We are the Hardcore
While Nintendo clamour over the wide open seas of casual gamers, and Microsoft and Sony spend millions to reposition themselves for a slice of that action, it is high time to celebrate the protected waters we lovingly call the hardcore.
On the back of these passionate millions the games industry has found its way to mainstream success, and made a pretty penny along the way. But what is it that makes hardcore gamers tick? What scratches where they itch? This is my take on what makes them so great, and yet so vulnerable to the powers that be in the gaming industry.
Every hardcore gamer has a story about their first compelling video gaming experience - moments that punctuate their growing up, and even mark their coming of age. Maybe it was the first time they laid hands on a Taito coin-operated machine in the arcades (Bubble Bobble perhaps), or the moment their imported Super Famicom arrived from Japan (with the enthralling Super Mario World packed in). From that moment they discovered this new world of platforms, hidden levels and secret knowledge, they were hooked.
These games all had one thing in common - pushing the boundaries of what was possible; quite often beyond what had even been imagined possible. Whether it was the expansive explorable worlds of Super Mario 64, the blistering pace of Wipeout or the paradigm shifting gameplay of Populous - these experiences were first and foremost created to impress.
It is this desire for an all encompassing experience that distinguishes the hardcore from casual players. For them, every piece of the puzzle (be it graphics, sounds, frame-rate or writing) needs to be perfectly in place. Other gamers may forgive poor visuals or ropey voice work if the game is fun for a few hours play. But hardcore gamers hold the line, insisting that every inch of the experience must ooze as much polish, intelligence and humanity as a summer blockbuster movie.
Online Full Screen Multiplayer
Hand in hand with their love of high-end gaming experiences is the insistence of dedicating the full horsepower and screen real estate to a single player. Casual players and families may love playing against the person next to them on the sofa - even if that means splitting the screen up to accommodate each player. Our hardcore players are quite the reverse, and decidedly protective over their screens.
These players soon moved on from the split-screen merits of GoldenEye on the N64 to the linked up joys of Counter-Strike on a cluster of networked PCs. No matter how close they got to the screen (or how big the TV was) when playing games like TimeSplitters on GameCube, it was always a pale comparison to the single player rendering.
Perhaps crucial for Microsoft's success with the hardcore is their realisation of this key gameplay facet. The creation of their Xbox Live service made possible full screen multiplayer gaming on a console. Twin this with the arrival of Halo 2 and you have the perfect recipe for multiplayer gaming. Finally, they didn't have to suffer hobbled performance compared to their PC shooter friends.
High expectations like these can make the hardcore seem like a pretty tough bunch to please. However, there is one thing that still makes them go weak at the knees and all gooey eyed - their favourite franchises. Start talking to a fan about characters like Link and Zelda or Mario and Luigi, or bring up franchises like Fallout and Metroid, and they start to mist up.
These games - that go back to the very beginning of the industry and ate up many a gamer's formative years - are often given something of a free pass by the hardcore (at least in comparison to a new franchise). They are willing to be more forgiving because of all those hours of enjoyment they have spent with these familiar characters and in these worlds.
We see this being pushed to the limit (and beyond) by Nintendo in recent years. For all their attention to their new found casual gamer market, they still say they are committed to the hardcore fans of old. Their Mario, Metroid and Smash Brothers franchises have often suffered from their new ideals. Although the rhetoric is wearing thin, many hardcore gamers still give these games a break because of what they represent rather than how well they play today.
Whilst other gamers are often oblivious to the teams and individuals behind their gaming experiences, the hardcore are much better informed. They often know who it was that made the games they love. Team Ico are followed with an almost religious devotion, fans noting every comment, creating their own artistic homages to games like Shadow of the Collosus and Ico. One hardcore friend of mine even admitted to having a little shelf in his lounge that proudly displayed his limited edition Ico games, artwork and models. The most surprising thing here was that they had never been opened. He had one copy to play and another to preserve for future generations.
As well as following the progress of favourite gaming studios, they also follow the careers of key individuals and note their various influences. Much like a film buff's appreciation for a particular Director or Screen Writer, hardcore gamers will spend time finding out who made their games. They know for instance that each Call of Duty game alternates between different teams and are clear about which is their developer of choice.
Devil in the Detail
This interest in gaming detail has led to whole industry of fan sites, marketing drives, blogs and portals. The hardcore gamer's insatiable appetite for every last bit of information on an upcoming game or console is unparalleled by other players. This interest has been used to the publishers' advantage as their related Public Relations teams create an impressive engine for keeping gamers hooked and interested in their various products from inception to launch.
The various hardcore gaming blogs from Kotaku to Joystiq to 1UP, all feed this frenzied devouring of information. With well over twenty posts a day these sites become big business in their own right and generate their own fan-followers with Facebook and Flickr groups.
At times this comes back to bite them as a simple PR miss-step soon sets the internet ablaze with hardcore outrage. There was the moment when Sony decided to use a real dead goat to advertise God of War, or when they presented target footage for Killzone 2 as in-game footage. These things are jumped on by fan sites and ridden until every last ounce of humiliation has been extracted.
The final piece in the hardcore gamer puzzle is their willingness to put their money where their mouth is - certainly much more so than other gaming groups. Not only do they pre-order games ready for their release, but they stump up large amounts of money for the console itself. Whereas other gamers will wait for the price of machines to (inevitably) fall after release, the hardcore are happy to pay the price for early adoption.
How many other types of players will pay an extra GBP 20 for a lead figurine and novelty book-end. Whilst this has been attempted for films such as Lord of the Rings (with it's extortionate Gargoyle Book-end versions) nowhere is this so readily adopted as by the videogaming hardcore.
This is matched with that most sought after of video game marketing successes - the high attach rate. Hardcore gamers passion for the new, and appreciation of innovation drives them to each new gaming success. They move - pack like - from one game to the next. This becomes all the more entrenched because they rely on online friends for multiplayer, and once the pack moves on the available team-mates can dwindle. It could be this fact alone that has made the 360 the success it has been so far - and what kept Microsoft from further loss making quarters.
This is the hardcore
Although hardcore gamers often get a bad press, without them the games industry would be the poorer, and certainly we would have a very different gaming landscape. It is on the back of their purse strings that the C64/Spectrum battle could become the SNES/Megadrive, N64/Playstation, PS2/Xbox and finally the PS3/360/Wii show-down we have today.
Today they may be more vocal than ever - but maybe that is because they are more in danger of loosing what they love than before. The opening up of their hobby to the masses will undoubtedly be good for all in the long term. But to get there they will have to relinquish control of many things they thought wouldn't change. TV remote controllers, Vision Cameras and Microphones, Movie tie-ins, Standard Definition graphics and even old franchises put out to seed - all warrant their concern.
But above all else, beyond their varied quirks and gaming preferences, more than their love of graphics and sound, greater even than their obsession over detail, hardcore gamers are an important group to listen to because they are people passionate about the games they play. They know what they like and are able to both identify and elucidate it.
Maybe you class yourself as 'hardcore', or maybe you don't. Either way, next time you talk to someone passionate about the games they play - take some time to ask them about their hobby, you are likely to learn a lot.