Who Influences Gamers?

As one who has been covering games and the gaming industry for 12 years, I have come to know the core audience — the hard-core gamer who spends 15+ hours per week playing and purchases upwards of eight games annually — someone like me. As one who has made a point of evangelizing this new medium past that core base, it has always been a challenge to parse the degree of influence because most online responses to my opinion come from that core and in various forms of articulation, from essays denouncing my “bias” to the dismissive “meh.”

As if the God of Greater Relevance heard my pleas, Electronic Entertainment Design and Research (EEDAR) recently released a study on the degree of influence professional game reviewers have over purchase decisions. The results, which affirmed my professional existence for the last decade, were interesting and telling. They proved, as have other studies, that the strongest influence on people’s purchase decisions is recommendations from friends and word of mouth. Where the reviewer comes into play is how he influences the strength of the friends’ or the word-of-mouth opinion. Anonymous reviews, depending on their tone, impacted the opinions of college students playing a game for the first time, according to the study. It was nice to know that reviews reach an audience greater than those who have the time to tell me my opinions are wrong, but the sense of collective influence of reviews denotes the potential strength the hard-core gamer community has in shaping popular interest.

If a preponderance of anonymous opinion can have the degree of influence established in the EEDAR/Southern Methodist University study, then it stands to reason that a larger, group opinion could have a similar — if not more influential — effect.  Anyone who has encountered the more noxious elements of the Web in gossip and runaway stories knows how quickly a germ of speculation metastasizes into reality. In the hard-core gaming space — a maelstrom of competitive speculation, insecurity and audacity — these fictions become truths and outcries with lightning speed, most recently in the response to a character redesign for Sony’s inFamous 2. While many game publishers acknowledge these eruptions from time to time, the EEDAR/SMU study highlights how powerful these collective predispositions can be on the less aware consumer. Several games have stood out in my mind as benefiting from a swell of interest from the hard-core set.  

Two games that come to mind from this rabid support group are BioShock and Batman: Arkham Asylum. (Curiously, both were released in similar windows in different years). Both games came to the market with handicaps, BioShock was an original IP with limited mass marketing, Batman was saddled with a history of the license producing continually middling quality games. Both games received exceptional critical responses but were also coupled with strong anticipation from the hard-core base and, upon release, greeted with such enthusiasm that they went on to post strong sales and are now established franchises in their own right.

The largest beneficiary of the hard-core base of support is, without doubt, Nintendo’s Wii. The company has always enjoyed the hysterically enthusiastic support of the hard-core base due to its rescuing the entire videogame industry via the launch of the Nintendo Entertainment System and Super Mario Brothers in 1985. Its well-intentioned yet unsuccessful run with the Nintendo GameCube system had put the company out of the running in the eyes of the press and devoted followers. Upon the introduction of its motion control technology at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in 1996, devotees and those that had diligently covered Nintendo exploded with hope that the once dominant Game Company had returned to prominence. The astonishing success of the console at launch and for the continuing years, despite effective marketing, cannot be separated from the sounding board provided by the hard-core community, amplifying their enthusiasm until the casual consumer (in this anecdotal case, my mother) was forced to inquire about this “Wii thing.”

It’s with this study in mind that the strategies exhibited by Microsoft and Sony to move into Nintendo’s casual space with their own motion-control technology strikes me as counterintuitive because they are pursuing the casual market without courting the hard-core base. At E3 2010, Microsoft demonstrated its technology for the controller-free Kinect peripheral without games designed to excite avid gamers as Nintendo did with titles such as The Legend of Zelda and Red Steel at their launch. And, the non-gaming application of its tech seemed better suited for the tweener set. Sony has stated that its Move peripheral (similar to Nintendo’s Wii motion control) will be optional in its major, traditional titles, but did not present applications that would make its technology essential to the hard-core gamers experience.  

The EEDAR/SMU study suggests that critical acclaim and the support from the hardcore gaming community is a significant aid in reaching the casual and younger market.

Just as I ask my tech about the new iPhone, many gamers will be asked about Sony and Microsoft’s new tech. Right now, using an Internet term that has long plagued me, it’s “meh.”

Adam Sessler is G4’s games content editor-in-chief and host of the videogame show, X-Play.