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The Fall of the Middle Market

Before I even begin, I'm sure more than a few of you are scratching your heads at the term "Middle Market," and that's to be expected. As the video game industry has grown into the colossal money making machine that it is now, the middle market that helped make it grow has slowly begun to fade away. So what is the "Middle Market" exactly? Let me put it like this: nowadays, most people only know of two categories of games; indie and AAA. But there has to be more than, right? A grey area, if you will. Well that grey area is the middle market. Games that have a higher budget and bigger development team than indie games, but still aren't as big as AAA games.

So what happened to this alleged "middle market?" Well there's a couple of factors that contributed to its inevitable decline. The biggest, and most noteworthy, is the increasingly high cost of developing a video game. There was once a time where you could create a best selling hit with your lunch money. Now, with the advent of photo realistic graphics and the need for marketing, video games are incredibly expensive to develop and market. Games like Destiny and Grand Theft Auto V set records with their astronomical development and marketing budgets. The middle market started experiencing a noticeable decline in around 2009. In 2009, we were well into the PS3 and Xbox 360's lifespan, and that's around the time that video games were becoming "mainstream." What, mainly, appealed to mainstream gamers at that time was graphical fidelity and how many advertisements they saw for said game. If your middle market game couldn't appeal to either of those two things, mainstream gamers wouldn't give you the time of day.

Partially one of the other reasons why the middle market of games is fading away is because of big name reviewers publicly crucifying them. Instead of comparing a middle market game with small budget to a similar middle market game with a small budget, they would compare a middle market game with a small budget to a hyped up AAA game with 20x that budget. Causing gamers to pan said middle market game because it isn't the next Skyrim or Witcher 3, and thus allowing that middle market developer to close their doors because they couldn't turn a profit. "BUT SIMON!" I hear you cry, "you've compared middle market games to AAA games before." The difference? I've only ever compared the strengths of a middle market game to the weaknesses of a AAA game. Which is the only way a review should compare a middle market game to a AAA game. This isn't a two way street. It is absolutely unfair to compare the strengths of a game with a multi-million dollar budget to the weaknesses of a small budget title that's lucky enough to even get onto Steam or consoles.

Now that isn't to say that every middle market game is immediately good just because it's middle market. The same rules of review still apply, but don't go into a game like Bound by Flame and expect Skyrim. Bound by Flame is still a fantastic game, an underrated gem of sorts, but it doesn't have the same scope or graphical fidelity of Skyrim. So it makes up for it with meaningful characters and a deep, tactically based combat system which seamlessly blends with traditional hack and slash gameplay. Along with better writing, RPG elements, armor and weapon customization, enemy variation, and overall combat, but that's an article for another time.

Why is the middle market so important? Because most of the biggest AAA developers today were the middle market developers of yesteryear. Bethesda before Morrowind, Rockstar before Grand Theft Auto 3, and CD Projekt Red before The Witcher 2 were all once unheard of nobodies before they finally made their first breakout hit. Now they're some of the biggest names in the video game industry. Whether or not the quality of each game has dwindled since becoming big name developers is up for debate. The point is everybody started somewhere. No developer just started out as AAA from the get go. Well, nowadays, that's not necessarily true. AAA publishers have really started seeing the potential of indie games. Without naming names, big name publishers will take an indie developer they see potential in under their wing. While there's nothing inherently wrong with that, they've unknowingly created another grey area. Now that indie team has a blank check written to them by a big name publisher as well as the added benefit of said publisher's marketing team. So are they still an indie studio or a new AAA developer? The indie team may still be the same size, but they have the money and marketing of a AAA developer now.

Let's get back on track. Furthermore, the middle market is where you will find the most original games for sale. Indie games are trying to be the next Minecraft without changing much, and AAA games are trying to be the next Call of Duty or Assassin's Creed without changing much. That's because they know those types of games sell and the name of the game is to make money, right? Well yes and no. Of course you have to turn a profit to continue developing games, and money is nice, but is it worth it to sell your soul and originality just to make a quick buck? Ask EA or Ubisoft. Middle market games have found a happy middle ground in this predicament. While it's hard to be completely original when almost every idea has been done to death, middle market developers are at least trying to be original. Not just changing the names of characters or places and tacking on useless mechanics in a vain attempt at "originality." Middle market developers know they can't match the same level of graphical fidelity or scope of story that AAA developers shoot for, so they instead make up for it in other ways such as writing quality or gameplay.

With a title like "The Fall of the Middle Market," you'd think I was implying that the middle market is dead and gone, but that's not true. Even though it's still an endangered species, the middle market is still around. Some of my favorite developers, which are also noteworthy middle market developers, are Spiders and Frogwares. Spiders for their underrated gems such as Mars: War Logs, Bound by Flame, and The Technomancer. And Frogwares for their amazing Sherlock Holmes series of games. Besides both being middle market developers, they have another thing in common. They both have, at one point been under the same publisher: Focus Home Interactive. Focus specializes almost entirely in the middle market, and just browsing through their published games will open you to a world of games you may not have heard of, but will quickly become some of your favorites. Focus Home Interactive aren't the only ones publishing middle market masterpieces. Browse around Steam, or whichever service you prefer, and you'll probably find a world you've been missing out on for years.


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