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Design Snapshot: Air Conflicts

Three Patterns of Hardcore Complaints

Are there patterns to the complaints that the Hardcore heap upon mainstream games? Do these patterns correlate, even in the broadest sense, to play styles?

Psu, over at Tea Leaves, has an interesting and opinionated post exploring the criticism he is subject to because:

...I represent what the long term gamer hates most: the guy who likes mostly Halo and Madden. Where others see a depressing lack of innovation and risk-taking, I see a stunning series of games that have fabulous production values and excellently refined gameplay.

I should note, I personally dislike Halo - but not the people who play it. It's a great product... not quite truly mass market, but very close. It's just not what I want in a game... so I look elsewhere. This is the advice I would extend to all Hardcore players - if you don't like what is in the mainstream, look elsewhere!

I feel that much of the bitterness among the curmudgeonly Hardcore results from a desire for games that meet their play needs on the budgets of mass market games, but a reluctance to accept the changes necessary to court the audience which justify those budgets. I do openly criticise the mainstream games - but I attack them for the opposite reasons: for not meeting the play needs of the very mainstream they are supposed to be providing for.

Psu's flavours of 'fanboy wrath' are as follows, along with how I would correlate this with cognitive dissonance* resulting from play needs not being met:

  • "Games are too easy": this strikes me as a Type 1 Conqueror complaint. In the search for fiero (triumph over adversity), nothing is more frustrating than a game which is too easy, as it can never provide the desired emotional pay off. Although previously an outspoken opponent of multiple difficulty levels, I now believe these may be vital. Conqueror-type players desire challenge - they should be able to find it.
  • "Games are all dumbed down": here Psu observes complaints about the removal of puzzles, and the simplifying of play - in particular "streamlined character development systems that keep track of the stats for you rather than making you use Excel to do it." Anyone else spot a Hardcore Type 2 Manager theme here? Puzzles and management of multiple variables are key themes here - mastering complexity is the play need being thwarted by the streamlining of mechanics. This isn't an easy fix. Type 2 Manager players may have to accept being forced into the niche markets - even their premier titles (Civilisation x) don't command truly AAA budgets because the audience is small, albeit loyal.
  • "Games are all the same": here the complaint is generally targeted at franchises. Psu goes to great pains to attack the Zelda franchise, feeling that it usually escapes criticism, but I have to say only yesterday I read a Hardcore attack on this very franchise. No franchise is safe. This strikes me as a Type 3 Wanderer complaint. The desire for games to have a unique identity is a key theme for this cluster of players (especially in the Hardcore) and franchises just don't meet this need because they are more about refinement than innovation.  Here, my 'look elsewhere' advice applies. These franchises (along with licensed games) are the lifeblood of the industry - if you don't like them, don't buy them. There are plenty of innovative games out there - albeit significantly fewer numbers in the upper market. It's not reasonable to expect hundreds of high production value, innovative games - with some exceptions, franchises earn high production values, they are not often born with them, and innovation is in some sense reserved for the first title in a franchise for obvious reasons.

We haven't found enough of a Hardcore, Type 4 Participant cluster for there to be a common complaint emerging from this play style (if there was, it might be "game stories are too simple.") But it does seem that there are patterns of correlation we can draw, albeit informally, between the play styles of our DGD1 model and the common complaints Psu identifies.

Psu concludes by discussing the next generation of machines and concluding there will be nothing new at launch, and we should sit back and wait for the software libraries of the new machines to become more substantial. Spoken like a true mainstream gamer! However, I disagree with his claim that "Nintendo does not have any great insight into the psyche of the game playing public." I believe the new controller stems from precisely that insight - albeit doubtless born of genuine market research, the kind that some game developers seems afraid of because it takes away their rights as Hardcore gamers to assert their belief system as absolute.

I do not believe it's a coincidence that console ownership figures by gender show that uptake of the Gamecube was higher among women than any other console (sorry, I don't have the source - if anyone else does, please let me know), nor that the Casual configuration of the Revolution controller is so non-threatening to the person-on-the-street (and, by extension, so perniciously threatening to some Hardcore players). Nintendo appear to make strategic decisions with full knowledge of the needs of the Casual gamer - since two companies with far deeper pockets are duelling for control of the Hardcore, they have nowhere else to go. (Nintendo even admit they can't compete with the specs of their market rivals). Most Hardcore gamers have no appreciation for just how complex and alienating the standard controller has become - it has some 12 dimensions of control, and the fringe of Casual players can only handle up to 3 or 4!

The trouble is, it's desperately hard to do an end run around the Hardcore. Every profitable market vector we've seen so far relies upon some portion of the Hardcore audience to act as evangelists. Nintendo's battle will be to make that happen while Sony and Microsoft soak up the Hardcore support as they clash with their largely interchangeable monster machines. As the next generation rolls on, we are sure to hear much of the three flavours of complaint described above from the Hardcore - even as they inexorably become early adopters for overpowered systems they say they don't want.

Perhaps it's not, as Psu suggests, that people are stupid (although we all are from time to time), rather, it is that we are incredibly inconsistent.


*Do I need to blog on cognitive dissonance, or is this a well known topic?


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WikiPedia have a good article on Cognitive Dissonance:

You sez: I feel that much of the bitterness among the curmudgeonly Hardcore results from a desire for games that meet their play needs on the budgets of mass market games, but a reluctance to accept the changes necessary to court the audience which justify those budgets.

I sez: Yup. The first part of your theory is spot on. Though Resident Evil 4 and Metal Gear Solid 3 (both million selers but disappointing overall sales relative to the publishers' aims) satisfied my psychotic hardcore desires in 'good budget vision'.

God of War was very good also, though you may find more of a hardcore audience with Devil may Cry 3 and Ninja Gaiden. Why? God of War is considered the most mainstream of the 3. Why again?

The subtle differences in design. Firstly, the scope of mastery. All these games offer a 'level up' system. This for adventure fighters is often core to the hook so:

A - things don't get stale
B - you are constantly being rewarded
C - your self expression is being realized through the combinations of moves you are building up for your character's use, and thus your play style

So where is the difference in the three gamees? Simply that you MUST ADD considerable hours on top of the average time to complete the game to get ALL of your abilities...

...except in God of War.

Also, God of War's enemies are easier to fight, the counter system is more forgiving and simplified to pull off than DMC3 and NG (you get a slow mo opportunity when you can insert the follow up attack, whereas you don't get that in NG or DMC) and the 'God Mode' of God of War is only a tweak tougher than Ninja Gaiden's Normal mode and not even close in toughness to Devil May Cry's.

God of War is the least difficult, most accessible and most shallow (less scope for expression) than DMC3 and NG, but you could argue the pomp and gloss of the production values is far greater and it is overall a very enjoyable experience.

Also, don't forget this game has been released as an entirely new I.P at the end of the console cycle. The sales it pulled in light of that were amazing to say the least. A follow-up is already in production last I heard.

I believe David Jaffe's philosopy on creating the game was that he wanted to make the game that he wanted to play. Good on him.

You sez: I do openly criticise the mainstream games - but I attack them for the opposite reasons: for not meeting the play needs of the very mainstream they are supposed to be providing for.

I sez: Some yes and some no. And you've not defined your Mainstream game. Are you talking Madden? Halo? GTA? Halo is not a traditionally mainstream game, but did you see the announcement? 16 million sales for the series so far. Huge hours counted up online. You could argue Halo's success was simply that it was an exclusive best of breed that didn't see competition on its platform for long. It built a solid foundation from there as an established I.P and is now the success it is.

That's another argument entirely so I'll stop. My question is this:





What do I think? I think Eye Toy and Revolution are courting the 'true' mainstream - young, old, busy, girls, on top of the current audience. Not the often lazily defined mainstream whom love Madden, FIFA and similar. In my opinion, mainstream game = simplicity and purity of design. Tetris, Eye Toy, Burnout.

Hi Dan, thanks for the comments. I'll try and do them justice.

God of War 'more mainstream'? Is this like the argument that potato chips are more healthy than pork rinds? :)

Oh, and it's probably a mistake to think of this as the *end* of the PS2's cycle just because a new generation of machines are coming out. It's between halfway and three quarters through, according to Sony and most analysts. The Hardcore may be about to migrate to new machines - for the mass market, the transition is still years away.

It is true, I have not defined a 'mainstream game'. Madden and GTA, definitely strike me as mainstream... Halo is more marginal. It's hard to define a family resemblence category for this sort of thing; I just have a feel for which titles could hit a mainstream or mass market audience. I'll have to think about this more and see if I can elucidate my internal processes.

I would definately agree that EyeToy and Revolution are courting the mainstream/mass market audience. But I think Madden and FIFA qualify too - albeit a different segment of that mainstream audience. Burnout, I'm not so sure. Arcade racers are still very gamey... I think the GT series is 'more mainstream'. Other games that certainly hit the mass market include The Sims and Dance Dance Revolution - although note the difference in sales figures for the two franchises.

I agree that simplicity is important in reaching a mainstream audience; 'purity of design' is harder to quantify. Katamari Damacy has a very "pure" design, in my eyes, but it's not really a mass market product.

I guess being mass market/mainstream is about riding the zeitgeist when it comes down to it - I would see reality TV as mainstream, professional sports as mainstream, cars as mainstream, and celebrity gossip as mainstream - at least in other media. Wherever games cross into the zeitgeist, they tend towards the mainstream.

But then of course, how does one define the zeitgeist? :)

Okay. So the core of your view on mainstream is that it's down to themes. I'd have to agree with you, though only to the degree where the level of control and concept accessibility (similar to theme) can get past that, i.e., Eye Toy Play, which had popular themes, but they were not marketed as the umbrella theme so to speak.

I don't know about Revolution yet, but I'd speculate it'll be similar.

It's sad that simple controls and accessible yet deep gameplay that has the potential to be enjoyed by mainstream audiences (see a lot of chart-invisible Nintendo stuff such as Mario Tennis and Mario Golf) can sometimes be lost within a niche theme - gay plumbers, weird dinosaurs and so on.

My constant frustration has been that companies tend to rely on the outer theme and take no care to work the gameplay in a way that's as simple to grasp as the product or license on the box.

As for the God of War argument, I see what you're saying, but it's completely true. :) All I can say is that you make the time to experience it for yourself...

...but prepare to lose your temper a fair few times.

Devil May Cry 3 and Ninja Gaiden 3 are the most hardcore or the hardcore. They are punishingly tough, sometimes to the point of unreasonableness (if that's even a proper word).

In comparrison, GOW has a pretty well-tuned forgivness system which includes a feature where dying repeatedly at the same section gifts you two things:
A - option to change the game's setting to Easy from that point in the game
B - energy you had at that save point, is 'topped up' to give you a better chance.

God of War is actually a very accessible game in comparrison and is regarded by a lot of the hardcore as the most mainstream of the three, often by a large margin, but it's not to say it's disregarded. Some of the elitists moan but they are a small bunch. At least this is my experience on forums.

All I can recommend is that you play through all three of these games yourself and experience what I'm finding it hard to articulate as best as I'd like.

In short - DMC3 and NG make far greater demands on the player than GOW. And the other two are horrifyingly unfair in places in comparrison (1 hit kill enemy attacks, some unblockable or unforeseeable, full-level restarts upon death and so on). Some of these are design flaws, others are deliberate and well-crafted (though can be frustrating) attempts at getting you to figure out a pattern.

GOW is a fair and forgiving game with many subtle accessibility and forgiveness systems in place, that in my opinion and experience are actually excellent concepts that work beautifully. The unlockable extras are brilliant too. Just prepare yourself for the most horrifying end battle (well it's before the VERY end, but you'll see) you will ever play. It's quite obviously designed to make you hate life.

What you say about God of War decreases my desire to play it. :) I've seen the demo, I feel like I have a fair idea where it's coming from. Super-tough boss fights strip me of my usual desire not to snap disks in half... :)

"My constant frustration has been that companies tend to rely on the outer theme and take no care to work the gameplay in a way that's as simple to grasp as the product or license on the box."

Dan, in all our time ranting at/near each other, never have we been in more close agreement! :)

Yeah. Sounds like you won't like NG or DMC 3 either. :)

I must have masochistic tendencies...

God of War however is worth playing a while just so you can see all the little subtleties I mentioned in action. Then again, I mentioned some of the best ones already...

Glad we agree! Once I have the 'new stuff' ready, I'll have to pass it on so you can have a poke at it. I think it'll help with your desires regarding evolving the Design Demographic classes some more.

As you probably gathered, I've been working on a very similar line of research, though from a slightly different angle.

When it's ready, I'll drop you a mail. :)

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