Saturday, June 14, 2008

The Death of Hardcore Gaming

The passing of an era, for better and for worse.
by David Clayman and Michael Thomsen


David Clayman Laments the Past

The past few weeks have contained some momentous events for gaming. Tomonobu Itagaki left his long time home at Tecmo over a payment dispute bringing an end to his work on classic franchises like Ninja Gaiden and Dead or Alive. Meanwhile Hideo Kojima sent Snake off into the sunset with Metal Gear Solid 4, his swan song and what is believed to be the last true game in the series. Both of these Japanese developers have been mainstays in the industry almost since its inception, perpetually ready to deliver the next installment to their loyal, and sometimes crazed fan base. Their creations haven't declined in popularity, but they have failed to make a connection with non-gamers. The truth is black and white, the new mass market approach to gaming has no place for the hardcore developer or their patrons.

Two items brought this to my mind earlier this week. One of them was the release of Ninja Gaiden II. Having written a guide for Ninja Gaiden Black I pride myself on mastering the brutal difficulty of Itagaki's games for the same reason people memorize patterns in Ikaruga or post their speed runs to Youtube. I get a rush from knowing that most gamers give up long before they reach my level of skill.
But Ninja Gaiden II has lowered the bar considerably. The regenerating health meter and the dumbed down AI have left me with a sour taste in my mouth. I can still play through the game to unlock the most punishing mode but it's clear that I'm no longer the target demographic: the fans that geek out over every tidbit of game info, have memorized every one of Ryu's costumes. We were going to buy the game anyway and today the market demands a broader audience.

The second indicator of this trend was a television commercial for Metal Gear Solid 4. Kojima often indicates through his work that he's at least as interested in presentation as he is in interaction. The game looks like an action movie, and this makes it intriguing to non-gamers who see it at a glance. But action movies are historically big, dumb, and easy to explain. Describing MGS to a random person can be jolting. What is it? Well it's sort of tactical espionage, action, stealth. You can shoot people, but you're not supposed to and don't get me started on the storyline. It's an overly-long convoluted mess and it's exactly what loyal fans want. Unfortunately, like a real Ninja Gaiden experience, it will never translate to the mass market.

If you don't agree then it's likely your view of the market is outdated. A look at this month's NPD numbers reveal the continuing explosion of titles with mass appeal. The music rhythm game and the quick multiplayer experience are the big sellers. The Wii straddles the line perfectly and it continues to dominate the charts. Does this mean hardcore games disappear entirely? No, but it indicates what publishers will fund in the future. Grand projects with a specific audience like Metal Gear will be scrapped or made to be more inclusive. Titles that have historically catered to a specific audience (top down shooters) will only live on as downloadable content.

Where does that leave me? Other hardcore gamers outside of the industry have shifted right over into the casual category as they get older. They've adopted games they can play with their kids, or enjoy in 10 minute chunks. I have no desire to experience a piece of software that is predictable, repetitious, or sacrifices difficulty for appeal. My only recourse will be to live in the past and look fondly back at the Summer of 2008 when hardcore gaming made its last stand.

Michael Thomsen Cheers the Rise of the Softcore

The Wii killed games. Everybody who's a videogame fan knows it. It opened the floodgates for a future hell composed entirely of mini-game compilations and milquetoast PS2 shovelware. Game fans must surely feel dizzy and nauseous looking at each month's NPD numbers with abysmal "games" like Wii Play, Carnival Games, Wii Fit, and Game Party clotting the best sellers list. With such cheaply produced and disposable titles earning millions of dollars each week, who can blame publishers for betting more and more of their future on baby games that can be played by shaking the Wii remote like a rattle?

But what's really being lost in the process? Were "hardcore" games even worth saving in the first place? It's easy for core gamers to be bitterly dismissive of mini-game collections, but it's been equally easy for everyone with a sense of self-esteem and an aesthetic sensibility evolved beyond anime tropes to be just as cynically dismissive of your average "hardcore" game. The most common definition of a hardcore game has been degree of difficulty, where gamers feel like they've accomplished something by aligning their memories and reflexes with an unforgiving rule system that some yeoman programmer from Team Ninja has set out for them.

It's understandable to see why so many gamers have such fond attachment to the difficult gaming accomplishments they've managed in their life. It must surely feel great to be a part of a small community of people who've managed to do something extraordinarily rare. Likewise, it must be a rare ego-rush to know that you're good at something extremely difficult. Having that experience in a lushly detailed 3D world, designed from the ground up to enable escapism, must be an irresistible virtual opiate for the impulsive and socially disenfranchised among us.

Still, it's awfully hard to argue that Ryu Hayabusa's neo-metal ninja antics really deliver something more meaningful than Nintendo's dreamily hygienic Wii Fit androids. The ultimate value of any art form is not whether or not it makes us feel better about ourselves, but rather it is about the significance of the experience we have while playing it. Games should expand the spectrum of our experiences and consciousness, not pander to our fragile self-esteem. So what if we lose the "hardcore" game with its grueling dominatrix-like demands of gamers? Games that are difficult play away from the most basic strength of the medium in the first place. As interactive experiences, games aren't best experienced as autocratic Simon Says simulations where players eager to be told they are good at something spend hours learning to obey the opaque demands of masochistic game designers. That's not interaction, it's virtual fascism.

The rise of the "softcore" or casual game, while distasteful to those self-flagellating hardcore gamers, gives an opportunity for games to evolve into an even more powerful medium. In the same way that movies slowly evolved from lurid exploitation clips in the early twentieth century into a fully refined visual language capable of expressing an enormous range of emotions and experiences, the casual gaming revolution is really a massive expansion of the gameplay language that has previously been relegated to simple button presses. Before Wii Fit, how many games had ever really delivered the experience of serenity in direct gameplay, not to mention gameplay that was a sensitive analog interpretation of the players entire body position? In the short-term these new gameplay experiences will necessarily take place in simple, circular play environments, but to mistake the aesthetic reduction as a simplification of the entire medium is completely wrong-headed.

Videogames are expanding at an unprecedented rate these days, reaching new kinds of people in startling new ways. Hardcore games won't die out anymore than the exploitation film died out in the 20's when Eisenstein and Hawks began transforming film into an epic narrative medium. Indeed the move towards holistic analog control is only laying the groundwork for more elaborate and demanding hardcore titles in the future. The audience that wants those games haven't disappeared, and there will always be someone ready and willing to sell them content across all platforms. Go get 100% in SSX Blur and see if it's any less difficult than beating Ninja Gaiden or Metal Gear Solid.

The hardcore gamer has been called out, however. Where they once stood as the swaddling focal point for the whole medium, they are now recognizable as the narrow demographic niche that they have always been. It's a significant minority to be sure, there are tens of millions of hardcore gamers out there willing to spend inordinate amounts of time and energy on worlds of ogres, ninja swords, and mind-numbingly complex military ballistics. In a world of billions, however, it's time those aesthetic fixations were put in their rightful place. So three cheers for Carnival Games and Wii Play for throttling the hardcore game. May we never look back.


David Lamm said...

In my day we had to walk 5 miles through the snow to school uphill both ways!

I have seen this happen to the mmorpg genre as well. WoW dummed down the play to make it much more inclusive and as a result ruined the sense of accomplishment you got after completing something really hard. I remember the joy after becoming the second person on my server with an epic weapon. Nothing in wow ever compared. Everything was doable by the most pathetic fucktard they could find. Whats the point of that? Eq rocked cause it was brutal and thusly separated the playerbase accordingly.
I often long for the days of eq when there was a real death penalty, no maps, food/drink requirements, trains, hour long corpse retrievals, the boat, minimal solo content, bosses that spawned once a week, wandering dragons, impossibly long key quests, and truly insane bosses that required 70+ skilled people working together for 5 hours to reach/attempt to kill. Uphill both way motherfuckers!

Chris P said...


Mipam said...

I do not really agree with the definition of "hardcore" that this article proposes. It seems as if the author equates hardcore with difficulty. While there is certainly a correlation between hardcore gamers and difficult games, I think that analysis leaves out the qualitative functions of a game that make it hard.

Ninja Gaiden Black is hard in the most quantitative fashion. Beating the game (which I barely managed on normal) required an extensive amount of time training your muscles to execute certain combinations of moves, blocks, and jumps. While this is of course the lifeblood of any "action" game, the activity of learning button presses is not fun. The fun comes because the sense of accomplishment is so great when one conquers that impossible level on eternal boak difficulty setting. The fun comes about because the AI is surprising or utilizes strategy, not because the AI moves 100% faster and has 200% more hitpoints.

Naturally, getting improvements to AI and creating epic achievements in a game requires a certain homage to past games and a willingness to evolve game media.

For me, a "hardcore gamer" is less about loving difficulty (and I hate one hour corpse runs) and more about a person who enjoys video games so much that they will buy a game simply for a new gameplay feature or mechanic; or a person who will buy an old game they remember fondly to experience that "old feature" that can no longer be found in modern games. Also, hardcore gamers may also require a certain minimum numbers of hours logged everyday hehe. Or maybe that is just addicts like me.