I'll cash in with my two cents.
I do sometimes feel that Matrix is shooting itself in the foot a bit, although pricing is just part of that, and probably not the biggest part.
I always feel that the insistence that these are ultra-niche products is a self-fulfilling prophecy. I don't have the statistics, obviously, but it seems like the number of gamers is growing ever larger and the ease of reaching them with niche or indie products is getting ever easier but the number of computer wargamers is fairly stagnant in comparisson.
A big issue is User Interface. I've bought a lot of wargames from a lot of different companies over a few decades, and the UIs are almost always awful. I don't want to pick on any games in particular, but I'm sure we all own a few where learning the UI was more of a challenge then learning the game itself. It's understandable, given how they're developed by tiny teams, but that doesn't make it acceptable. I don't want to hear the argument that an atrocious UI is to be expected because the games are complex. I think that's BS. The whole point of a good user interface is to make complex systems accessible and usable.
It's probably not financially possible for Matrix to hire on a full time UI developer who could work hand in hand with development teams, however I think it would be a really good idea for them to hire a temp consultant or two who has worked on major titles with good UIs or who has a degree in human interface systems. Sit down and try to come up with a solid set of UI guidelines that developers need to shoot for if they want to publish with Matrix. Little things like consistent use of right and left click functionality throughout ALL menus in a game; or if you're going to access unit functions with icons, make sure all the unit functions in that game work the same way - don't have some use icons, some use a bit of highlighted text in a sub-window, and others use keyboard shortcuts only documented in the back of a 700 page manual. I strongly feel like if you guys were able to sit down with some people who really knew their stuff in the UI field you could come up with a decent set of basic guidelines that could improve usability and lower the entry barrier of newly published titles across the board.
Similarly, I think as stronger focus on tutorials would help. Preferably interactive in-game ones. Following along with the manual or watching a blurry youtube video is only so much help. The real challenge should be in mastering the game, not figuring out how to move your units.
Part of it is pricing. I've spoken to a lot of people both in real life and online who are intrigued by some of Matrix Game's titles but scared away by the massive price tags. Combine that with the fact that a lot of people who might love wargames will probably never find places like Matrix or Battlefront unless they going looking for them, I think a big potential audience is being missed. If it were up to me, I'd say that Matrix should try to get a handful of their best, most attractive, most accessible top titles onto Steam and price them in a manner intended to appeal to people outside their niche audience. Imagine if Matrix had a few of their strong titles up in the recent Steam Christmas sale. Imagine they were able to work with Steam to get a couple featured as daily deals. War in the East - 19.95$, Commander: Europe at War - 2.50$, Forge of Freedom - 9.99$. While they might not have made much money per unit, they might very well have sold more copies in that sale then during the regular life time of the product sold solely through the Matrix games website. Steam sales are HUGE. Far more importantly, it could have introduced thousands and thousands of new people to the hobby. Remember, 90% of those sales would have been to people who never would have bought the game in the first place if they hadn't seen it on Steam, been intrigued, and then 'impulse purchased' because it was cheap.
Call me a dreamer if you will, but I don't think wargaming needs to remain an ultra-niche genre, confined to an ever graying cadre of those of use who cut our teeth playing Avalon Hill's Afrika Corps and Squad Leader with our buddies back in junior high. I think the hobby should be doing everything it can to bring in new blood. I think there are probably more people out there who would love these games but are scared away by high prices, actively hostile interfaces, or simply don't know the games even exist, then are in the hobby right now.
I dunno, maybe I'm way off base, but I can't help but fearing the computer wargame industry falling into a self-reinforcing death spiral of ever more expensive titles being sold to an ever shrinking fan base of fanatics. I don't want to see the games simplified, but I do feel a stronger focus on presentation, usability, product visibility, and more aggressive pricing could work wonders.
Well. There. I've said my piece. I'll mosey off into the sunset now.
< Message edited by Fintilgin -- 1/9/2011 6:05:32 AM >