Sunday, February 14, 2010

The softening of the hardcore

I'm beginning to see a trend in traditionally hardcore genres: the games are getting easier.  That's a lie--this trend has been going on for quite some time.  For quick examples, we can compare earlier iterations of franchises to later ones.  In GTA IV, cops vanish at the successful completion of most missions, where in GTA III, most missions require the player to lose the cops before the mission will complete.  And if we compare GTA III to an earlier game: in Driver, the cops would even try to arrest you if you were driving without headlights at night.  Have cops just stopped caring over the years?

The GTA series is just one example of difficulty being dialed back.  Bioshock 2 has recently arrived, bringing with it the inexplicably abundant Vita-Chambers from the first game.  Modern Warfare 2, with the familiar Call of Duty mysteriously regenerating health, continues to reign as King Fragfest.  With almost every new game that is release, the trend continues: games are losing their teeth.

Well, what does hardcore mean anymore?  Back in the day, it seemed to be that a hardcore gamer was a nerd who dedicated an inordinate amount of time to the mastery of games.  As The King of Kong demonstrates, the more challenging the game, the better.  Arcade video games are a competitive art.

Nowadays, games are designed for rapid consumption.  Hardcore gamers are now gamers who consume at least six to eight new games a year.  There is no longer the idea of savoring a games challenges, of judging a game according to how well it tests you as a player.  Now we have different criteria: story, visual effects, sound effects, blood effects, guns, gadgets, girls, and on and on and on.

The opening of market to more casual gamers is partially responsible for this trend, but not in the way most commentators and hardcore gamers think.  Despite hardcore games getting easier, casual gamers still stick with their own games.  The mom who plays Text Twist on a regular basis will not be playing Bioshock 2 this month.  Instead, casual gamers caused a shift the definition of hardcore: essentially, a hardcore gamer is anyone who will put up with age-old conventions that are mostly counter-intuitive and exist in a ghetto of entertainment where little effort is put forth welcoming new-comers.

There is a subtle difference between this gamer and the old hardcore gamer.  Whereas the old hardcore gamer enjoyed the challenge, the new hardcore gamer only has the ability to tolerate it, and even then only if it's a familiar one.  New hardcore gamers typically reel at the sight of a new kind of gameplay that challenges them in ways that their old games didn't.

So games are becoming easier not to accommodate casual gamers, but to cater to hardcore gamers.  Like most people, hardcore gamers want rewards without working toward them.  In a way, we can believe that when we finish a game, it's the same as finishing any game, even if ours was much less challenging.  That's fine, that's human nature.  But publishers are saturating the market in easy rewards.  There has been some serious "Achievement Inflation" in the gaming marketplace.  It's good for business, I suppose.  Gamers will blitz through games, soaking up all the rewards, and then will need a new game to get their fix. 

But what about you as a gamer?  What about you as a person?  Do you really want to live your life from cheap fix to cheap fix?  As I see it, we have an obligation to search for understanding and transcendence, and you're not going to find that in the end credits of a new video game.


Remy77077 said...

I agree with almost everything here, especially the old hardcore vs the new hardcore, I'd contest this point:

"There is no longer the idea of savoring a games challenges, of judging a game according to how well it tests you as a player"

What about dedicated "multiplayer" gamers, who find their fun in savouring the challenges of person vs person competition? (or team based competition, like the Call of Duty franchise is mainly aimed at). Regenerating health doesn't make the game 'easier' if it applies to all players, it's just changed the nature of the skill tests within the game.

Or would you say this kind of player is in fact, part of the 'old hardcore' instead?
Also joining the dots from your other post ( are perhaps 'old hardcore' gamers ones who tend to judge games mainly on the sport axis, and 'new hardcore' ones who tend to judge games on the diversion axis?

Ferguson said...

Loving the synthesis here!

Obviously there's a lot of nuance, and it is difficult to make definitive statements regarding as diverse a population as "anyone who plays video games." The gaming population exists along a spectrum from those who see games solely in the sport dimension and those who see games solely in the diversion dimension.

But I think you hit the nail on the head: the trend has been to skew toward the diversion dimension and away from the sport dimension. Notice the biggest innovation that Modern Warfare brings to the multiplayer (something greatly appreciated by our New Hardcore): it makes it a single-player game. The game doesn't end at the end of the round--everyone gets XP points, and some people level up and some don't. Leveling up becomes a greater focus of the game (if you want it to be) than the stated objectives within the gameplay.

For instance, over the past couple weeks I've been working on the 'Perks Challenges' in MW2. While many of the challenges will incidentally count toward the game type's objectives, others can be done without having any affect on the outcome of the current game--or even have a negative effect! I'm thinking of the Marathon challenge where you just run a set number of miles, or the Last Stand challenge where you just try to get someone to kill you so you can kill them as soon as you enter Last Stand. The addition of this XP system has created a metagame that severely downplays the significance of the sport dimension.

I would also say that regenerating health does soften the game to a great extent, and makes luck much more of a factor, which always penalizes the more skilled players. There's a reason the modes that minimize the regenerating health factor are called 'hardcore' in Modern Warfare.

I look forward to hearing more of your thoughts, Remy. Thanks for commenting!

Remy77077 said...

Ah, since I've 'hit the nail on the head' I'm glad you've confirmed I am thinking along the same lines as you then. :)

I'm seeing more synthesis here across from another of my favourite writers on games (in fact one of the major influences on me that got me started in game-related writing myself), Chris Bateman. I believe your "old hardcore" or sport-emphasizing players maps pretty well onto players that play primarily for 'agon' as decribed here:

Which maps onto the kind of videogame player who would chiefly identify with the "Conqueror" type in his Brainhex survey:

I also completely agree with what you are saying here about Call of Duty. In fact, I wrote about my first experiences with it here:
Whilst that's quite a rant (which may well be my typical approach, hah!) you'll see the main thing I was 'attacking' (as well as the themes of the games) was the XP points system in the game; which I find is a huge annoyance, massively hindering my potential enjoyment of it. I want to write more about this game in future, but yes, as you've stated, the way the perks are designed makes it even worse, as they often conflict with the (possible?) goal of winning the game. I've decided pretty much my only approach to playing Call of Duty now will have to be to simply ignore these perk systems as much as possible.

Regen health and the role of luck is a much more complex issue though IMO.
Some particularly enlightened skilled players may still enjoy competing against the vagaries of luck as much as the other players. Think of the skilled poker player who views the amount of luck in the game as the reason he actually gets to win money at it! ie: it fools people into thinking they have a chance to beat him or her. So it's basically a factor in making the game more appealing to more people, which even the skilled player needs to have someone to compete against at all - even if these are not 'real' contests as such. But also look at the role luck plays in real sports. It's often overlooked, but many popular sports (especially team sports) do have large elements of luck in them.

Luck might also be a part of the game's design on purpose not just to expand the player base ('tricking them' like in poker) but also to expand the game space itself, ie: to expand the number of possible game states for example; and actually make the game more challenging even for a skilled player - think of titles such as Kongai (if you know it), Puzzle Fighter, or even Tetris. Even Street Fighter 2 has some pure luck based elements to it that aren't generally well-known but do exist (random damage off most moves).

Luck is also simply another kind of =fun= that many people enjoy:
And as you've already written; gambling is still a game.

That said, in Modern Warfare's case I do agree with you about the main reason for including health regen and the 'Hardcore mode' - which you probably won't be surprised to know I've spent more time playing than the Normal mode so far, although I've played very little of either.

Another aside - actually the reason I wasn't keen on COD Hardcore mode so far was that it removed the "mini map" showing you nearby opponent weapon fire (well most of the time; there's the killstreak awards to consider, which are another thing I don't like about COD but that's yet another discussion!); which to me is something very important for masking the flaw FPSs in having some semblance of 'realism' and that's the loss of all peripheral vision. Also the lack of the mini map could possibly be a luck enhancer as well.

Ferguson said...

Lots of good points in that comment, and I'm not even going to attempt to answer them all, though you might see some of these subjects returning in the form of posts.

First of all, thanks for the links. Bateman has some good food for thought and I might be stealing some of his terminology in the near future. Bateman has a nasty tendency to conflate "games" with "play," and that is definitely going to be the subject of one my posts coming up soon.

Luck is a powerful element in games and one that I've put a lot of thought into. Be on the look-out for future posts about how games most effectively utilize luck (and you're very much in my line of thinking when you talk about "expanding the game space").

Regarding your blog and take on COD, I agree with you the sport aspect is clearly the weakest dimension in Modern Warfare, rivaled only by expression. This is a diversionary game. And good job calling out the problem of peripheral vision in FPS's. I was also struck that the first thing I saw when I first visited your blog was a series dedicated to Super Street Fight IV. While--through the accidents of circumstance--I haven't played a lot of fighting games, at least not the depth I've experience other genres, I have recognized the fighting genre as more steadfast in its commitment to sport (though from what I hear about Street Fight IV, still not immune from the overall trends of the industry).

I haven't gotten a chance to read what you have to say on Super Street Fighter, but I'm curious to find out what you think about it and I'll be reading that series of post post-haste!

Remy77077 said...

Thanks for the further discussion and name-drop
;-) (and please delete my duplicate comment above, since I can't!). I agree that Bateman has some very useful terms; hence the naming of my own blog as you've no doubt noticed.

I've written quite a bit about FPSs as I don't 'naturally' like the viewpoint at all; it seems incredibly artificial to me, actually moreso than most other videogame viewpoints. I jokingly refer to it as "10 degree view", or "dalek simulators" and the like -

Fighting games however, I generally do like and I am very familiar with. You might find it odd though, that my commentary about Street Fighter IV might sound like asking for more 'industry trend' in fighting games, however, I'm really not (apart from, perhaps, 'tricking' more people into playing it, like poker). I just don't like the emphasis SF4 places on certain elements of fighting games; but some people don't understand the distinction between the points I raise, and the so-called 'dumbing down'.