Welcome back Powerwolf pack! The Mailbag calls to us once again. This week we address the fluctuating target market of the superhero film and the nickel-and-diming DLC practices of the gaming industry.
Firstly, let me begin by saying I am not really into the whole superhero genre, I didn’t grow up watching animated Spider-Man, but superheroes were in the peripherals of the media I consumed growing up. As an adult I’m getting into it a little bit more, I think they’re being treated as a more sophisticated genre which creates a lot more depth. The new Deadpool movie is a far cry from what I remember about the first Spider-Man movie with Toby Maguire.
But that brings me to my question; have 20 and 30 somethings usurped the genre from children?
When I think of superheroes I picture comic books and the animated shows that inevitably creeped into my 90’s childhood. I don’t think I’m alone in appropriating comic books being for children; while it is also an adult hobby, what comes to mind for me is Bart and Milhouse frequenting The Android’s Dungeon for the latest edition of Radioactive Man.
And I don’t think I’m alone in my first thought being that superheroes being a child’s domain. My Mom once provided weeks of nightmare fuel for my young cousins by popping in The Dark Knight before doing some dishes after the boys said “can we watch Daddy’s Batman movie?” More recently, I was quite surprised when I realized the group sitting behind me in the Deadpool showing was comprised of a dad-type with a few boys no older than ten. (Heck, Deadpool even did a campaign about how the movie was not intended for kids!)
I’d love your insight on this as I know you’re more acquainted with the superhero than myself.
The appropriation of the superhero genre by adults is actually something that’s been a long time coming. Superheroes first came about in the late 1930’s with comics aimed at young children. Characters like Superman eventually made their way to slightly wider audiences in radio and television shows, but the genre as a whole only aged up when Marvel came along in the 1960’s with books aimed more towards a teen/YA audience. I would argue that this was the sweet spot that triggered a revolution. Adults began to wish their heroes would “grow up” with them, triggering an untapped market for “mature” superhero stories.
The genre adapted and hit critical mass in the 80’s as stories like Alan Moore’s The Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns deconstructed and re-evaluated the superhero mythos in a fascinatingly negative light. The existence of vigilante superheroes, they argued, would inevitably lead to fascism and a might-makes-right scenario, where costumed mad men decided the fate of civilization.
And they’re right. A world with superheroes would likely end this way. But as is the case with most stories, reality has never quite been the point. In the foreword for his 1996 comic series Astro City, Kurt Busiek writes
“Superheroes can be used as a metaphor, as symbol, whether for the psychological transformation of adolescence, the self image of a nation, or something else… One of the most charming elements of the superhero story, for me, lies in the fact that the world it all happens in is our world… dealing with metaphor run amok, coping not with what logical effect it all has, but with the emotional effect. Not what it would be like if superheroes existed in our world, but what it would feel like if we could wander through theirs. It’s not a realistic world, but it’s a fascinating one.”
The superhero metaphor is an inherently adolescent one, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be applied to mature subjects. Adding powers to any situation often acts as fantasy shorthand to exacerbate an already intense situation. I personally feel that Spider-Man is at his best when he has to balance his responsibility of protecting the world with simply making sure he’s not falling behind in school. Contrast that to a far more adult example, where Jessica Jones is singled out by Killgrave because of her special abilities. Now we have an effective metaphor for empowered women, struggling against a system of patriarchal entitlement.
The possibilities are limitless, which is why I often scoff at the proclamation that the superhero genre is going to wear out its welcome. The success of Deadpool has shocked audiences and film executives, but it’s not because the film is “mature.” Deadpool has less “mature” themes than most Pixar films. What Deadpool proved is that the superhero genre can also apply South Park-esque humor and rely on a (hopefully) adult audience and still succeed.
So to answer your question… Yes and No.
We now live in a world where some superhero properties are catering primarily to adults and older teens (Deadpool, The Dark Knight), but others, especially in television are still focused squarely on youth audiences (Ultimate Spider-Man, Teen Titans Go). But the sweet spot is clearly the one Marvel studios is hitting (The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy). These properties are meant for everyone and can be appreciated at different levels, depending on who’s viewing it.
Regardless, we’re no longer at a point where Mom can feel safe offering “daddy’s Batman movie” without checking on content first. Nolan’s Dark Knight wasn’t nearly as edgy as some of the stuff coming soon. We now live in a world where “superhero” is as broad a genre as “action” or “drama,” Nolan revitalized interest in mature themes as applied to superheroes, and now WB is doubling down on that by making an entire universe of grimdark heroes.
And so we find ourselves here today, with two of the founding members of children’s properties opening Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, a rated-R film, only toned down for a theatrical release. Director Zack Snyder claims his moody take on Superman is based on the “true canon” and bases his new film on The Dark Knight Returns, seemingly not realizing that it’s the absolute definition of a revisionist take on both heroes. When discussing his upcoming Justice League films, he says he’s ready because he already directed Watchmen, which is basically the same thing. Maybe his misunderstanding of the fact that Watchmen was meant to be the exact opposite of the Justice League explains why his film iteration felt so flat, despite looking exactly like the comic come to life.
No, Mr. Snyder. Superheroes were not for adults, by default. But they have been usurped. Not by adults, but by the mainstream.
I wanna get your thoughts on DLC, or for the readers that don’t know what that stands for, downloadable content, which is essentially content packages for video games that you can purchase after the game’s release.
So many people take issue with DLC, and rightly so. It’s too expensive, it’s nickel-and-diming players, it cuts content from the final product just to resell it, etc, etc. But what do you think of DLC in general? Are there any games you’ve played that had DLC worth buying? Do you think DLC is fairly priced? If you were in charge of a video game company, how would you go about handling DLC?
Personally, I think that DLC can be a great idea when used effectively. When content comes well after the game’s release and it’s clearly an afterthought, I think it gives players an opportunity to continue enjoying the experience well after the final release. Nintendo I think was handling DLC really well until recently. They packed a ton of content into the Mario Kart 8 DLC packs for example, and for super cheap too, so it really made it all worth buying. But the vast majority of DLC I find to be extremely overpriced, often paying a full game’s worth of money to get half or less the amount of content, with all kinds of corners being cut along the way. But what’re your thoughts?
I also have decidedly mixed feelings about DLC. There are so many different situations, price points, and reasons for a game offering additional content that it’s impossible to make blanket statements about it. I loved almost all of the additional content added to the Mass Effect series, (especially Lair of the Shadow Broker), but I wish it had been available on my first playthrough as it meaningfully contributed to a subplot of the overall story. Whether or not it should have been present to begin with is debatable though, so let’s start with your example of Mario Kart 8 since I feel like that’s the most commonly accepted use of DLC.
Adding characters, modes, or levels to a competitive game with no story is a pretty straightforward reason for DLC. Assuming the game came out, and people felt like they got their money’s worth from what was originally available, why not throw together some extra courses and characters to keep excitement for the game alive? Due to the precedent of Mario Kart content, nobody is going to argue that Link was supposed to be a playable racer in the base game. He’s a fun addition for people who are already invested, and for the fantastic price of $11.99, you can add about 25% of extra content to a game that costs $50. That’s about as much as the $60 default price of games on different consoles, and you get 125% as much Mario Kart 8, which begs the question; what is Mario Kart 8 worth?
The breadth of Grand Theft Auto V‘s world and its amount of content dwarfs that of Mario Kart 8‘s by a long shot. Reportedly at release, it was the most expensive video game ever made. Mario Kart 8‘s budget isn’t public, but it was obviously made at a fraction the cost. “Fun Factor” aside, are we paying too much for Mario Kart 8? Or should we actually be paying significantly more for the privilege of playing Grand Theft Auto V?
The budgeting of games has historically worked like movies. It doesn’t matter if you’re watching a 90-minute indie film that cost less than a million or a 3 hour Hollywood tentpole, your ticket price remains the same. This has worked for Hollywood so far because successful spectacle brings the crowds, creates franchises, sells toys, and create a padding of semi-reliable funds with which the studio can continue. The downside is that the risk is much higher, and the potential payoff percentage is historically lower per film.
Franchises like Grand Theft Auto have earned a reliable fan base and spearheaded the ever growing extravagance of video gaming, but not every game is going to have the far reaching popularity needed to make GTA levels of profit, (and make millions off of optional micro-transactions without alienating your core audience). Moreover, it’s quite possible that many Nintendo games have earned back more profit per dollar invested than GTA because they’re so much less expensive to produce. People wonder why Nintendo doesn’t make bigger, more epic games, and this is the reason. Why bother making a massive, open world Mario game with hundreds of hours of original content, photo-realistic graphics and full voice acting? People are already buying the far cheaper to produce Super Mario 3D World.
The massive single player game The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (2006) is infamous for being on the profitable side of history when it introducing a $2.50 “Horse Armor” add-on. Bethesda was most certainly trying to get the greatest payback possible on its massive investment. Gamers felt that paying 1/24th the cost of the game for a reskin and stat update was unfair. While I agree that the value of the horse armor is significantly less than 1/24th of the game, I feel like Bethesda should have been cut a break for making Oblivion 10 times bigger than most games to begin with.
People recently balked at the news that the current-gen remake of Final Fantasy VII would be sold in chapters. They rightly deduced that this was so Square Enix could charge more for the overall product and immediately cried foul. Final Fantasy VII was a single, standalone game in 1997, so it should be the same in 2017, right? Unfortunately, director Tetsuya Nomura confirmed the world of Final Fantasy VII is too large to be scaled to the quality of a current gen game without being cost prohibitive. Despite the fervent demand from hardcore fans, the market doesn’t exist for a $60 JRPG with a bigger world than GTA V‘s.
Personally, I’m fine with this. I love FFVII and would gladly pay a couple hundred bucks, if necessary, for an experience that would give me the content of a dozen Nintendo sized games in a world I loved. Hell… I’d do the same for that mature, open world Mario game I’ve wanted since childhood, though I’m sure the price point would seem prohibitive for most unless it was similarly divided up into smaller chunks.
You may notice that this episodic plan is looking more and more like the “Tomorrow” example of DLC from the fractured Mona Lisa meme. You asked what I would do if I were running a game studio. If I were trying to make a profitable, but massive story based game, this would be it. If possible, I would break the story into chapters, and I would be upfront about this plan. Nevertheless, I’d try to make sure that each chapter was priced reasonably based on the amount of gameplay offered.
Despite the similarities in their pricing platforms, games are not like movies. $60 can now pay for everything from a 20 to 200-hour experiences of immensely different levels of quality. I will never agree with the practice of releasing an unfinished or incomplete product and expecting gamers to be the beta testers or pay more for the “complete” experience. I do, however, feel for publishers who are simply struggling to remain relevant as the competition gets fiercer and the price of being competitive gets higher. My advice to gamers is to A) know what you’re spending your money on by reading reviews of a game before you buy it, and B) don’t expect that every full experience is going to cost you $60 or less.
Well, that’s all for the mailbag this week, readers! Be sure to share your thoughts on the nature of DLC, and the market for the Superhero genre in the comments section. And keep feeding the mailbag, by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org.