Hardcore Questions

Lots of people like to throw about the term “Hardcore Games”. They think it shows their understanding and knowledge of gaming. When a term is as deliberately vague and open to interpretation as this, can we ever work out what “Hardcore Gaming” is? This is gonna be a LOOOONG post… brace yourselves!

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“Hardcore Gaming”.

Take a moment to think about that. What exactly do we mean when we talk about Hardcore Gaming, or even Hardcore Games. Or dare I point it out, Hardcore Gamers? I’d wager that everyone out there has their own personal definition and thoughts on this. Some people will have very different, conflicting views as to what a Hardcore Game is. Or what a Hardcore Gamer is. The term is a catch-all, a vague and misrepresentative pairing of words that are designed to either deflect away from a lack of knowledge, or draw attention to this lack of knowledge.

Let me indulge by actually taking a moment to go through the three accepted dictionary definitions of the word “Hardcore”, and apply each one to the gaming world.

Hardcore definition #1 – Intensely loyal; die-hard (“That guy is a Hardcore Gamer!”)
Intensely loyal would denote a player that is dedicated to a particular spectrum of the gaming world. Truth is, in this sense we are all in some respect ‘Hardcore Gamers’. I try as hard as I can to keep my horizons broad and my options open, and yet I can’t help but have a soft spot for the JRPG, and RPGs in general. I am also a die-hard gamer, as it is my primary hobby and passion – most of my disposable income goes on video games, old and new. Most gamers are. It can be anything from a social hobby to a lifelong addiction, but both of these ideas reflect perhaps poorly on the gaming world. It implies both that we would put anything below our chosen hobby, or that we’re perhaps rooted to one or two genres or brands that we choose not to stray too far from at any given point. Is this really a term we as gamers would want to actually use to describe ourselves? It feels so… detrimental. A little like smashing an apple with a sledgehammer. It’s not a friendly or positive term in the literal sense – and we really want this to be how we are known?

Hardcore definition #2 – Stubbornly resistant to improvement or change (“This is Hardcore Gaming!”)
It is no secret to gamers that the winds of change are at the best of times slow to build in the gaming world. Activision and EA have positively reveled in the concept of turning out similar games time and time again, usually to those who would apply to the first definition – people who are focused on one or two genres or brands, or perhaps just one console. But again, is this really something we would turn out as a positive? Change is about improvement anyway, or the chance of improvement. Change forces us to look at what we have, and to think it could be better, and sometimes this is very quickly lost in the relentless drive to get games out on time. If we are not changing or improving, then we are stagnant and not evolving beyond what we have and know, and that in a creative industry like the gaming industry can be catastrophic. You expect EA and Activision to talk about Hardcore Gaming, but when UbiSoft and Nintendo start talking about it – you have my permission to get a little worried. It’s not a healthy thing to want to aspire to.

Hardcore definition #3 – Extremely explicit (“This is a Hardcore Game!”)
Hardcore Games should perhaps be easier to quantify; however the individual ideals we all have will give a broad spectrum of answers to this one. It’s taking a moment to think about it that knocks this definition on the head; what is an “Extremely explicit game”? Dead or Alive: Extreme Beach Volleyball isn’t really ‘Hardcore’ in any sense, it’s softcore pornography sure but you don’t really see anything. All the important bits are covered up, poorly perhaps but still just enough to avoid a hardcore tag. Mortal Kombat could fit into this; it’s explicitly graphic in terms of gore and detail, but in terms of actual gameplay they’ve been trying to make it sophisticated for years and rarely end up succeeding, and we as gamers tend to mock Mortal Kombat for exactly this reason; graphic, but really fantasy graphic. Its unrealistic enough to have missed the hardcore tag and gone into its own little universe. Nailing down a Hardcore Game is hard. Because we’re all different, and as a result, our own experiences and beliefs shape what we view as “too much”.

You get the idea. Hardcore isn’t a vague term in itself. It’s largely derogatory in nature, and one that in most walks of life we’d avoid. You can be a Hardcore Drug Addict, but not a Hardcore Jogger. The word in itself holds more actual weight when applied to something that is unhealthy or perhaps seen as anti-social, or abnormal. There may be a case for some walks to try and reclaim the word on their own terms, but this is a dangerous road that only often tends to reinforce a stereotype, rather than dispel it.

Core Games are much safer.

Core Games are a real thing – Nintendo, for example, has lots of “Core Games”. Games that it is known for and people are naturally drawn to; be this Mario Kart, Super Mario Bros., Metroid, The Legend of Zelda, Donkey Kong, Pikmin, Eternal Darkness and more. Nintendo is all about Core Gaming. It makes hardware, but it makes hardware ostensibly so it can sell us games – it’s a games powerhouse, a company that has sold the kind of unitary sellthrough that would make most pray for those kinds of figures. Mario Kart Wii selling shy of 38 million units – a truly staggering number in the scheme of things. Super Mario Galaxy and Smash Bros. Brawl just shy of 11 million units each. Nintendo has “core games”, because one primary definition of “Core” is “Central”. Nintendo has many recognisable brands attached to it, and all have been integral to its successes over the years.

Indeed, each company will tend to have a “Core Game” attached to it; Capcom have Street Fighter and Resident Evil. UbiSoft have Rayman and Prince of Persia. Activision – obviously, Call of Duty. But extend that to the whole company, Activision-Blizzard, and the latter name will lean you more towards World of Warcraft. Sega have Sonic amongst others. You can fill in others as you wish, but Core Games are important to all these companies because not only are they the ones they are most well known for, but these are usually the games that bring in the most money as well. The brand awareness in some cases is immense, and powerful enough to knock lesser-known entities out of orbit entirely. Few will match the kind of brand attachment Nintendo have of course, but that said, Nintendo have been doing this a long time. It seems perfectly natural for a company as old and prominent as Nintendo to actually have more weapons in their arsenal to play with.

You can of course talk about “Core Gaming”, that is, the names that people know you for being more important. This is a natural part of it; the Coca-Cola company has many brands and drinks under its belt but you have to admit, we only tend to think about it for one of those drinks – namely, the one it is named after. Each console and company competes largely on its own core franchises – Microsoft has the likes of Fable, Gears of War and Halo. Sony has God of War, Killzone, LittleBigPlanet and Uncharted. We are usually drawn to one – or more – console/s to play these important, central games on the platform that they were born on and indeed, intended for. Core Gamers could fit into this point, as those drawn to these games that are very important to the manufacturers.

Of course, the other end of the spectrum is often defined as “Casual”. But what does this really mean as well? It’s just as generic, just as strange and when applied to dictionary definitions, just as ridiculous to wheel out.

Largely we often tend to look on these terms as a scale of difficulty – Hardcore Games are very hard, and Casual Games are very easy. But really, can’t we just say “This game is hard!” or “This game is easy!”? The terms the industry and the gaming community have taken on just seem to be big bear traps, designed to snare as many people into as tight a space as is possible. Not everyone in the pit is going to agree either. Dark Souls is a hard game – a challenging game. Hardcore? Well, no. Just hard. And even then, it’s not an unfair game. Mario Kart is often referred to as casual – often by those who haven’t really played it. Learning the tracks, mastering drifts, getting the lines right, a healthy dose of luck and knowledge of where to go to avoid certain things. It looks like an easy, fun game. But looks can be deceiving at the best of times.

Are we really proud of these terms though? Do we really want to be “Hardcore Gamers?” Why not just… well… gamers? People who enjoy video games, who have them as a primary hobby. Why do we feel the need to conform to industry ideals as to how much of a gamer we really are? Are we THAT desperate to have a bigger e-peen than everyone else that we’d actively wear an insultingly vague and corny title on our chests? Why do we want to be somehow more of a gamer than someone else? My grandmother adored Pokemon. She liked Final Fantasy 7 too, but she wasn’t that experimental. She didn’t jump outside the box, she liked what was kind of popular. My grandfather – eesh, I’ve never known a more dedicated Everquest 2 player. He also liked Resident Evil 4. Perhaps more than me, I dare to admit. They weren’t like me though – I jump from game to game like I have the videogaming equivalent of ADHD. They encouraged this, but they were pretty set on a couple of games they liked. But I would still say they were gamers – they liked games, and they liked playing them and watching me play the latest strange oddity I’d fished out of some bargain bin, or something from the second-hand shelf that had caught my eye.

We tend to look around and frown on anyone that doesn’t conform to our own set ideals of what a game is – be that sneering at Call of Duty and Battlefield, or claiming Pokemon and Wii Sports are “childish”. They’re still games – entertainment designed to be interactive and enjoyable to the masses. There is no real getting away from that. Even Angry Birds is a game. Disputing this is an exercise in frustration and blatant ignorance; you can’t just disregard titles, brands and genres on the basis that they don’t interest you. That way lies the way back to videogames of the 80’s and 90’s, where they were seen as the reserve of antisocial teenage boys who had no life, no friends and no future job prospects above a boring IT job somewhere.

The genie is out of the bottle. Since 1996, when the Playstation started to appeal to a more fashionable clientele, video games have come out of the shadows, out of the nerdy closet and are now an accepted part of our everyday lives. Well, unless you read the Daily Mail, but you don’t, do you? The industry has grown exponentially since; one of the biggest industries in the world, one that generates an incredible amount of revenue both for the companies within it and the taxmen, who obviously always take a slice off these things to plow back into the latest misplaced social venture. Once upon a time, the likes of the Daily Mail could do a video game scare story and have people in fear of these new-fangled devices; now, they are so commonplace the last time they tried this they were soundly ridiculed by everyone, even the Guardian and Telegraph! Video games are normal; in a very short space of time, they have progressed and in many cases now exceed the income and revenues of Hollywood blockbusters. These things are going no-where. They’re too much a part of our accepted and everyday lives to be so casually disregarded.

But because it hasn’t taken very long to get this mass-market normality, there are perhaps lingering resentments beneath the surface that could do with a good airing, to blow the cobwebs off those tinfoil hats. Some may argue games have gotten easier since the SNES era; perhaps, but games are also CHEAPER now than they were back then (£29.99 to £39.99 RRP now compared to the £50-£60 of the olden days!), and more readily available and accessible thanks to the internet, and more recently high-speed internet connections. This is why companies like GAME have been in trouble; they are married to antiquated ideals. In the year 2000, I probably would have made the 120-mile round trip twice a month to the nearest store. And I did, many times. But these days, I can get next-day delivery for no extra cost on games from most online retailers like Play and Amazon, if not instantly or in an hour or so of download time from Steam, Good Old Games and Gamefly.

We also have more disposable income. In the SNES era, sure. Lufia 2 would have lasted me four or five months, if not more. But for the prices being asked at the time, and with less money, you kind of needed games that lasted a while. Today, money is a little more devalued and we all have slightly more to blow on our hobbies, indeed, the world has encouraged us to indulge in this hobby because it is heavily taxed. You get more games, sure, and they’ll last less time in the majority of cases. But you’re also paying VAT on those purchases, and that money is going to the taxman.

The reason I’ve deviated here is to point out that socially, economically and even politically, video games are far more accepted now than they used to be. Sure, we get people who want to take it too far, people who make themselves publicly look like utter prats who need a slap upside the head and a boot on their project, but this has been true in any media. Those who still long to retain some old-fashioned ideal of videogaming, or cling to antiquated stereotypes, can do so but they need to understand this is like Canute holding back the tide. You can’t. Video games are a modern social phenomenon, and even the likes of Wii Fit can technically fall into the gaming category now. This is what happens when something becomes so normal and commonplace. It has to embrace everyone, of all persuasions.

Money has no concept of these silly terms. As long as the likes of EA, Nintendo, UbiSoft, Activision et al make their millions every year, they’ll keep putting out dance games, iPhone games, brain-trainers, sudoku challenges and others. There are more genres out there, and we don’t all have to LIKE those genres. In much the same way you don’t HAVE to like Amanda Palmer, no-one is forcing you to buy them. Your money is your money and if you are easily led enough you’ll buy anything you are told, I have a truly spectacular bridge to sell you. Otherwise, you’ll know what you want to buy and why you want to buy it.

When you embrace the changes – good and bad – that we have been through, moreso in my case as I’ve watched it unfurl since I was more or less able to conceive memories, you come to shrug off terms like Hardcore. It means nothing. We’ve been through so much, we’ve changed and adapted and come out often better for it. Why would we want to limit ourselves, or define limitations on games and genres or companies? There’s something out there for everyone, whatever your tastes, and that surely is the sign that everything has come out better than expected, right?

Not that everything inside the industry is peachy. Budgets are going up and have been despite a global recession and weak exchange rates. New consoles are needing more expensive parts and technology in order to remain competitive now and into the future. Some games are requiring frankly ridiculous sales figures in their small launch windows in order to merely break even, suggesting that there is a case to be made for more intelligent budgeting. And guess what? Some games will be good, others will be bad. And you’ll find people like me more than willing to share our opinions on what is hot and what is not. Nothing in this world comes with any guarantee, there is always the risk of failure. Some thrive on that and others shy from it. That’s normal. That is, dare I say it, human nature.

So let’s dispense with these vague terms of what gamers are or should be. I am a gamer. Nothing more and nothing less. If we all love games, let’s just be unified in this and love games.

Although I suspect, seeing as this IS the internet, this whole piece is likely to get trolled into a flaming crater. Meh. It’s been a nice life…

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