This is an essay written in April/May of 2016 on the trajectory of horror video games in the AAA space. As such, some of the data in this essay may be outdated. If there is an interest, I will update with new data and revise my conclusions to reflect it.
“Games have inhabited the horror genre for as long they’ve been in existence” So writes Richard Rouse III in an essay for Horror Video Games: Essays on the Fusion of Fear and Play (Perron et. Al., p.15). Many of the authors in this book talk about how video games is a more perfect medium for horror in that you get a deeper connection to the story than you would if you were, say, reading a book or watching a movie. In those flat mediums you lay witness to others getting chased by the big bad. The story relies on your empathy for characters to create a truly emotional connection to the people. However, in the game you are in direct control of everything that happens to the protagonist. “Indeed, this is a new type of horror, because death would no longer be something happening to someone else, but instead to you. Any chance of redemption and eventual success would involve you facing down death again and again and somehow, finally, emerging victorious.” (15) The horror genre, for a long time has been a cult affair, with those who admire it doing so to the point of obsession. But going to those forums or blogs that specialize in talking about the genre tend to look at the games of old like Resident Evil (Mikami) and Silent Hill (Toyama) reminiscing about how good the old days were. This presented a quandary; what was happening to the genre that there was rarely buzz about its future? The short lived Playstation demo PT (Kojima) sent a shiver through the entire gaming community, that helped spark a desire for more atmospheric horror games. And independent titles like Amnesia: The Dark Descent (Frictional) and Outlast (Red Barrels) changed the genre by leaving the player completely vulnerable, but those games were not triple A (AAA).
So where did the AAA horror genre go?
This paper seeks to investigate the possible reasons why there are so few AAA horror titles being released into the video game market in two ways. First it will look to the past and see what horror titles have come out that fall under the AAA and Indie areas. Then a survey and its participants will be analyzed in order to get a sense why people may or may not like horror games.
Horror Games: A History
Before diving into the data on the genre, a better picture needs to be painted. Horror in video games has always been a common staple, starting with the game Haunted House (Atari) where one player played detective while the other played a ghost trying not to get caught. This simplistic design would slowly evolve with the Atari, where the genre would take a “decidedly sci-fi feel.” So says Jon Newcombe in his Gamereactor article The History of Horror: A Video Game Retrospective (Oct. 2013). He notes several games where the main antagonist was an alien presence that must be avoided and eventually defeated in order to win the game.
Soon with the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) and Master System came a slew of new horror titles. “This was the era of the licensed move tie-in that saw horror films like Friday The 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street and Bram Stoker’s Dracula get video game makeovers.” (Newcombe) the bit generations evolved with titles like Castlevania and soon gave way to Playstation and what is said to be the Golden-Era of Horror video games. While there will be other games that start the ball rolling, this all truly kicks off in 1996 with the release of Resident Evil where you are stuck in a mansion fighting off hordes of the undead with bad camera angles, stronger enemies by the room, and very limited ammo. “The formula resonated with players. It was dread-inducing in the best of ways—a thrill to explore this mansion, a fright to face those increasingly bizarre monsters, the best of challenges to do speed-runs and gather secrets. It appealed to players in different ways, from the unique atmosphere to the layered gameplay. Even its B-movie campiness, with a bad live-action intro and Engrish dialogue, only added to the overall charm.” Writes Bryan Cebulski on the golden era (“Horror”). With the game being such a huge success in several countries, it brought with it the desire for large companies to get some of the profit. Games started to come out that were seen as hits. This time brought with it Silent Hill, Parasite Eve (Squaresoft), Dino Crisis (Capcom) and Clock Tower (Agetec). All games that are, to this day considered classics in not only the genre but video games as a whole.
However, the magic started to slow down and the genre again experienced a shift. In the AAA space the genre slowly moved to a more action style of play, with games like Dead Space (Electronic Arts) and F.E.A.R. (Monolith) allowing the player to shoot their problems away with bullets to spare. The indie space became the place for horror fans to go to get the horror experience the sought. Amnesia: The Dark Descent became the new way for horror to be played, and more and more interesting indie games became the way for people to experience fear. As the indie space continued to grow, the AAA space began to move towards a more action oriented horror game.
Big Question and Hypothesis
When looking at the state of the horror game genre there was one question that stood out: Why are there less games being produced in the AAA space? After doing some initial research on the history of the genre and looking into some of the games themselves, two hypothesis came to mind:
- There was a lack of interest in the horror genre as a whole among people who play video games
- Indies had more appeal in the space, meaning that they had more control and were dominating most of the profits.
Once those ideas were thought out, a plan came to mind in order to pit them against each other, in order to see if they had anything to do with each other.
Tracing the Games
In order to see who had more control of the Horror genre between AAA and Indie, a list of all games with a major horror element were compiled from the golden age were compiled from the start of the golden age (1994) to the end of 2015. Once this list was compiled, there was a period of determination as to whether or not the games came from independent companies or the AAA space. This ended up being a more difficult task than expected, but that will be brought into more detail later in the paper.
Talking to People Who Play Games
The other part of the research process involved distributing a survey (See appendix) to people who played video games. This 18 question survey was distributed using social media and select people who had large pools of influence among members of the gaming community. The logic in the survey was presented in such a way that those who played horror games would get a specific set of questions that would explain why they enjoyed the genre and their history with it while those who didn’t play horror games would give the reason as to why. These questions were primed by asking how often they chose to play games, what platforms they used to play them, and how they learned about the games they purchased. 34 people ended up taking the survey as of Saturday April 30th.
Indie After All
One of the more surprising results of research was how much the indie genre over took the horror genre. Looking at Figure 1, there is a minor bump in how many titles were created in the indie space that in the AAA space.
However, this data is nowhere near perfect. The criteria that was used to determine left a lot of room for interpretation as to whether a game could actually be considered indie or AAA and left a few unknowns. In order to determine indie, I allowed in most cases small video game companies that had a major industry leader behind them if the game didn’t have as much acclaim in the art form. It brings up the question as to what can be actually considered an indie if it has the backing of a major company. The other problem faced during the gathering of the data is that the farther back the game was, the harder it was to find any information on it. Many of these companies have turned into other forms of technological enterprises and no longer hold any information on their time as a video game company. If there was more time, there would have to be quite a bit more research into archiving the company information so that accurate data could be better gathered.
But looking at what is on hand now, the perception of where the horror genre came from was skewed. In a sense it has always been a genre that belonged to the indie space. Companies like RiverHillSoft and Trilobyte were some of first companies that kicked off how the genre started. As noted before, it wasn’t until the NES and Master System when horror games started to get bigger budgets and more production values. This then set a standard for not only horror video games, but games as a whole in the digital space. It became more difficult for indie to show off their work in the golden era because the AAAs tried to take over. It wasn’t until that golden era ended, when games like Halo became more popular and AAAs tried to shift more towards that space that indies again got their foothold in the genre again. In a sense, a story is weaved by looking at the timeline of things; first something humble and left to a new frontier, indies controlled everything until the AAA managed to see the appeal. Then there was a time when things were considered glorious and the horror genre took the industry by storm. But it didn’t last and, to paraphrase a cliché movie line, the geeks inherited the earth (again).
So in a sense hypothesis two is both right and wrong. There is a great appeal for indie horror games in the industry, but it had always been there. More accurately, during that golden era of video games AAA titles had more appeal than indies did giving them dominance over the genre at the time. To make a giant leap to a somewhat unfounded conclusion, there was never really a decline in the AAA space, but more of a spark that burned hot and gloriously for a period of time before turning into a smoking ember.
Sometimes You Have to Shoot things
But looking at the industry wasn’t enough to satisfy. Looking at the data from the surveys put a final nail in the coffin. Looking at Figure 2, only 30% of respondents play games within the horror genre. They are much more taken with First Person Shooters (64%) and Role-Playing Games (48%). The only thing that scores lower than horror (who tied with simulation and barely got beaten by Massive Multiplayer Online games) were puzzle games. When looking at why these groups of people do not like horror games, the most overwhelming response was that they just didn’t like the genre (Figure 3). The other most accurate response given was that they preferred to watch others play, which makes sense as some of the most prominent YouTube personalities got their claim to fame by playing horror games, many of them continuing to this day.
Feeling a bit discouraged, it was time to look at why people enjoyed the genre and how they chose to enjoy it. Looking at the data, most people who enjoyed horror games purchased 1-3 titles in the past year, with the next best being 2-6 (Figure 4). Of those titles, more were bought in the indie horror space than in AAA (Figure 5, 6).
Looking at some of the text responses gave some interesting results. When asked what their first horror experience, all respondents noted a game from the golden era (Table 1), while their most recent experience is from independent game companies (Table 2). This idea is intriguing; those who grew up or started out with that golden era of games tended toward the independent genre. This produces several questions that could be further researched; Are there direct parallels between golden era games and the indies of today? If such favorability to the golden era exists, then why did the AAA space not continue with their formula to create more games within this space? I think in a superficial sense both of these questions can be answered by the standard “they are innovative! That’s why they were so popular” comment, but I feel this could be explained further.
Again the data collection was difficult in this case as well. The online survey program Qualtrics was used, and while they offer a clean interface for respondents to answer their questions on, the logic it followed was flawed and ended up having to be essentially gotten rid in the middle of gathering data. It would often kick out respondents after asking the initial questions or direct them to one logic set rather than another. This ultimately made it so very few people were able to answer the questions about the horror genre that was needed for this research.
All in all, though, the data I did gather is very telling and proves hypothesis 1 correct. There is not a huge interest in horror games today. People enjoy engaging in other forms of the medium rather than playing horror. And with technology the way it is now, it easier for people to watch others play games without having to play them themselves. In this way, it can be found concerning that the medium as a whole is going to fall flat if people more often choose to watch rather than engage. And again to reference Rouse’s essay, this is not the intended way for someone to gauge the genre. When someone is a witness to another playing, they again must empathize with either the player or the in-game protagonist in order to truly get an understanding of the story. Granted a person can still feel suspense and fear when watching others play, but the effect is much less effective.
Because if something is bothering you, you can simply look away.
This research has greater impact in both the research and horror game communities. This work is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to topics that can be investigated within horror. How can we continue to innovate the genre? How do different companies with different cultural backgrounds handle horror tropes in their games? For that matter, how do people outside of those countries interact with their approaches and lore? What would convince people to play horror games, what is it about them that triggers disinterest or an adverse reaction? Is the let’s play and streaming community affecting the sales of horror games, especially for indies that need the sales in order to survive? So much information is absent or outdated in the research of horror games that a call should be put out in order to gather new information.
For the Horror game community, and for indie developers in particular, a sigh of relief can be had. The horror genre started in indie and has gone back to its home there. Every day, either on Kickstarter or Steam Greenlight or other 3rd party gaming platforms horror games are being produced and put out for the world to judge. Those that play pass it along and some lucky few will get the privledge of getting played for the world to see. However, it makes one wonder, since the AAA games of the golden era are still highly regarded, if the major companies will try and steal back the throne to bring about another golden age. As of the past 3 years there have been attempts at high production games that bring back the genre, but they still fall short of becoming the pioneers of the new era. With the things the past has told us, it feels like there may come a time when AAA will again become the champions in the genre. But as things stand now, fans of horror will continue to investigate the indie scene, trying to find a light in the darkness.
Amnesia the dark descent [Computer software]. (2011). S. l.: Frictional Games;.
Cebulski, B. (2015, October 02). Horror History Part 1: The Golden Age of Survival-Horror – Gamemoir.
Clock tower [Computer software]. (1997). Redwood city CA: Agetec.
Dead space [Computer software]. (2008). Redwood City, CA: Electronic Arts.
Dino crisis [Computer software]. (1999). London: Capcom Eurosoft.
Haunted house [Computer software]. (1981). Sunnyvale, CA: Atari.
Kojima, H. (2014, August 12). PT- Playable Teaser [Computer software].
Mikami, S. (1996). Resident evil [Computer software]. Osaka, Japan: Capcom Entertainment, Inc.
Newcombe, J. (2013, October 31). The History of Horror: A Video Game Retrospective.
Outlast [Computer software]. (2013). Red Barrels.
Parasite Eve [Computer software]. (1998). Costa Mesa, CA: Squaresoft.
Perron, B. (2009). Horror Video Games: Essays on the Fusion of Fear and Play. McFarland & Company Incorporated.
Toyama, K. (1999). Silent Hill [Computer software]. , Middlesex: Konami.
This survey was used in order to determine what genres respondents typically played and what either attracted them or pushed them away from horror games.
Q1 How many hours a week do you play video games?
- 1-5 Hours
- 6-10 Hours
- 11-15 Hours
Q6 What platform do you play games on the MOST?
- Xbox 360
- Xbox One
- Handheld (Nintendo DS, Playstation Vita, etc.)
- Other: ____________________
Q5 How do you find out about the games you choose to purchase?
- Social Media
- Online Game Websites (IGN, Kotaku, etc.)
- User Reviews
- Gameplay Videos/Streams (Twitch, Youtube)
- Game Periodicals (Game Informer, PC Gamer, Kill Screen, etc.)
Q2 Which genres do you play during your hours of playtime (Check all that apply)?
- Shooter (FPS)
- Horror/Survival Horror
Q3 Based on your answer to question 2, you identified as someone who plays First Person Shooters (FPS). Of the total time you play, how many are spent playing FPS games? (If you don’t play FPS games, skip this question)
Q25 If you play little to no horror games, please choose the any reason below:
- I don’t like the genre
- I don’t know much about it
- I used to play more before, but have recently stopped
- I prefer watching others play it
- Other: ____________________
Q10 In the video game industry, a AAA game is a term used for games with the highest development budgets and levels of promotion. How many AAA FPS titles have you purchased in the last year?
Q27 This section is for those who answered that they play survival horror games. If you do not play horror games, you may skip to the end of the survey.
Q4 Based on your answer to question 2, you identified as someone who plays Horror/Survival Horror games. Of the total time you play, how man are spent playing Horror games?
Q12 In a brief statement, explain what attracts you to video games?
Q13 How many horror titles have you purchased in the last year?
Q14 In the video game industry, a AAA game is a term used for games with the highest development budgets and levels of promotion. How many of the horror titles you purchased were AAA?
Q15 Indie are video games created by individuals or small teams generally without a publisher’s financial support. How many of the horror titles you purchased were indie games?
Q17 What attracts you to AAA horror games?
Q18 What attracts you to indie horror games?
Q19 If you had to choose, would you rather play AAA or indie horror games?
Q21 If you can recall, what was your first horror game experience?
Q22 What has been your favorite horror game in the past 2 years?
This table includes all horror games from 1994 to 2015 with indication as to whether they are an indie title or AAA.
I = Indie