Do you like niche games? Although I love my share of blockbuster titles, the games that are closest to my heart are often considered part of a “niche” genre, one that only appeals to a small and specific crowd. The term “niche” gets thrown around a lot when talking about games, and sometimes it can be useful. For instance, that inscrutable Japanese game starring sentient sushi probably appeals to a niche crowd, and knowing that, a company shouldn't rightly expect it to sell five million copies in the West.
In general, though, I think we overuse the term “niche” in a way that hurts the development and marketing of games that receive the label. The niche label is highly subjective, can lead to lazy marketing, is problematic for long-term game development, and is even used to stigmatize certain groups of gamers.
Having been a gamer since the mid-1980's, I've seen star game genres come and go. Yesterday's heavy hitters can turn into today's niche games when something shinier and newer comes along. The thing is, many of these so-called niche genres aren't niche at all. For instance, point and click adventure games are supposedly niche (mostly because the big companies dumped them when FPS games came out), but Telltale Games and Double Fine have shown that there's still a huge audience hungry for high-quality games in the genre.
Turn-based and strategy RPGs are also often thought of as niche titles, but many sell quite well when they're properly marketed. The fact that they're considered poison by publishers says more about the goofiness of the games industry's current “AAA or bust” mentality than it does about their marketability. Plenty of so-called mainstream games sell poorly as well, often because me-too publishing decisions flood the market with too many games that are too alike. There's always the chance for a so-called niche game to hit the jackpot, and in fact many big gaming trends start when just such a thing happens.
Unfortunately, when a particular game is considered niche, it can become the victim of lazy marketing. It's cheap and easy to market a game to a well-known existing audience, or even to count on that audience to pass the word along without doing much marketing at all. I've seen a lot of Japanese publishers make that mistake when bringing games to the West, unnecessarily narrowing the audience for quality games by cheaping out on marketing. More companies ought to question that niche label and think outside of the marketing box when they have a strong title that could resonate with a larger audience.
The niche label can also lead to problematic development trends, in which game companies work to fulfill the wishes of an ever-narrowing group of super-fans instead of formulating a strong vision for their titles. Of course, it's not just niche companies that fall prey to this problem—I've been watching Blizzard ride the crazy fan-go-round for a number of years now—but it can be particularly bad when a company is dealing with a very small, extremely vocal fan base. It's difficult to innovate when doing so risks alienating one's most vocal fans, which is why companies that decide not to stray from their niche risk having their fan base dwindle into obscurity.
Finally, the niche label is often applied in an unfair manner to games that appeal more to women, children, or people over thirty than to the supposed mainstream or “hardcore” demographic of teenage and young adult male gamers. There's a lot of bias in both the traditional games industry and the gaming community against many game genres, and describing said games as “niche” is an easy way to dismiss them (even when they're actually selling very well) without giving them a fair shake. Thinking of these games as niche also tends to relegate them to a company's shovelware bin, dooming games that aren't super fast-paced or all about killing things to low production and marketing budgets.
So the next time you think about calling something a niche game, think about why you've made that decision. Is it really the kind of game that will only appeal to a small group of people due to inscrutable mechanics or out-there subject matter, or are you simply using that label because of the many unfair stereotypes that the gaming community propagates? Even those of us who love so-called niche games could be doing them a disservice by using the label. Let's try just calling a great game exactly that, instead of unnecessarily burdening it with the word “niche.” Maybe we can even get the game industry to follow suit.