In my last column, I mentioned in passing "Sins of a Solar Empire," a title that has become a financial success while selling discs and digital copies without any form of copy protection. This week, publisher Stardock revealed exactly how much of a success -- 500,000 units, with 100,000 of those sales coming from digital distribution. While that's not exactly up to par with "GTA IV'"s 10 million units sold since release, for an independent, non-franchise game with a budget of only $1,000,000, it's practically a runaway hit.
In an interview with Gamasutra this week, Stardock chief Brad Wardell attributed "Sins of a Solar Empire"'s success to the low system requirements -- despite being a visually compelling title, the game can run well on even budget systems, thanks to design decisions made during the development process. "You make those kinds of design decisions, and you greatly increase the number of people who can play your game," he said. "You lose out on some piddly super-mega effect, but you get those units. The results come in sales."
"Sins" definitely falls into the definition of a "hardcore" title. Even short games take several hours to complete, and longer games with multiple players can reach the 10+-hour range. But its success highlights one of the strengths shared by casual games that make them so appealing to a wide audience. You don't have to worry about detail settings, graphics cards, what version of DirectX you're running, or anything like that; you just install and play.
Game developers can certainly stand to learn something from this philosophy. While there'll always be a place for games like "Crysis," for which you have to own a $3,000 gaming rig to play effectively, including enough wiggle room in minimum hardware requirements can greatly expand the potential audience and sales for a title. As gaming becomes less the realm of enthusiasts and fanatics, games that truly make a cultural impact will have to be accessible to all.