In June of last year, Housemarque launched an arcade shooter named Nex Machina. After years of Sony exclusives like Resogun, Nex Machina gave PC players their first taste of Housemarque's style of refined twin-stick shooter since The Reap came out in 1997. Even more tantalisingly for genre connoisseurs, Eugene Jarvis—designer of Robotron: 2084 and Smash TV—came on board as a consultant. Nex Machina was a spiritual successor to those games, and was widely praised as an exemplar of the form. Our own review called it a "a breathless modern arcade classic that delivers more thrills per minute than almost anything else out there."
However, several months after Nex Machina's launch, Housemarque took to its blog and burst the bubble. "ARCADE IS DEAD," the headline declared. "Despite critical success and numerous awards, our games just haven’t sold in significant numbers. … Lackluster sales of Nex Machina have led us to the thinking that it is time to bring our longstanding commitment to the arcade genre to an end."
That commitment, spanning more than 20 years, can hardly be questioned. And yet Housemarque found itself announcing to the world that it is now "exploring something totally different than what you might expect of us." It had made possibly its finest arcade shooter yet, and still saw no viable road ahead.
What could Housemarque conclude, then, other than that the genre is dead?
The statement caused ripples among the other game developers working on arcade-style shooters. "Housemarque is a very influential developer and we've run into them a couple of times, so it was a big blow for us to hear that," says Tim Dawson of Assault Android Cactus developer Witch Beam. "Kind of demoralizing."
"A big part of development is trying to guess a lot about what the market's doing and trying to answer unanswerable questions like that," he says. "So it's scary when someone you think of as a peer says the genre's dead."
But while there was disappointment among Witch Beam's three-strong team, there was little surprise. The team had fielded enough questions about its choice of genre during the promotion phase of Assault Android Cactus to get "a sense that that market is not as big as other genres."
"People's perception of the genre is that it's a kind of lower tier," adds Dawson. "It's distractionware, it's not like a serious or significant game. Which is a problem when you're trying to convince people that your game is worth their time and their money."
Witch Beam was adamant that Assault Android Cactus was "priced appropriately, or even too low," yet continued to receive messages calling for the game to be discounted to $5 or lower. Dawson also recalls Jamestown developer Final Form Games sharing similar concerns when they met at an expo, reporting that players were positive about it after deep discounts or its inclusion in bundles but were largely reluctant to pay full price. Final Form has written that "Jamestown has been downloaded illegally countless times."
For Dawson, historical associations have a part to play in skewing perceptions of value for arcade-style games. They're seen as dated throwbacks, he says, saddled with undeserved baggage in much the same way that indie games featuring pixel art have been accused of lazy bandwagon-jumping. In fact, a keenness to steer clear of these stereotypes led to Assault Android Cactus avoiding the lo-fi, abstract look in favor of a more complex style. It's an even greater consideration now, with Witch Beam prototyping ideas for new games.
"Thinking about ways to make a game read as richer or more complicated has actually been a huge part of our internal prototyping method," says Dawson. “We're deliberately considering games that will look more impressive, more like 'bigger' genres, but still manage to keep that arcade feel at their heart because it's something we love and are good at."
Witch Beam's stance is not quite 'arcade is dead', then, but part of its approach is an acceptance that the genre is not particularly marketable. Puppy Games, an indie developer of 'neo-retro arcade games', came to the same conclusion four years ago. "Nobody actually buys these kinds of games anymore, and specifically nobody buys them on Steam," states Puppy Games co-founder Caspian Prince.
So he was hardly shocked by Housemarque's big statement. "I was so totally unsurprised that I could have even put a fiver on it," he says. The key issue, Prince argues, is one of scale. While Puppy Games has a core team of just two people, working from home and with relatively little overhead, Housemarque's Helsinki studio houses more than 20 employees.
"They have actually sold, relatively, a metric shit-ton of games," he says. "If you look at the sales for Nex Machina, it's sold 100,000 copies or something. It's done fantastically well by anyone's standards. To make a game that sells that many on Steam these days, you're not even in the 1%—you're in the 0.1%."
Those are sales numbers would delight Puppy Games, who "scratched away in the dirt for years and never really made any coin," according to Prince, and Witch Beam, who "definitely didn't find a huge audience" with Assault Android Cactus. But these small teams have found something sustainable on a smaller scale, and this is where the future of the genre seems to lie.
Prince points to the recently released Son of Scoregasm, "which is just amazing and was made by a bloke called Charlie in his bedroom. It's a perfect example of the genre, and it's cost him peanuts to make."
Dawson echoes the point. "I don't disbelieve that Housemarque's decision was right for them," he considers. "I imagine they have all the numbers, have followed the trends, and that sounds like what would be a correct call for them. But I don't think it's right for everyone."
And as long as that's the case, as long as there are passionate individuals operating at a small enough scale that not every game needs to be a smash hit, it won't truly be the end of the arcade shooter.