maybe it’s just a really elaborate set up to hide the fact that retail is running out of money.”

Yes, that’s it, it has to be. But I was fatally wrong. The shop I am so afraid of turned out to be the Hollister shop in Glasgow, an upmarket, surf-themed clothing brand from the minds behind Abercrombie and Fitch.

On weekends, shirtless life guards man the obscured entrance to the store. The condition of entry: a photo shoot with your arms wrapped round the perfectly toned, sun kissed torso of the lifeguards, who I had no doubt could not have originated from Scotland.

On Saturday, there was a small crowd of teenage girls and their Justin Bieber tribute boyfriends sipping Frappuccionos waiting for their shot at the Hollister admission rite before they were permitted to fumble around the darkly lit dubstep room filled with T-shirts and undie-things.

One could laugh at such a spectacle, but as I drifted on past with the rest of Scotland’s genetically inferior population, I couldn’t help but think: “I want to be in there".

I, a twenty-something, twig of a programmer who can barely carry an office chair let alone a lady out at sea, vowed to hatch a plan so that I too could have perfectly chiseled biceps with a Vitamin-D rich complexion.

Despite my lofty, probably unattainable newfound aspirations, there’s a bit of genius to be analysed in the way Hollister appeals to it’s followers. Those who want in, and believe it that they are the type of person who belongs in there, get in, while those who don’t are left with an aspirational longing to join them.

All for One, None for All

As game creators, we can sometimes feel like we need to appeal to everyone all at once, or target nobody at all. This can lead to watered down, mediocre clones designed by committee, or a cast out Frankenstein. We mustn't be afraid to avoid appealing to certain kinds of consumer, not just in terms of genre, platform or age rating, but by mentality and attitude towards your products.

Games a rife at attempts to utilise this idea already, but many miss the target. Creating a game and a brand which people aspire to play and play well is not an exact art and never will be. A game like Minecraft has very subtle nuances of elitism around, not through direct actions of the the creators themselves but the sheer talent and quality of their player community.

Many of us (including myself) have bought Minecraft thinking “I could do that,” but when we try, we don’t even get close.

We mustn’t forget about the good ol’ MMO as well, for both good and bad examples. CCP’s EVE Online could perhaps be the Hollister of online gaming. Beautiful, high quality and edgey, but also complex, long-winded and punishing. Only a select few in the gaming population truly belong in CCP’s Universe, but it doesn’t stop the rest of us from trying.

It’s easy to create a game thinking that you’re going to wind up with something that’s prized and high value, but completely miss the mark. If Primark, for example, started planting lifeguards outside their front door, would that make their brand aspirational, or a laughing stock?

The best sort of elitism in games is something we must aspire to achieve and can. If I put my mind to it, I could create a working replica of Edinburgh in Minecraft, with trams.

What I don’t feel like doing however is something everyone else can. Higher gear levels and ranks may seem like a sure-fire way of creating ‘Positive Elitism’ in game, but without any belief or feeling behind their attainment, your game becomes a grind machine that nobody wants to play.

[Interested in contributing your own article for Develop's readers? We're always on the lookout for industry-authored pieces on development-related topics. Email craig.chapple@intentmedia.co.uk for more details.]