Does game theme matter? Your mouth says ‘No’, but your wallet says ‘Yes’.


There has been a topic that has intrigued me for a little while now.   What impact does a games theme have on the likelihood that a consumer will purchase it over another game?  It’s an intriguing idea, especially for a small game store owner who is trying to stock her shelves.  I want to stock games that consumers will buy, but I also want to stock games that I know are good, because nothing will turn someone off to gaming faster than purchasing a bad game.

This Christmas season, Game Paradise (my game company) has been running a kiosk in the Washington Square Mall, and this has given me the opportunity to watch the customer reaction to a game based on theme, versus other facts, such as price, and game play.  In a very unscientific online poll, 80% of gamers say that the the game play is the most important thing about a game.  If it’s a good game, with game play that is compatible with their play style, they are all in!   However, the sales numbers speak to something much different.

Games with dark themes and supernatural beings sell right now...

Games with dark themes and supernatural beings sell right now, even while games with similar mechanics just sit there.

Half way through the traditional Holiday shopping season, I had to place another order with my distributors to restock my shelves of the titles that had sold.  What had sold?  Games about zombies, werewovles, and murder.  What didn’t sell?  Games about farming, trains, and power plants.   There seems to be a clear preference for certain themes.

To back up this idea, it really helps to simply work the floor and try to sell people games.  I typically ask them what kinds of games they enjoy and use that as my jumping off point.  One day I had a teenager stop by.  He immediately gravitated towards the game “Nightfall” which is a deck building back where vampires and werewolves battle it out.  He loved it!  Unfortunately he couldn’t afford it that day.  So I started showing him games that were in his price range, keeping in mind the mechanics of Nightfall that he seemed to like.  He turned down Dominion and 7 Wonders.  He seemed completely uninterested in Settlers of Catan.  I showed him a whole host of games, but what did he decide to buy?  Zombie Dice.  Why?  Because his eyes lit up the moment I said “You play as a zombie”.  It was the theme that sold him, and sunk the others, regardless of the similar mechanics.  (Consequently he has now returned and purchased Nightfall).

Zombie dice was extremely popular this Christmas season, prompting us to order more.  However other press your luck dice games didnt do so well.  Whats the primary difference?  Theme.

Zombie dice was extremely popular this Christmas season, prompting us to order more. However other "press your luck dice games" didn't do so well. What's the primary difference? Theme.

But that was just one teenager.  Surely a more experienced individual would go with the game with more appealing game play, right?   A gentleman in his late 30’s to early 40’s ventured over to my booth and began talking to me about word games.  I showed him several, but he was intrigued by “Unspeakable Words”.  So I started telling him about the game in a little more detail.  One of the first questions he asked was “Cthu-what? “.  So I explained who Cthulhu is and thus why you were trying to keep your sanity in this game.  He shut down instantly, there shall be no soul eating monsters in his house, even if they are plastic and just a counter for points in a benign word game.

Perhaps gamers do not realize their bias towards or against certain themes. I mean, we all have persuasions that we might not be completely aware of. After all, 80% of gamers say that the game play is the most important thing, and intellectually, it probably is.

This is why I feel it is cheap when I see game companies that market games with these really obviously pandering themes. We all know that zombies are big business right now, and how many zombie games have come out? Dozens and dozens, and that’s just the ones I am aware of. But how many games about bunnies have you seen recently? Potentially none. The bunny game might be amazing. It doesn’t rely on it’s theme to carry it through. However, the zombie game could be awful, having little or no game play, and it will be bought by at least a few. It’s a safe bet.

So what is the point of this observation? Simply some awareness. You know you want to purchase the *good* game, not just the trendy one. So when you are in your friendly local game store next, pass over the game about pirates and zombies, and pick up the game about asteroids instead. There is likely a reason that one is still being produced, and it is not just for it’s great looks. This will also encourage your FLGS to stock good games and stop filling their walls with fluff.

This entry was posted by The_Null_Entry on Monday, February 13th, 2012 at 9:17 am and is filed under Random Things that Fall out of my head . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.


  1. Josh Rotella says:

    Hear, hear.

  2. Alan Shutko says:

    I happily admit I buy games on theme. The theme, and imagining a story occurring as I play it, is a big thing for me. The gameplay of Zombies!!! isn’t too complex or cutting edge, but it’s a whole lot of fun when the zombies cut someone off and they throw a puppy into the crowd to escape.

  3. John Gardiner says:

    Nice dose of gamer reality! Theme is the primary reason why I don’t get in much gaming anymore. I’m very much I military sci-fi fan, and not the horror/sci-fi stuff either. Things that take place in space really pique my interest, even if it turns out that the mechanics aren’t so good, so that is my purchasing preference. However, if someone can convince me to sit down and play something more “generic” and I happen to enjoy it, that can cause my wallet to fall open as well.

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