Return From Warp Zone: The Generation Gap

The average age of today’s traditional Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 owner is 37. A couple of years ago that number was 35. Looking back near the start of the generation, that number was 30. Notice a trend? Every time the age of the current gaming demographic is surveyed by one organization or another, the number almost always winds up being older than previous years. Gamers are an aging demographic.

Just recently, THQ announced that it’s getting out of the kid’s market and transitioning solely towards the core gaming demographic. What is the core gaming demographic? Well, it’s us – you know, the people who play shooters, sandbox games, sports games, and all the other stereotypical safe-to-produce, aka “low risk” titles. It’s a fairly sure bet that if you drop a space marine on the box and spent a few million on the Unreal 3 engine and some good cut-scenes for a GameTrailers or Spike TV premiere, you’ll ship at least a couple of million copies to that core “18-to-35” year old shooter audience that doesn’t play much else. The problem is, the traditional core audience that plays shooters is no longer “18-to-35”. The people who buy shooters and sports games today are by and large the same audience that bought them when Halo 2 hit the streets. Try “25-to-45” for a more realistic age gap.

Gaming is an aging audience. It is safe to assume that today’s “core” gamer probably has a Nintendo Entertainment System, Sega Genesis, or Sony PlayStation sitting in their attic or garage somewhere. We’re a tight-knit crew, but we’re also starting to become eclipsed by larger demographics of younger social gamers and Farm-ville players who would rather play in their browser than take time out of their busy life to spend with a console. Social games are becoming a multi-billion dollar industry. What happens when we transition to the next Xbox, PlayStation 4, or Wii U? Will social gamers plunk down that $400 entry fee + software, or will they stick with Farmville?

Traditional consoles cannot survive solely on the backs of the crowd that has been playing shooters for the past decade. The people that rocked Goldeneye 64 parties in their dorms are getting older, having kids, and getting too tied up with life to game like they used to. Traditionally, new players would be coming in to fill the ranks, but there are a lot more distractions out there than there were a decade ago, when every core player’s little brother or sister was trying to get their hands on the controller when their older sibling was out of the room. Kids are growing up gaming on cheap Android tablets and iPads, rather than a generation ago when you couldn’t walk into a store without seeing SpongeBob games on PlayStation 2 and licensed Disney games on GameCube. In fact, most of those licensed brands are now on those tablets now.

Not as common a sight as it was a decade ago.

It’s no secret that Sony and Microsoft’s consoles are tailored to adult players, but more and more the two are forgetting about the next wave of players. Today’s Xbox library contains a mere fraction of the kids titles that populated the PlayStation 2. Of course, Nintendo is still around producing traditional family friendly gaming software and hardware. But Nintendo alone can’t produce enough young gamers to support future generations of PlayStation 4 and Xbox 720 players who fill that “core” demographic and end up buying all the big budget shooters and sandbox games. What happens when they all get married and pop out enough kids that they don’t have time for the next Halo or Call of Duty?

You can expect Microsoft’s next console to place a BIG focus on Kinect and bringing in the casual bucks. It may startle long time Xbox players with how much emphasis Microsoft puts on casual versus core going forward, but it will be Microsoft’s way of acknowledging that the core demographic isn’t growing at the speed of other markets. As for Sony, the PlayStation 3 has another couple of years in the tank, so they’ve got more time to survey and plot their course. One can look at Nintendo and see a more healthy demographic for the younger gamer among us, but even Nintendo’s numbers are incredibly padded. Sure, the Wii has sold over 80 million units worldwide, but over half of Wii sales went to grandma and grandpa type gamers who don’t buy software. It sort of harkens back to the time of the NES when lots of midwestern folks bought the NES for the included Super Mario Bros./Duck Hunt pack-in, and rarely, if ever, bought software. Much like the NES to SNES transition, don’t expect the Wii U to match the numbers of it’s more casual suited predecessor, but do expect the owner demographic to be of a higher breed (eg: actually buy software.)

The demographics of gaming are changing. No longer can we rely on that time tested stereotype of the “shooter fan” dictating the direction of future consoles. A new Xbox tailored specifically to the Halo and Call of Duty fan isn’t going to survive the long haul. While those players must be accounted for and catered to – they have what they want. They just want more of it. Future consoles must reach out to the PC and the tablet and pull back that next generation of player who is currently drifting away from the controller. In a world of distracting gadgets, console manufacturers have a tough job to do – they’ve got to remind kids that video games are still cool.

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