The title of “hardcore gamer” is not an identity; it is a temporary state of being. Many people start playing video games, and some of them keep playing more and more of them until they develop skills and tastes that place them into the “hardcore” category. Hardcore gamers stay hardcore for years or decades, and then their reflexes fade or their interests shift and they find themselves enjoying different things.
There’s this mistaken feeling among players who self-identify as “hardcore” that they’ve been left behind, that there’s this shift in the culture of development that has abandoned them. This is mostly nonsense. It’s true that for about a decade, most every game was made for a hardcore player… but that decade was the worst one in the history of video game design.
Now, don’t misunderstand; leave the comment box blank for now. The ten years from 1995-2005 released some of the most artistically complex, innovative, and fun games ever made. But the great majority of the public never found about about them because they were designed for people who’d been playing video games their whole life.
I was born in 1985. I got a Game Boy for Christmas when I was seven or eight years old, but I had already been playing games on our home computers. Arcades were dying when I was young, but I still regarded them with fascination and played when I had the opportunity. I played Doom when it came out as shareware. I played on an NES and an 8-bit Sega Master System at my afterschool program. I started reading PC Gamer in 1995, with an issue that showed off how Windows 95 made Doom easy to play multiplayer.
I was never good at video games, but I worked at it. I used cheat codes to get past the hard parts until I realized one day that I didn’t need them anymore; I had developed the skills necessary to succeed on my own. I devoured the back catalogs of Infocom and Lucasarts. I upgraded my computer to run Half-Life, and knew that this game changed everything. I stayed up all night playing Team Fortress Classic and failed a test the next day. I’ve spent almost 20 years with video games as a primary past time. I sometimes play games on the Hard difficulty the first time through. I am a hardcore gamer.
My fiancée was born in 1984. The first games she played were the DOS versions of Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune. Her family had an NES and a Genesis. She found and loved Doom II, and devoured it with the help of cheat codes. She downloaded FAQs on how to circle-strafe, and begged her non-gaming parents and friends to deathmatch with her. Then she tried TekWar and was confused by the controls: crouching was complicated, and the game wasn’t very good. Quake was even worse; jumping around, mouselooking, these all frustrated her and she never bothered to gain skill in them.
First-person shooting games were lost on her, and she didn’t pursue games that were too challenging. For the next decade, she remained a casual gamer in the dictionary sense of the word: she played SimCity, Civilization, and fighting games like Mortal Kombat and Soul Caliber, but never made games a prominent part of her life. It wasn’t until Left 4 Dead that she returned to first-person shooters, and only now is she gaining the proficiency with controls and reflexes that allow her to enjoy “hardcore” games.
In 1985, when Super Mario Bros. was released, game developers hadn’t grown up with video games. Miyamoto was 20 when Pong came out. Sid Meier could vote before he could buy a video game console. Games were designed either for children or for computer geeks. They either had two buttons and a direction pad or they had a keyboard-based interface augmented by a sturdy instruction manual. Forward-thinking games incorporated a newly-popular device called a mouse.
In 1995, when Descent was released, game developers were gamers. John Romero published his first game at 17, and would soon ask gamers to “suck it down.” Jason Jones, a founder of Bungie, was 13 when his family got a Macintosh and the first thing he did on it was port over an Apple II game. The Playstation was released in September of 1995, and initially had eight action buttons and a D-pad; by a few years later, its primary controller had ten action buttons, a d-pad, two analog sticks, and a vibration feature.
Players who grew up with console systems in their homes were not only skilled at processing complex visual information, reacting quickly, and thinking with video game logic. They were also comfortable with controllers that used six fingers at once that required the player to move her thumbs from one control area to another during action sequences without looking away from the screen. For these newly-hardcore gamers like me, this was exciting and fun. For my fiancée, it was confusing and disorienting.
For an entire decade, game developers excluded people who hadn’t played video games as their primary past-time their entire lives. There was no entry-level system. There were few games that guided you into this complex world. The children who adopted games during this period were ones who were interested enough in the themes of the games or determined enough to overcome the controls that they could learn the skills. Half-Life popularized the idea of an in-game tutorial, but these typically became so complex that they were still inaccessible to the new player who had to look down to make sure his finger was still on the “S” key.
In 2005, the Wii controller was announced and its easy-to-use approach was soon dismissed as “waggle,” which was reinforced by poor control design on the part of shovelware developers. Flash games were expanding. The Sims series held 4 of the spots on the list of top 10 best-selling computer games. Suddenly, women were playing video games. Middle-aged women.
The hidden-object genre emerged. Developers scrambled to figure out how to make games for people who were only comfortable with one button to push. And as inexperienced players were once again given an entry to the world of gaming, the traditionally hardcore games began introducing features that welcomed new gamers. The most notable of these was to display on the screen what button to press to do an action. This approach had been around for years, but it’s only recently become wide-spread.
There’s a pride that comes with being a hardcore gamer for a lot of people. Casual gamers are babies, hardcore gamers say; they’re not interested in challenge or depth. They’re half right; casual gamers are babies. They’re newborn into the world of games, and they need a way to learn to play games. They need to develop the skills. Most of what hardcore gamers decry as “dumbing-down” is actually just the addition of features to help less-experienced players learn a game. Can it go too far? Sure. But the fact is that games have been too hard for too long.
The Proper Approach
I should be able to give my mother, who doesn’t play games, the “easy” mode of a game, and have her be able to make progress. “Normal” mode should not mean “challenging for players with decades of experience.” If you’re hardcore, congratulations. But being hardcore is not something you’re born with, and it sure as hell isn’t something you’ve always been. There was a time when you stared uncomprehendingly at the screen, maybe with an older sibling sighing and explaining for the tenth time how easy a game is. A frustrating introduction to games is unnecessary.
Should every game welcome the inexperienced player? No. There’s a place for complex games designed for the expert player. But most games aren’t like that. Most games would be perfect for experienced and inexperienced players alike, if the developers make a little effort to welcome the newcomer. Optional helper text, variable difficulties, and the option to skip especially hard material in order to get in more practice. Lack of punishing mechanics. It’s easy to make a game harder to satisfy the “hardcore.” Those who want a grueling experience can play on Impossible difficulty with Ironman mode on, and pursue the Total Mastery achievement.
Those who want a grueling experience should recognize that they were once unskilled, and that their skill will fade with age and shifting interest. They should recognize that their skill is not due to their determination or good taste, but to their experience. They should recognize that the hobby and the works that they love are not improved by excluding newcomers. Gaming does not benefit from being an exclusive treehouse club.
And developers should recognize not only that they need to guide the casual gamer, but that some people with decades of experience want and crave a challenge, and should put in the option for ridiculous, soul-crushing difficulty. Some designs are better-suited for one kind of player, but there’s little justification for excluding anyone. A substandard “easy” or “impossible” mode is better than none at all.
I’ve said my piece. If you have an opinion, please share it in the comments.