You may have not played Farming Simulator, Deadly Premonition or Sniper Elite, but it’s extremely likely you know them by name.
These, and games like them, are examples of mid- and low-budget titles that have managed to achieve either commercial or critical success, despite their position outside the realm of triple-A releases. In other words, they’re cult hits.
As Rebellion CEO Jason Kingsley explains: A cult hit comes when you get a mismatch between critical praise and sales in either direction.
"A game that sells like a dog but wins awards can become a cult hit, as can a game that reviews not so well but sells gangbusters because of word of mouth.”
Kingsley knows the power of establishing a dedicated following for a mid-tier title. The third in Rebellion’s Sniper Elite series shot to the top of the UK retail charts upon release last year, sitting for two weeks above a Top Ten filled with the big-budget likes of Watch Dog, FIFA, Titanfall, Call of Duty and Minecraft.
Like many cult titles, Sniper Elite is an example of a game taking a common mechanic – shooting – and twisting it into a unique form. Despite the risks, a unique approach to game design can pay dividends.
Japanese title Deadly Premonition (lead picture) was released for Xbox 360 in 2010. Offering open-world, survival horror gameplay and quirky humour, the game was highly divisive, earning a Guinness World Record for the ‘most critically-polarizing survival horror game’.
Consumers and the media lauded and lambasted it in equal measure; some proclaimed it as a work of art comparable to TV show Twin Peaks, while others condemned its clunky mechanics and poor graphics.
Deadly Premonition’s passionate audience inspired a Director’s Cut re-release of the title on PC and PS3 in 2013. The game’s cult success also led to an Xbox One exclusivity deal for developer Access Games’ next title, D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die.
Nobuo Tomita, D4 producer, explains: One of the main reasons we were able to work with Microsoft is because one of [Deadly Premonition designer] Swery’s fans worked there and gave us a shout-out. We even entrusted the localisation to a professional who was a fan of Deadly Premonition, which helped us retain more of our originality in the final version.”
"We’re in an age where user reviews are very important, so professional review scores hold less sway."
Nobuo Tomita, Access Games
One of the biggest hurdles for cult games is attracting a wider audience. This is often made harder for developers by reviews, which often distil a game down to a single numerical score and miss out on the nuanced elements of a cult hit.
For example, if prospective PS4 players were to compare the Metacritic scores for Farming Simulator 15 (54) with The Witcher 3 (92), which was released the very same day, it’s unlikely many would opt for the former, making its positive aspects that much harder to highlight for the right audience.
This snap decision-making could change, as game sites such as Eurogamer and Kotaku move away from offering scored reviews.
The move away from Metacritic scores and points out of 10 is good for everyone,” says Kingsley.
Removing a score encourages people to find out about our game themselves. They have to read the review in depth to make an informed decision, and it encourages gamers to go do just a little more research – whether that’s Steam reviews, YouTube or something else.”
Thomas Frey is creative director at Giants Software, the studio behind titles such as Farming Simulator 15, Ski Region Simulator and Demolition Company.
With new media like YouTube and Twitch, people have started to make their own opinions about games,” he agrees. They have the chance today to easily check out a game by themselves. The success of a game does not necessarily rely on a press score. Reviews from other players have become another relevant way to get an accurate opinion about a game.”
Tomita, too, sees user reviews as beginning to eclipse professional opinions on new games, opening the opportunity up for the audience of cult games to extol their virtues.
Game reviews still exact a great influence on game sales,” he admits. But Eurogamer’s removal of scores earlier this year doesn’t really change anything. As of now, user reviews available in places like Amazon and iTunes are more important to the users themselves. We’re in an age where user reviews are very important, so professional review scores hold less sway.”
However, Kingsley offers a word of warning that the reception and appreciation of more unique titles may not be as revolutionised by dropping scores as some might expect.
Will scoreless reviews change perceptions and affect sales?” he asks.
I’m not so sure – word of mouth has always trumped reviews, whether chatting in the pub, on Reddit or from the headset of your favourite Twitch channel.”
With or without the backing of traditional games media, cult games have been offered a new lease of life thanks to the growing popularity of YouTube and Twitch.
Live streamers and content creators often create humourous videos around the more original elements of cult games, encouraging their audiences to purchase the titles to experience them for themselves.
This can have real-world effects: a video by online phenomenon PewDiePie about Skate 3 resulted in EA reprinting the boxed version of the game, which returned to the retail charts four years after launch.
You definitely need a hook that makes you stand out,” advises Kingsley.
The long tail of sales for games once they are no longer in therelease limelightis very important for the independent sector.”
Frey adds that user-created content can be a way of maintaining momentum after launch.
The modding community is very important,” he explains. Mods keep a game interesting for a long time.
"As well as the mods, there are a lot of Let’s Plays videos about Farming Simulator. Those videos create a lot of buzz around the game – they are today’s new way of promoting a game.”
In fact, some games have built their success entirely on their ability to generate funny videos on the internet. Goat Simulator, a parody of cult games like Farming Simulator, was initially created as a joke, but was propelled to a full boxed release.
But Frey warns against designing a game solely in the hope of achieving cult success.
Goat Simulator went viral and earned a lot of publicity from it,” he says. The hardest part is to build a long-term and sustainable success. As a business model you cannot aim for something like this – it’s like winning a jackpot. For longtime success, it’s very important that the game itself is well-made and contains innovative gameplay.
Kingsley retorts by dismissing the idea that titles like Goat Simulator could become a potential threat to the cult games sector, as developers rush to capture a quickly-saturating market.
There is the possibility of market exhaustion but, as we all know, markets tend to move cyclically and can rapidly change,” he offers. People can get tired of the same thing over and over, but there’s always another idea waiting in the wings."