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Wherefore hardcore?

Wherefore hardcore?

One topic which I've returned to many times in the past year is the astonishing rise of casual, mass-market gaming. I make no apologies for that focus; the rapid growth of this market is the most exciting thing that has happened to the interactive entertainment industry since the introduction of the PlayStation.

Suddenly, games software and hardware is attracting audiences wider than many commentators dared to hope for. Nintendo is selling console and handheld hardware to them; Sony is selling them software to run on the household gamer's existing consoles; a number of smaller firms are stealing away their lunch hours and coffee breaks with advertising supported web games. Out of nowhere, a whole new ecosystem has been developed, and the heady scent of optimism fills the air around it.

In that light, it would be wrong for me not to focus heavily on this development. However, there is a corollary to the rapid progress of casual, mass-market gaming - an equal and opposite reaction, which is the perceived neglect of more traditional, hardcore gaming.

I say "perceived", because there's no real sign of hardcore videogames (a phrase which I dislike intensely, but in the absence of a better one we're reduced to using it) disappearing from the development schedules any time soon.

Microsoft's Xbox 360 exists almost solely on the back of action and racing games, a factor which may be a weakness in its ability to conquer a wider market, but which certainly makes it flavour of the month (and, indeed, year) with the 14-24 male demographic. The PS3 is less tightly focused, but still has pivotal hardcore titles such as Resistance, Heavenly Sword and the forthcoming Metal Gear Solid 4.

As for the PC, it remains the platform of choice for massively multiplayer games, real-time strategy and first-person shooters such as the much-anticipated Crysis. Even the Wii hasn't abandoned that market, by any means; Metroid Prime 3 and Mario Galaxy are both arguably games with more "hardcore" appeal than mass-market credibility. It's hardly a barren time to be a hardcore gamer.

On the other hand, the software charts tell a somewhat different story. A glance at the UK's all-format charts in recent weeks makes for slightly grim reading for fans of hardcore titles. Sports games, movie tie-in games, kids' games and casual titles such as Nintendo's various brain-training games crowd the top twenty. Halo 3 occupies a lonely slot in the top ten, the only non-sports title representing the traditional male 14-24 demographic in that ranking.

These rankings do raise questions about the importance of hardcore gaming in the grand scheme of things. While film tie-ins and their ilk have always done good business, this industry has always respected the importance of early adopters and key opinion-formers in driving the uptake of its more mass-market products. The sudden emergence of a large, mass-market audience for gaming throws that importance into question.

How many of the casual adopters of the Wii and DS have picked up their console, or are making ongoing software choices, on the basis of advice from a "hardcore" gamer in their life? It's almost impossible to tell, and there's a strong suspicion that the figure may be far lower than it has been in the past.

Given these factors, would it be reasonable to expect a reduction in the amount of money and development resource being thrown at hardcore projects? I don't have a definitive answer to that question, but I suspect not.

For a start, it's important to realise that most of the casual gamers buying Brain Training products are new gamers, or old gamers who had stopped buying hardcore products anyway. Few, if any, of these people have been "cannibalised" from the existing hardcore market; rising cost of development aside, hardcore games remain just as viable a business proposition today as they were yesterday.

More important, however, is the need to recognise this move as a relatively straightforward stage in the evolution of videogames as an entertainment medium.

Building games targeted at men in their teens and twenties was always a strategy which would need to be expanded into new fields when those men grew up into their thirties and forties, found girlfriends and wives, and had children of their own. Keeping those gamers as customers would require new games, new design strategies, new interfaces and new business models - and moreover, would need to appeal to their partners and children, creating products for families rather than just for recalcitrant teenagers.

That's exactly what we're seeing happening right now - but the rapid spread of what the word "videogame" means into new territories doesn't mean that the heartland will be, or should be, abandoned. One of the signs of a mature medium is that it allows for its customers to be mobile, giving them a wide spectrum of options for their entertainment; just because your multiplex is showing a romantic comedy doesn't mean it has to take down the posters for Bruce Willis' latest testosterone cocktail.

Games are no different; the expansion of options, of demographics and of genres is a vital step on the way to achieving the same level of acceptance and cultural importance as older mediums have done. Those charged with commissioning the industry's output, however, must be careful not to devote too much resource to chasing after the latest bandwagons; neglect of gaming's traditional bases will result in nothing less than killing a goose that's been laying golden eggs for decades.

Author
Rob Fahey avatar

Rob Fahey

Contributing Editor

Rob Fahey is a former editor of GamesIndustry.biz who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.