Friday, 22 February 2008

I think, therefore I am a hardcore casual gamer. The real future of the games industry...

Looking at the way the gaming world has evolved it'd be pretty stupid to lump all modern “Gamers” into the historical stereotype of nerdy, single, over- or under-weight guys with nothing better to do than perhaps play the odd game of tabletop Dungeons & Dragons and lay the smack down on Doom for several weeks with other local geeks and a self-organised LAN party – but this is exactly how wider industry and commerce have been categorising the gaming community right up until very recently indeed.

Even the games industry itself is somewhat guilty of considering the needs of all gamers to be consolidated, based on the traditional market stereotype for their industry.

The direction of the whole gaming industry has been dictated by this marketing mandate; the perceived hunger for bigger, longer, harder, more demanding and completely immersing gaming experiences, personified by the legacy stereotype. This has lead to the massive rise in production and marketing of the Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game, massive storyline-driven pseudo role-playing action games, personified by the later Grand Theft Autos and epic simulators such as Gran Tourismo, which require weeks and weeks of game time to get the most out of the software – or even play the areas of the game that made you want it in the first instance!

That's all well and groovy, but what about the gamers who don't want to be immersed into a cyber-reality and demanded upon by the kind of fictitious pressures (Guild leading, endless XP'ing...) which the larger expansive games, seemingly making up the bulk of 'quality' industry releases, insist upon?

What about me?

Within the gamer demographic is a large group, often overlooked by the marketing of the wider games industry; a gamer who, although enjoys playing, does not want the kind of extreme escapism offered as standard by the rest of the gaming world. A gamer who essentially wants an enjoyable retro pick-up/put-down gaming experience reminiscent of the early 1990's 16-bit era - without having to resort to emulating 16-bit technologies and replaying previously discovered and historically favoured titles. Something I often find myself doing for lack of finding anything new that satisfies my needs as a gamer!

What this particular playing demographic wants is modern pick-up/put-down titles with the benefit of modern gaming technologies and graphics techniques – an improvement upon the past, while maintaining the playability and versatility of retro gaming which got them interested in video games in the first place, before the industry was swept away by what I feel is both a misguided and Hollywood-driven imposed direction of “EPIC-NESS” in the overall culture of produced 'game play', propagated by, and you can place no real fault with the industry here, the pure quality of releases; games such as World of War Craft and EVE On-line were, no doubt, and irrespective of the segments of the market they exclude, nerd wet dreams twenty years ago.

So if these games are of such a high quality, why would people not want to play them?

The answer to this question lies within the evolving lifestyle of the gamer – as has already been discussed the traditional stereotype is at best 'ever changing' and at worst completely inaccurate in today's modern climate, despite industry insistence on using it as a basis for the creation of their titles. The industry seems to, by default, produce for this stereotype – without ever truly addressing the needs of the actual end users, or segmenting them into potentially different markets beyond the over simplistic hardcore or casual distinction.

What we have here is a sales-driven environment in an industry which should by rights be marketing driven, that is to say be looking to cater for the needs of the end user before the inception of a product. I've seen this before somewhere... I can only lament on the influence of Hollywood on the modern gaming industry.

The following lifestyle factors inevitably stand between true enjoyment of epic, large 'hardcore' games; career, education, personal relationships, family, kids, house keeping etc.

Now read that list again. These are all the things anyone probably wants to be good at in real life, and they stand against you when you are playing most modern quality games!

Examine the list. Any one, or more likely a combination of these factors in your life takes up deserved time in which you actually achieve something. The only way to succeed, that is to say become good, or pseudo-powerful (in the case of MMORPG's) in a modern game is to subtract time spent doing any of the above activities and instead play the game in question for that amount of time. The time a player needs to spend on a game to get the most out of it is at this time only increasing. This is completely, and excuse the British colloquialism, ass over tit.

The gaming market should not revolve around those people who will literally sacrifice real life goals for fictitious cyber-realities (this was obviously some marketing executives hard-on-inducing vision in the 1980s, a legacy decision born out of sales-driven greed and not actual market forecasting). There is something misguided about this approach, and not just on a moral and ethical level. Although we've all heard the, admittedly hyped and rare cases of child neglect resulting from so called “gaming addiction” (in my opinion people who can become dangerously addicted to games are in just as much danger of become dangerously addicted to cheese) and the other related stories of pure Darwin Award winning idiocy, such as the kid who killed himself to “meet his WoW character”, the goal of total population immersion makes no sense at all from a business angle either; you can't market and eventually sell products to people unable and or unwilling to earn a living in which to pay for them – that possibility may have sounded a far fetched notion 10 years ago, but take a look at the world now!

As the gaming market expands with innovations and more family-oriented marketing campaigns such as has happened with the Nintendo Wii, any business forecaster worth their salt would have to be looking at the mid-range future not a little worried about where the next few million bucks are coming from if everyone likely to buy a video game is so immersed in video games they already own that the industry either stagnates or falls in on itself completely!

Talking of the Nintendo Wii, there is the “other end of the gaming spectrum” to discuss - “the sub game packaged as a whole game”. In short, because I don't wish to dwell here, my initial summary says all that needs to be said, let's take a popular and indeed award winning example; Wii Sports. Great game. For about a week. When I note that people want pick-up/put-down play, that does not imply that the put-down will be forever after a very short time of ownership. A game can have depth without the length which has become the norm in what I have termed in this article “epic” games.

So, what do I actually want here? I want a game I can pick up and put down with no penalty to me either in real life or in the individual games world! I want depth to a game – without the length which paralyses me and never allows me to fully enjoy the software which I have paid for with my hard earned cash! Too much to ask?

If we term epic games as for 'Hardcore Gamers' and we term sub-games masquerading as full titles as for 'Casual Gamers' then what I want is something easily achievable and posted right between, that's right ladies and gents...

Hard casual gaming.

The term has been whispered in hushed, often married, or otherwise tied up in real life, circles of men (and indeed women, that's right, chicks dig video games) for a while now, but it is a demographic which has yet to be truly catered for by the wider market.

However it's not all bad news, there are an increasing number of independent game studios such as the Lucifer Game Studio / Facebook (found via a Google search for the term hard casual gamer – although I am sure they are not unique, are the only studio I could find with a clear hard casual gamer direction in their printed aims) who are lofting the banner of the Hard Casual Gamer high – and apparently targeting that market from the inception of their games – how I have noted it should be done.

We've yet to see what these particular games turn out like and if they will as they are aiming to do satisfy the needs of the 'hard casual gamer' – but I sense a turning of the tide in the industry, spearheaded by just such independent games developers.

I guess we'll see soon enough.

- Tengu

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