new challenger

I make games. I also play them. I talk about both activities here.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

A Place for Hardcore

As a developer, I've grown to hate the hardcore. You know, the guys who complain that Prince of Persia: Warrior Within is too easy, thus causing Ubisoft to revamp the checkpoint system in Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones so that saves are oh, about 2 hours apart. Most of the people I work with share this general disdain for the hardcore. In some ways, we are completely justified in our severe dislike for this group; there is evidence that adhering too closely to their tastes can ruin your product's sales potential, as the hardcore are a pitifully small percentage of the people who actually buy games (and let's not kid ourselves, please - if games are not profitable, people will stop making them). But the more I think about it, the more I begin to recognize the potential usefulness of the hardcore, just not in the way that they'd probably like.

Videogames aren't the only scene populated with hardcore. Fashion, music, and movies have them too. Know someone who thinks Paper, Denim & Cloth is tired, and that Levi's Capital E is where it's at? What about someone who listened to Fall Out Boy "before they sucked?" How about someone who asserts that Chan-Wook Park is the new Tarantino? We don't necessarily call these people hardcore, we call them trendsetters, and within their respective specialties they are envied, not vilified. What these people revel in today, the mass market glorifies tomorrow. These people are cutting edge, and not because it's easy to do, but precisely because it's hard; it takes an exclusive amount of effort to stay ahead of the next big thing, effort that the mass market - while not willing to spend - is more than willing to exploit. They are pioneers on the forefront, romanticized, not ridiculed. So why the discrepancy?

One big difference, I think, is that games require more from consumers than perhaps any of the above examples. Sure, a pair of expensive jeans may cost quite a bit of money, but they take no more effort to wear than the $30 pair of jeans from the mall. The prevelence of easily obtainable music and movies makes it so that pretty much anyone with a fat enough pipe and a big enough hard drive can have virtually any recorded song or video in the history of man. Games on the other hand, while relatively easy to obtain, are not all easy to enjoy. Some ask for a level of dexterity and game logic familiarity that automatically disqualifies all but the most dedicated patrons of a particular sub-genre (more about that dangerous subject here). It's unrealistic for me to expect a veteran of console shooters to enjoy a game made for first-time console shooter players; the methods I use to teach players the fundamental nuances of play will seem tired and mundane to the veteran. He will get bored, and he will think my game sucks. And yes, it probably does suck for him. No matter how well executed a tutorial is, it's still a tutorial. Dead or Alive as a series was specifically made to appeal to people who hadn't played fighting games before. Is it any wonder that it was almost universally panned by fighting elite? The conventions and rule sets that the game tried to establish were oftentimes contradictory to ones established in other fighting games, which of course felt odd to people who had already adopted a set of conventions for a decade or more. While the game was profitable, it was never accepted by the hardcore, magazines never gave it any credit, and it sat behind other established series as a sort of second-class citizen. Finally, the developers relented, added some changes to the core fighting engine, and released a more hardcore-friendly Dead or Alive 4. Isn't it ironic, then, that these changes haven't warranted any appreciable change in the game's perception?

As a player, I probably am the accursed hardcore. I want games made to satisfy me, with my 25 years of gaming experience. The trick that developers need to master is a way to satisfy the hardcore and the mass market with the same product; while the hardcore, like all trendsetters, don't drive sales directly, what they like trickles down into what the masses like. It's how a small-time community game (in the West anyway) like Virtua Fighter can go from laughing stock to The Best Fighting Game Ever Made. It's also up to the hardcore to realize that every game on the planet doesn't have to be made for them to love, or is somehow less of a game if it isn't. Return of the King was not the best movie of 2003 for everyone - Battleship Potemkin fans probably weren't jumping for joy (or were they?) - but it was the best movie for the most amount of people.

So what are developers to do? Well, I would suggest not writing off the hardcore entirely. There are many elements of play that the hardcore enjoy that can be extracted and presented to the masses in a digestible manner. Head to the message boards, listen to what they're saying. Sift through the fanboism and elitist bullshit and try to get to the meat of why they like or dislike something. Then, be a responsible developer and ask yourself if those kinds of things have a place in your games. The hardcore might not love the way you present a feature in your game, but it may open the door for the hardcore of tomorrow.

Immediately following that, find a pair of Levi's Capital E jeans and buy them. They're the shit, I promise.

Thanks for reading.

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