Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, April 07, 2010
The perceived end of the hardcore game

In the open Sunday thread there was an interesting discussion about hardcore games, starting with Chris asking: "Do you think we are coming to the end of the era where game development studios are comprised of actual gaming enthusiasts, instead of "artists on a payroll"? I cant help but wonder if we're not close to seeing the death of the "hardcore" game developer who puts out games that are fun to play, and requires actual intellectual abilities beyond the mere "mouse-click fests" that we're seeing nowadays as repetition and questionable revenue generation schemes increasingly derive the bottom line."

First of all that question is rather polemic, because it assumes that an "enthusiast" would automatically produce a better and more fun game than somebody "on a payroll". That simply isn't true. In fact, in most cases of production of something the "enthusiasts" are called "amateurs", and the people "on payroll" are called "professionals". Take cars for example, a hundred years back there were certainly people saying exactly the thing Chris says about cars, complaining how mass production of Henry Ford's cars was killing the "hardcore" car building "enthusiasts". I would really wish many game developers would be more professional instead of just enthusiastic, because then maybe they wouldn't release so many buggy and unfinished crap games.

But where are sentiments like the one Chris is expressing coming from? The basic reason of the problem is the normal distribution of skill and preferences. If you plot how many people have what skill in general video gaming, you get a bell curve. You get the same bell curve if you'd plot how many people prefer how hardcore a game. The average player has average skills, and prefers games that are playable with average skill. The hardcore player has leet skills and prefers games that require such leet skills. And by definition the hardcore elite is small in number compared to the huge army of average people. And there is also the other tail end of the curve, of people for who even Farmville is too complicated.

Now some people claim that game companies make games for the lowest common denominator. That not only isn't true at all, it also would be extremely stupid if they did. Sorry, Tic Tac Toe Online isn't going to earn you millions, because it would be too easy for the average player. If you want to attract the largest number of players, you need to make a game requiring average skill. But what is true is that if you are at the extreme hardcore end of the bell curve, an average game will already look rather simple to you. While the same game will look already rather complicated to somebody at the extreme casual end of the scale. I *do* know people who can't play World of Warcraft because it is far too hard for them.

Now if you want to optimize profits, you not only need to look how many people would think your game is at just their perfect level of skill requirement. You also need to add data on how much these people would be willing to pay to play. Zynga might have ten times more players than Blizzard, but the gross revenue of Zynga in 2009 was 4 times less, at $250 million, compared with $1.1 billion for Blizzard in 2007. Not only is the average player more likely to be willing to spend money for a more complex game, he will also play it longer. People have been playing World of Warcraft for over 5 years now, I doubt that there will be many people still playing Farmville in 2014. So the most profitable game is somewhat more complex than the game which would be most popular if all games were free.

Another factor which works against continued simplification of games is that video game skills are to a large extent acquired, you aren't born with a particular high score. If only hardcore games exist, only hardcore players get to play. If there are simpler games, a lot more people start playing, and some of them will acquire more skills while they play, and then move on to more complex games. Of course even then very few people will end up being extreme hardcore, which is why it is called "extreme". But I'm pretty certain that Farmville is already on the "slightly too simple" part of the bell curve, even if you just look at the population of Facebook game players. Which is why we are seeing somewhat more complex Facebook games now.

As other commenters remarked, game companies making simple games for average players have been around for ages, this isn't new or caused by Facebook. The best-selling PC game for three months in a row end of 1998 was Deer Hunter II. But what happened since is that the total number of games released each year went up by a lot, and so did media coverage of games. Mainstream media mostly talk about mainstream games, which creates the illusion that there is nothing else. And of course mainstream games, being more profitable, attract higher investment, and thus are often more shiny.

What Chris either doesn't know or pretends he doesn't know is that the number of hardcore games programmed by enthusiasts has gone up as well, not down. Without changing the shape of the bell curve, the simple fact that there are now so many more overall players of video games than before also means that there are now more hardcore gamers, and where there is a demand, somebody will supply. Thus extreme hardcore MMORPGs like Mortal Online are still getting released, and there are thriving hardcore strategy games series like Europa Universalis or Hearts of Iron. These games might not get the most attention in the media, or make the most profit (which results in them often being somewhat less shiny), but hardcore game developers are still surviving very well, even better than before.

Hardcore players are understandably jealous how Facebook games have dominated the discussion in the media, and even the Games Developer Conference 2010. So that is where all the howling and wailing on how we are all doomed to mouse-click fest games in the future are coming from. But I think the best comment on that latest gaming craze has been done by Ravious from Kill Ten Rats, where he reminds us that if you applied the same reasoning to the gaming craze of 1996, you would have concluded that "it is clear that the future of handheld gaming is Tamagotchi". I think it is rather obvious that there will not be a future in which all game developers only produce Farmville clones.
This brings me back to a thought I had when Kevmar spoke on his glyph business.

The idea at hand is potential business.

Farmville can be played by simple, advanced, and expert players, while 'hardcore' games can only be played by expert players. Assuming a player knows if they can operate a game before purchase, Farmville has the potential to have a lot more players than even WoW. Now, I don't believe that potential will be realized, but the point remains that expert gamers can play simple games, but simple gamers cannot play expert games.

A game like wow (catered to the advanced [slightly-above-Farmville] players) likely has many expert players, since they know how to make their own challenge, but as we know from an article that was popular a while back, some massive percentage of players never make it out of the starting zone.

These WoW-rejects go to their popcap games and utilize word-of-mouth advertising on their friends, "download bejeweled to play with me!" to effectively steal players from WoW.

I wonder if popcap would survive if they weren't such a common name and without word-of-mouth advertising. I for sure wouldn't click on a bejeweled advertisement banner on someone's blog.
Well put, Tobold.

For the purpose of your post, you use the term "skill requirement" as a sort of catch-all for everything that will attract a person to a game. That may be a bit problematic.

I think Chris (and many, many others with him of course) are upset that there are some games that are actually lots of fun to play but that in spite of this aren't really very hard to play. The "dumbing-down" of WoW is the most visible example. It has a reward structure that makes us want to play it, but many players are feeling nostalgic for a period when it was also slightly harder (this includes yourself at times, when you reminisce of mana management).

Subscription-based games obviously rely on a subtle reward mechanic to keep you playing. In a sweeping statement, the better the mechanic, the longer you can keep players hooked "against their will". We love it, but we hate loving it, so to speak.

I don't agree with this view. Instead, I subscribe to the free will school of thought, and I firmly believe that we (I'm restricting myself to adults here, to avoid straying off topic too much!) keep clicking because we don't have anything more interesting to do at the time. It's like smoking: Anyone. Can. Quit.
It is actually a great thing that we have so many different levels of complexity in gaming. If there were only extreme-hardcore games and extreme-casual games no one would make the jump from one to another.

By having average games of differing difficulty levels it allows the next generation of gamers to work their way up to the hardcore stuff.

Hardcore games will always be made to fill that niche in the market, but remember that all the other games are serving niches too.
Perfect example of this is the changes made to Megaman 10 over 9, mainly the easy mode (which is way too easy) vs. normal mode (which is just a little bit easier than in 9).

Megaman 10 became more popular because of the inclusion of an easy mode, but all it does is bring the game to an average player level (my 6 year old son cannot beat a stage in 10 on easy mode, though he does well in InFamous).

I think most people mean that people are making games for the greatest common denominator, and not the lowest. In other words, the top of the bell curve, the most average player.
I just re-read my comment, and it was a bit incoherent. I blame three kids and a head isolated from the rest of the world by a cold Arthas' scourge minions would be proud of inflicting...

Anyway, I think all I was trying to say is that "skill requirement" is only one of many facets that make a game fun to play. When skilled players want to play a game that's fun in spite of being easy we get this shear.

Easy boring games, like Farmville, therefore don't pose a problem for the people further up the curve: they have more fun where they are now. But when the real fun is to be gotten "down there"... that's when the "clickfest" complaints appear (nobody seems to be complaining over Diablo, by the way, clickfest or no!)
Good post Tobold, particularly the point that we will still have plenty of hard core games but they will probably lack the million dollar polish of mass market games. Solium Infernum and Darkfall are two more examples that fit this pattern.
An interesting post and there is one aspect that I'll like to mention.

In my opinion, the best games are relatively simple but full of depth. I believe WoW has got this balance quite well (and hence it's popularity).

What these hardcore gamers want are complex games. Complex games will lead to high differentiation between the players thus highlighting their "superiority".
Good post here Tobold and many good replies to. One factor I think your missing is the time spent or time available. I will suspect quit alot of gamers got the skill or the potential to build it up, but have limited time. I suspect this simply because I think it is these players that Blizard is catering to these days. With a minimum of time each week I slowly get gear with Il 264 and a gs of 5,5k or something like that. This will bring me in a position to join a LK10 man raid pug and im happy with that. The dumbing down works for me. Im sure if I had 30-40 hours a week and some friends in the same situation I would not like it, but stil then I could be happy with raiding 10 or 25 man hardmodes. After playing wow since the start I have no doubt that I can beat each encounter with enough time and dedication and some friends or likeminded with the same. I think hardcore gamers will have to live with this kind of "tuning" of games in the future. Great games needs alot of money and hehce alot of customers.
There are still tons of excellent games developed each day, you just have to look a bit further.

Hint: take a look at the indie scene. Lots of great games are created by a handful of developers. World of Goo was one of the best games in the last two years.

As long as there's a market these games will be created. If the market is a niche market you'll just have to settle for smaller projects with graphics that aren't so fancy.
My comments about enthusiastic developers isnt coming from a position that they might or might not exist, but rather the angle that it is very, very hard now for an upstart game developer to get financed or "picked up" by a publisher if they are not following a formula that is driven by highly visible industry magnets(the GDC conference you mention - as an example).

I've attended E3's in the past and have seen some truly remarkable games that never get to see the light of day because of financial concerns. How much money is Zynga throwing at the owners of Facebook to maintain their dominating presence, and how many more possibly better games are there that exist out there that dont stand a chance due to this type of bussiness structure/media control?

Mainstream media mostly talk about mainstream games, which creates the illusion that there is nothing else. And of course mainstream games, being more profitable, attract higher investment, and thus are often more shiny.

Which is the crux of the problem. I have no doubt that great games exist that are more complex, require higher order intellectual abilities and whatnot to play, but if no one is hearing about them, how can a player expect to benefit from their production?

I had never heard of Demon's Souls prior to Oscar mentioning it in the Open Sunday thread, and after reading and reviewing a few writeups I went over to a friends house who had the game and played it. It's simply an amazing game, and I give the developer high marks for not caving to industry demands and making an "easy to play" game.

Either my link-fu has become weak - resulting in me falling out of the loop where new game releases are concerned, or the industry has become so enslaved to the alimighty dollar that the media end of the equation is being controlled by what derives the bottom line.
Hardcore gaming, in my book, is more about determination and less about skill.

Most people can become very good at chess if they are determined to be so. Naturally (by definition) only a few percent will
be the best, but every 10 year old who spends two years at playing chess with utmost determination will beat me at the age of 12.

Skill automatically comes with determination. For psychological reasons, determination comes with success and with other factors.

This skill that comes from determination dominates any skill that comes naturally etc.

Therefore the best games always were and are those that were easy to learn and hard to master. Blizzard actually knows this. Some weeks ago I read a lengthy Cataclysn design post were exactly this was said.
Another reason is the generation that first experienced home gaming is aging. Those of us who grew up with the Atari and later Nintendo consoles are now in our mid 30's to 40's. We're really the first group of adults to be either willing or able to embrace gaming, so the marketplace has adjusted to accommodate that.

Even though some of us at one time may have fallen into the hardcore category at some point in time, most are casual today. Time is split with work, family and other interests. Also, you'll notice that as you age either the desire or ability to be among the elite at a game diminishes. You play primarily for relaxation or escape.

We're a very lucrative target for gaming companies. We've got disposable income and are willing to spend it on games. A lot of us are buying games not only for ourselves but for our kids. We're looking for games that are accessible for all ages. There's a reason that the Wii was so successful.

Now as Tobold points out, there are still a lot of games available that hit that hardcore target market. Probably more variety and polish on those games than there ever has been. But hardcore gamers are a fringe market, not the core of the gaming market. The core is the casual gamer, it's natural to expect that the majority of development revolves around that type of person.

WoW as an example shows how the MMORPG marketplace has evolved to embrace the casual gamer. There's a lot of vocal teeth gnashing, but overall, the game has become more successful as it moves forward. This indicates to me that the majority of the target market enjoys the changes that make the game more accessible to someone with limited opportunities to play.

In about 10 years a second generation will move into this spot. These people will have grown up with more complex games. It's certainly possible they will desire games that skew more towards the hardcore end of the scale. The gaming market is really still rather young when compared to other entertainment industry.
I'll agree money plays the majority of game development but you missed a huge factor.

You missed where the designers, programmers, producers, and CEO's of today's game development companies and independents come from.

The more difficult, challenging, strategic, and FUN games come from Generation X people. The achievement based games, Wii, and Facebook style comes from Generation Y people. And are thusely played by the same type.
Don't forget this:
I think that Farmville shouldnt be classified as a "game" in the same sense as actual games like WoW. Farmville is an intentionally challenge-less form of entertainment. It is fitting you referred to Tamagotchi, as Farmville is MUCH closer to this waster of small bits of free time than a game in the practical sense of the word.

It is not intended to challenge or require any skill. It is simply an activity or hobby that some people find makes an interesting diversion of time. This is exemplified in the structure of these games, as they are designed for pretty much ONLY short periods of time, and are quite boring when played for more than 10-15 minutes.

I also disagree with the altruistic ideal that players actually want to be challenged. I think WoW is a testament to this. The average players wants the illusion (as you put it yourself Tobold) of challenge, which most often comes in the form of frequent rewards.

We are programmed basically by society to link rewards with accomplishment. And a well made illusion will make you feel like you have been challenged through pretty much just rewarding investment of time.

Furthermore, I would surmise that a large portion of average players consider themselves "hardcore" or atleast leet or something, or if not that at least would like to think they are ones of the people who always want a challenge.

Also, I think that rather than WoW being too "hard", that it is more likely these people are either unfamiliar with games or computers, and/or in fact are not interested by either RPGs, MMOs, or a fantasy setting (perhaps the art style even). Without a strong desire to learn to play a game, if you havent really played one similar or even played games much at all then its not going to happen.

@Nils I tend to agree with that view in most cases. However, I think it is safe to say that although determination is definately the most important and decisive factor, whether it be a sport, game, job, or any activity that some people are just more naturally skilled than others.

Of course, this doesnt always apply or have much bearing when it does. Someone with great potential as an athlete will never know it without willpower and determination. Likewise, a less natural athlete who puts in the work and is completely single-minded in their determination will for all and intents and purposes be that much more "skilled".
You know what they're really complaining about? The gamer "elite" is now much harder to break into. When there were fewer games, fewer gamers, fewer platforms to play on, it was easier to be l33t. Just playing some obscure games made you top tier in some circles.

Casual gamers and the media are less impressed that you play 40 hours a week or are proficient at 14 different games. Who isn't?

The games are better. The gamers are getting better. It's a bigger stage. And it's GREAT.
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That comment about Tamogotchi is actually very prescient and accurate. Where else has the biggest growth of gaming come from but that direction? It's certainly not from the opposite end.

J. Dangerous hit the nail on the head. Mafia Wars and Tamogotchi aren't "games". They're diversions, something for people to click on in-between Twitters about the most recent episode of Gossip Girl they're watching while studying for math class. Modern people are excellent at splitting their attention-span, because what they're doing doesn't require any. It's the equivalent of those old black-and-white hand-held sports simulators by Tiger. You might pick one up while driving to Grandma's house, but nobody takes "Bo Knows Football" seriously.

Nils also raised an excellent point. The argument isn't about "eXtReMe" hardcore elitists who demand hard-to-play games. They just want something they can sink their teeth into; that determination factor. A gaming enthusiast doesn't spend 100 hours in Fallout 3 because it boosts their ego, but because they _enjoy_ playing one game for 100 hours. They do _not_ enjoy clicking around on their browser for 15 minutes while the boss has his back turned.

The reason why "enthusiasts" get upset is threefold. One, there's a natural aging/fear of change that all generations endure. Two, it's a protectionist attitude about the "gaming pie" -- if there are 1000 "normal" players for every 1 enthusiast -- which side is going to be catered to? And three, it's a disgust for the dumbing-down of gaming culture; they _want_ everyone to appreciate gaming depth and are dismayed by former pioneers such as Nintendo waving the white Wii flag.

Ultimately, the size of the gaming niche hasn't changed much from the '80s, there are probably roughly as many "hardcore" players now as there were in previous decades. Gaming enthusiasts will go the way of music or movie lovers; they'll have their niche, but it will be a fraction of the global Farmville.

You always argue the "more is better" Tobold, but I would trade three Everybody Loves Raymonds for one Arrested Development, five Good Charlotte albums for one by The Thermals, or a dozen Sims expansions for one Bioshock. Art is not democratic.
I also disagree with the altruistic ideal that players actually want to be challenged. I think WoW is a testament to this. The average players wants the illusion (as you put it yourself Tobold) of challenge, which most often comes in the form of frequent rewards.

I think you are just mean to other people. Or would you admit that *YOU* don't want challenge, you are just playing for the rewards? Everybody always says "well, *I* am here for the challenge, it's all those other players who are just here for the rewards".

If everybody says they are here for the challenge, then I must assume that everybody is here for the challenge. The reward just adds to the fun.
Who plays WoW for the challenge _or_ the reward? I only play to hang out with my e-friends and see the new bosses/lawlore.

There's a 1% share of WoW who play for the challenge (see -->, and I'm sure some slightly bigger percent are there to see what color their armor will be next patch. But most people play WoW for the social aspect or to interact with the content. Complaints about removing "challenge" isn't because they want the game harder, but they want it to be more fun. Compare people's appreciation of KZ or even ICC to face-rolling ToC.

You are assuming everyone wants exactly the same level of challenge relative to their skill. I think there are plenty of hardcore players who enjoy mastering/dominating at something of average difficulty. And I'm sure there are plenty of average players who want to try and tackle something they probably can't do (and probably plenty of average players who want to dominate at something super easy).
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