Hardcore Hijinks (or The Business of Being Casual)

In-fighting has been a major part of video games for as long as I can remember. Then again, my earliest memories of video games took place during the 16-bit era, where we saw what may have been the greatest console war in gaming history. Of course, console and platform wars still exist to this day, but there’s something even bigger than that going on. You’re probably familiar with the two most prominent classifications of gamers: hardcore and casual. If you know that much, then you’re probably also aware of the fact that these two groups utterly despise one another. Though this started out as a one-sided conflict with hardcore gamers bashing their casual counterparts, these days the hatred’s a little more balanced with both sides. I touched on this topic briefly while discussing the problems with broadening the appeal of certain video games, but frankly, I think it’s worth exploring in greater detail. Let’s delve into some profiles of both factions, common arguments respective to each group and how some other entities in the industry have been affected by this gaming blood feud.

Let’s start by defining what it means to be a hardcore gamer. Simple enough, right? Most people agree that the defining trait of a hardcore gamer is that they spend a great deal of time gaming. To them, video games veer between being a hobby and an addiction. Because of this, they’re generally considered the most skilled subset of gamers. They’ve also generally been gaming for quite some time, usually a majority of their lives (no matter how short). As such, they’ve been exposed to many different genres, though many of them tend to stick to a few specific genres. Generally, they’re stereotyped as either foul-mouthed teenagers or unemployed shut-in losers. Needless to say, there’s no love lost between hardcore gamers and both mainstream gaming and society in general.

On the flipside, what is a casual gamer? A miserable little pile of Angry Birds spin-offs. I kid, I kid. Casual gamers are typically associated with smartphone and browser-based social games. You know, stuff like Candy Crush Saga, Clash of Clans and (I’m really dating myself here) FarmVille. Before that, they were identified with the Wii, explaining that console’s massive success. As such, gaming isn’t really one of their key interests: at best it’s a fun diversion, at worst just a time killer. They end up representing a much wider swath of the general population than hardcore gamers, but there are a few stereotypes about them as well. They’re generally more likely to be female than male, so generally they get pegged as soccer moms or something along those lines. They tend to be a huge cash cow for the industry in general, so most publishers have been trying to find a way to exploit their market. The flipside of that, however, is that other types of gamers (especially the hardcore) consider them to be a cancer to the medium as a whole.

You’re probably wondering, where exactly do I, Professor Icepick, lie on this little continuum? Well, odd as it may seem, I don’t really consider myself a hardcore or a casual gamer. I identify with a third category: the “core”, or mid-core gamer. This means that while I’m not quite as fanatic about playing video games as hardcore gamers, I do have a lot of experience with the medium and consider gaming to be one of my main hobbies. As such, I definitely empathize more with the hardcore faithful than their casual counterparts. I’ve seen a lot of my favorite genres fall by the wayside over the years and seeing it happen to another group doesn’t fill me with any sort of glee. Ironically enough, many modern hardcore gamers are the exact same people I considered “casuals” during the fifth and sixth generations, who came into gaming as it began to build popularity in the mainstream.

As I tend to identify more with hardcore gamers in general on this topic, I’ll start by analyzing their arguments. First and foremost is the fact that many big publishers and, by extension, developers have been abandoning more hardcore-oriented titles in order to focus more of their resources on build games for casuals. Now I understand that casual development tends to be cheaper and the games themselves have had a tendency towards higher profit margins compared to even the best-selling traditional games out there. I’m not going to argue the reality of that particular situation. What confuses me is just how baffled the gaming media and casuals are over the fact that the hardcore are upset over the fact that most major companies dedicated to making video games are progressively abandoning them in droves.

It’s one thing that entirely new companies are being founded to take advantage of the massive casual audience, it’s another when companies that used to cater to the hardcore audience dump them. Worse yet, we’re even seeing cases where casual game companies have begun taking over these companies: most of Data East’s IPs are owned by G-Mode, a Japanese mobile gaming company. GungHo Entertainment, the people who brought us Ragnarok Online and Puzzles & Dragons, bought out my beloved Grasshopper Manufacture. Hell, just recently, Double Helix Games, a developer that recently redeemed themselves with the recent Killer Instinct and Strider games, got snatched up by Amazon. Chances are, they will be put to work developing crummy smartphone games. Why shouldn’t they be angry about all that talent and all those resources being squandered? Hell, I know I’m angry about it.

To make matters worse, even the games that are still geared to hardcore gamers aren’t safe from some terrible trends that have helped make casual gaming as profitable as it is. Trends like “pay-to-win” are creeping their way into traditional games and hardcore gamers aren’t happy about it. Then again, most gamers really aren’t happy about it. Unfortunately, it works and as it’s been conceived both as a way to draw in the casual audience and bleed consumers dry of every last penny, it’s viewed as a win by most major publishers. Granted, casual gamers aren’t directly to blame for these trends becoming so major, but the fact that it works so well with them is hurting the industry as a whole.

That’s not to say that hardcore gamers are necessarily without their own flaws. I’m not exactly so well versed with the opinions of casual gamers. Fortunately, I spoke to a friend of mine who just happens to consider himself a casual gamer. The first thing he told me was that he felt that hardcore gamers are elitist snobs who hold their own opinions as fact. Honestly, I can’t even argue with that, he’s totally right on that count. Unless you have never been to a gaming forum or seen the comments on a YouTube video even vaguely related to video games, chances are you’ve seen at least one arrogant douchebag that identifies as a hardcore gamer spout their biased views as objective truth. It’s such a common trend, it doesn’t even really count as a stereotype anymore.

Worse still, this elitist nature also shows up when it comes to discussing games in general. Due to their greater experience compared to casuals, most hardcore gamers have a tendency to mock them for not knowing things that they view to be common knowledge. The issue isn’t really the information imbalance, but rather the arrogance that comes from it. By extension, casual gamers tend to be at a significant disadvantage when playing games that are meant for a more hardcore audience, either due to a lack of experience or time put into the game, depending on whether the game focuses more on skill or any kind of in-game experience system geared toward long-time players. The lack of an encouraging environment only makes matters worse when trying to get casuals involved in deeper gaming experiences.

So, while we’ve gone over the two main camps in this conflict, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the other entities inflicted by the casual/hardcore war. First off, the group that may very well have become my favorite punching bag as of late: video game journalism in general. Up until about the last generation, gaming journalists were strictly on the side of core and hardcore gamers. This was a smart decision: pissing off one’s reading base when you rely as heavily on advertising revenues as most forms of video game journalism do is extremely suicidal. However, at some point during the previous generation, and I can’t pinpoint exactly when this started happening, the journalists stopped laying into casual gamers…and started laying into the hardcore, and they have yet to stop. I’m not sure exactly what caused this phenomenon, but I’ve got a few theories.

The first is pretty obvious: most of these sites get their cash from ad revenue, usually provided by video game publishers (who have gone on a casual kick lately themselves, but I’ll delve further into that in a bit) and we’re all aware of what kind of effect that can potentially have on their game coverage and/or opinion pieces. The second theory is just a side effect of a larger trend, the recent demonization of the old-school geek culture in order to bring about a more diverse and welcoming culture in its place. Granted, we have seen this kind of thing happen in a much less subtle way in many video game journalism websites, due to hardcore gamers being generalized as nothing but a bunch of geeky male gamers, while casual gamers tend to represented by a far more diverse group of people (especially women, who are notoriously underrepresented in the hardcore demographic), it’s not exactly a far leap of logic to think that the game journalists would try to fight this war on two different fronts, both blatantly and covertly. The last (and, in my opinion, least likely) theory I’ve got is just that the journalists are trying to be the exact kind of welcoming force casual gamers need to become more informed about the medium in general. Then again, these are video game journalists were talking about, the idea that they would take a stand on anything is laughable.

Finally, we’ve got to look at this from the people making the games themselves, specifically big-name publishers. As with video game journalists, publishers are backing the casuals in this fight, but at least they’re still providing hardcore games with minimal lip service. With publishers, the reason for backing casuals is pretty obvious. Like I said earlier, making smartphone and browser-based casual-oriented games is way cheaper than the AAA titles that most major publishers make to appeal to the hardcore audience. They are also tend to be more profitable for the companies themselves, especially when you take in-game transactions into account. Recently though, we’ve seen some traditional game publishers (like Square Enix, surprisingly enough) start reinvesting in traditional games after trying to break into the casual market. Hopefully, this trend becomes more ubiquitous. Looking at you, Capcom.

In the end, it seems unlikely that either side of this conflict will be seeing eye-to-eye for some time. While hardcore gamers are fairly elitist about their hobby, the main focus of the medium itself is becoming more and more casual-friendly and this has had some negative side effects on games in general. Both sides have their respective points about the industry. Maybe someday, both sides can strike a balance at some point where neither one feels victimized by the other. That’s probably a pipe dream though.

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