Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The perceived end of the hardcore game

In the open Sunday thread there was an interesting discussion about hardcore games, starting with Chris asking: "Do you think we are coming to the end of the era where game development studios are comprised of actual gaming enthusiasts, instead of "artists on a payroll"? I cant help but wonder if we're not close to seeing the death of the "hardcore" game developer who puts out games that are fun to play, and requires actual intellectual abilities beyond the mere "mouse-click fests" that we're seeing nowadays as repetition and questionable revenue generation schemes increasingly derive the bottom line."

First of all that question is rather polemic, because it assumes that an "enthusiast" would automatically produce a better and more fun game than somebody "on a payroll". That simply isn't true. In fact, in most cases of production of something the "enthusiasts" are called "amateurs", and the people "on payroll" are called "professionals". Take cars for example, a hundred years back there were certainly people saying exactly the thing Chris says about cars, complaining how mass production of Henry Ford's cars was killing the "hardcore" car building "enthusiasts". I would really wish many game developers would be more professional instead of just enthusiastic, because then maybe they wouldn't release so many buggy and unfinished crap games.

But where are sentiments like the one Chris is expressing coming from? The basic reason of the problem is the normal distribution of skill and preferences. If you plot how many people have what skill in general video gaming, you get a bell curve. You get the same bell curve if you'd plot how many people prefer how hardcore a game. The average player has average skills, and prefers games that are playable with average skill. The hardcore player has leet skills and prefers games that require such leet skills. And by definition the hardcore elite is small in number compared to the huge army of average people. And there is also the other tail end of the curve, of people for who even Farmville is too complicated.

Now some people claim that game companies make games for the lowest common denominator. That not only isn't true at all, it also would be extremely stupid if they did. Sorry, Tic Tac Toe Online isn't going to earn you millions, because it would be too easy for the average player. If you want to attract the largest number of players, you need to make a game requiring average skill. But what is true is that if you are at the extreme hardcore end of the bell curve, an average game will already look rather simple to you. While the same game will look already rather complicated to somebody at the extreme casual end of the scale. I *do* know people who can't play World of Warcraft because it is far too hard for them.

Now if you want to optimize profits, you not only need to look how many people would think your game is at just their perfect level of skill requirement. You also need to add data on how much these people would be willing to pay to play. Zynga might have ten times more players than Blizzard, but the gross revenue of Zynga in 2009 was 4 times less, at $250 million, compared with $1.1 billion for Blizzard in 2007. Not only is the average player more likely to be willing to spend money for a more complex game, he will also play it longer. People have been playing World of Warcraft for over 5 years now, I doubt that there will be many people still playing Farmville in 2014. So the most profitable game is somewhat more complex than the game which would be most popular if all games were free.

Another factor which works against continued simplification of games is that video game skills are to a large extent acquired, you aren't born with a particular high score. If only hardcore games exist, only hardcore players get to play. If there are simpler games, a lot more people start playing, and some of them will acquire more skills while they play, and then move on to more complex games. Of course even then very few people will end up being extreme hardcore, which is why it is called "extreme". But I'm pretty certain that Farmville is already on the "slightly too simple" part of the bell curve, even if you just look at the population of Facebook game players. Which is why we are seeing somewhat more complex Facebook games now.

As other commenters remarked, game companies making simple games for average players have been around for ages, this isn't new or caused by Facebook. The best-selling PC game for three months in a row end of 1998 was Deer Hunter II. But what happened since is that the total number of games released each year went up by a lot, and so did media coverage of games. Mainstream media mostly talk about mainstream games, which creates the illusion that there is nothing else. And of course mainstream games, being more profitable, attract higher investment, and thus are often more shiny.

What Chris either doesn't know or pretends he doesn't know is that the number of hardcore games programmed by enthusiasts has gone up as well, not down. Without changing the shape of the bell curve, the simple fact that there are now so many more overall players of video games than before also means that there are now more hardcore gamers, and where there is a demand, somebody will supply. Thus extreme hardcore MMORPGs like Mortal Online are still getting released, and there are thriving hardcore strategy games series like Europa Universalis or Hearts of Iron. These games might not get the most attention in the media, or make the most profit (which results in them often being somewhat less shiny), but hardcore game developers are still surviving very well, even better than before.

Hardcore players are understandably jealous how Facebook games have dominated the discussion in the media, and even the Games Developer Conference 2010. So that is where all the howling and wailing on how we are all doomed to mouse-click fest games in the future are coming from. But I think the best comment on that latest gaming craze has been done by Ravious from Kill Ten Rats, where he reminds us that if you applied the same reasoning to the gaming craze of 1996, you would have concluded that "it is clear that the future of handheld gaming is Tamagotchi". I think it is rather obvious that there will not be a future in which all game developers only produce Farmville clones.

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