As a gamer for 26 (of 31) years, I’ve witnessed first hand the growth and acceptance of video games into mainstream culture. What were once associated with geeky kids have now become a widespread phenomenon. Now I know what you’re thinking: “There’s a difference between a game like Super Mario Bros. and one like FarmVille!” And you’re right! Mainstream acceptance with gaming has been influenced by an evolution of how games are designed to appeal to wider audiences.
Anyone that played games in the 80s can understand how challenging games could be back then. There’s even a trope created for it. A large part of this came simply down to technology. At their core, games often were not very long (file space limitations), and the ability to save games was limited to computer games (and even then they often had restrictions). So to provide more hours of entertainment, games were hard!
Technology is now what it is today, and with it are shifts in what games can deliver. Games like Final Fantasy VII aren’t particularly challenging but have so much content that gamers still play it for hours. Multiplayer is now widespread and available on consoles, so a short single player campaign is designed more around providing a narrative and less on requiring designers to punish players with excessively challenging set pieces; players will still get value out of the multiplayer. On top of that, however, has been a shift in how games are designed.
Games now often assist the player in many ways. Players can often save after completing a challenging part. With this came the idea of preventing permanent death of in game teammates, under the justification of “the player will just reload anyway.” Map markers point the player where to go to keep them engaged in the large game world. In essence, with the investment in providing epic game worlds, economies of scale begins to take priority and game mechanics are implemented in a way to reduce barrier to entry. More people buying the game leads to greater success and reinvestment into future games. This hasn’t necessarily left a pleasant taste in the mouths of many gamers though.
As games are made more accessible, there’s a group of “hardcore” that feel as though gaming is starting to pass them by. Where there’s a significant niche, games will still get made, but they often appeal to such a small group with such little exposure that many of them go unnoticed, and quite simply they aren’t feeling the love anymore. Where they were once the primary audience for game developers, many developers now eye the big ticket green pastures with successful formulas and microtransactions. Does this mean that more challenging games are to be relegated to the niche? Not necessarily.
As a huge RPG fan, I was tickled pink when Fallout: New Vegas offered a hardcore mode for their game. For a survivor trying to make his or her way in a post apocalyptic Mojave Desert, it seemed so perfect. Ammo has weight, crippled limbs are more difficult to heal, and the player even needs to manage food, water, and sleep. Now all of this is optional, but Obsidian has a fairly hardcore RPG background to their staff. Lead Designer J.E. Sawyer actually made hardcore mode MORE hardcore in his own personal mod for the game. And those sneaky buggers at Obsidian even made an achievement for beating the game in hardcore, just as an extra incentive to give it a try. New Vegas is also ridiculously successful, so hopefully some of the love for us masochistic gamers will be paid forward in other titles that get made. While New Vegas’ challenge kept me engaged in 2010, it was something in 2012 that really made me take notice: Kickstarter.
The issue with the gaming industry today is that games are very expensive to make. They also still cost between $50-$60, so large sales are really the goal now for many studios. Brian Fargo of inXile Entertainment decided to eschew all that, however, and make a game for the fans, funded by the fans: Wasteland 2. Rather than be restricted by the requirements of a publisher, his team is accountable directly to the hardcore audience he aims to please. By gamers, for gamers! This move came in response to Tim Schafer’s Kickstarter pledge for an adventure game, and has since seen quite the fallout of other game developers following suit. While the indie game scene is quite strong today, the difference here is that these games are much higher profile. High enough for a lot of people to take notice.
Which brings me back to the current, more conservative attitudes of publishers. I really hope that Wasteland 2 is a huge success. Not just because I like kick-ass games (and I do!), but also because big corporations have a tendency to follow the money. If they see that money is to be made with a game that is a throwback, to a more hardcore, old school gaming experience, perhaps we could see more studios getting the funding they need to make these types of games.
I find myself very eager to find out how it all plays out.