Thursday, April 22, 2010

Op/Ed: Casual vs Hardcore Gaming

It's somewhat funny, really. It really doesn't feel like it's all that long ago that the landscape of gaming was different. The talking points of "casual and hardcore gaming" barely existed. Then Nintendo pulled a fast one, put the Wii out and captured lightning in a bottle. Now everyone's scrambling to get a piece of the "casual gaming" market, despite the fact that there really isn't that much of a market at all. All the while, arguments over it seem to break out on message boards; people who are righteously frustrated clashing with people who don't accept that the current path leads down a darker road.

Make no mistake, there are a lot of apologists for casual gaming. Especially among Nintendo loyalists. Say word one bad about Nintendo's casual gaming focus and you're probably going to hear an expletive laden defense of the approach and how good it supposedly is for gaming and to shut up because it's successful so you clearly don't know what you're talking about. In a lot of ways, it's an outgrowth of the system wars that have been around as long as I have; as previously mentioned, a lot of the folks who defend it tend to be partial to a particular system that pretty much focuses on it.

A lot of these people really don't understand the problem with casual gaming or at least conveniently ignore the points against it. Really, the gaming industry has suffered a lot of dumbing down over the past decade. The Halo effect is probably the most notorious example; the game came out and was really a very mediocre effort, but it caught on like wildfire among console gamers because of the halfway decent online play, something PC gamers had enjoyed constant advancements on.

The effect isn't hard to see; progress in the FPS genre basically stopped as everyone moved back to the dumbed down formula Halo encapsulated trying to catch a piece of that wildfire. It's taken the better part of the decade for it to crawl out of it's slump. We're only just now starting to get back to where we were with FPS games ten years ago. It's way too apparent that something went horribly wrong thanks to Halo when you consider things introduced in First Person Shooters ten years ago are only now becoming standard, as though they were new, genius advances.

Does the basic framework sound familiar? It should. It's what's happening with casual gaming right now.

It's strange to see Sony and Microsoft scrambling so hard to whip up devices to catch that market. Sony was the undisputed champion of the last console generation with the workhorse Playstation 2 and it's constant stream of great entertainment. Microsoft themselves have rebounded this generation after the outright pitiful X-Box; sure, they have had a lot of technical failings that are deplorable for a consumer product, but the gaming offerings are much better this generation to the point where they're a contender. Now they're all racing to get a piece of that pie Nintendo grab; and make no mistake, it's a rather scary proposition, because there's the distinct chance of a backslide as far as games go.

The trouble starts when you realize that there really isn't much of a casual gaming market. When you look squarely at the Wii's success, it falls mostly upon the hardware itself. With the motion technology, Nintendo captured lightning in a bottle with the hardware; the freaking thing has sold ungodly amounts of units and made Nintendo richer than they've been in a long time. But the software is another story entirely.

Literally, games don't sell on the Wii. Most third party titles sell horribly to the point where most major third party publishers have pulled out of making almost any Wii exclusives at all. Anything M rated? Despite the past insistence by Nintendo loyalists that the system would do better if M rated games were on the system, it hasn't worked out that way. M rated games have come and gone, selling a pittance that probably didn't even make the developers their money back. Even former Wii exclusive No More Heroes is suddenly going multiplatform. If it's not a Nintendo product, it doesn't sell on the system and developers seem to have realized that. So the hardware sells a great deal, but it's software doesn't.

Basically, the Wii has turned out to be the next Tamagochi; a new shiny toy for the masses to buy and obsess over before they realize they've more or less been ripped off. And boy oh boy does America ever love it's shiny toys. Dangle something in front of them that makes them ooh and aah and you've pretty much got it made.

In effect, you can't really blame Nintendo for this. It's not like they didn't warn us this kind of thing was coming. Ever since the infamous SNES days when they were in the midst of the console wars, Sega being their primary competitor, they've lost their edge, in a sense. Over the years, they started mentioning that they didn't really want to compete anymore, but carve out their own niche. Between this and their admittedly anal attempts to curtail piracy even before it was an issue, they started to be perpetually one step behind their competitors and they were surprisingly a-okay with that. Their system offerings started going downhill, hitting a valley with the Gamecube. They were looking for what they got with the Wii; they wanted a system outside the major channels of gaming that would reap them loads of cash, because they didn't want to compete in the console wars anymore. Most of us stupidly thought this meant they wanted to blaze a path of innovation, but it's become all the more apparent that they just wanted the easy money. We all fell for it, hook, line and sinker with the Wii and we've probably got our own misguided perceptions about Nintendo to blame.

But hey, that's what they wanted; they've been spit shining their public image for as far back as the SNES days when they started censoring games so as not to ruin their family friendly image. In essence, Nintendo has always been the king of spoonfeeding consumers their branded line of bullshit and getting them to swallow it happily. Most of it's shadier dealings and practices in the past have been hidden behind their family friendly image which has typically managed to blind the consumer to what's going on behind the curtain. It's admittedly fantastic first party offerings and lovable mascots have certainly helped gain that general trust. Kind of reminds me of a certain company with a mouse as it's mascot, really.

It all comes back to Sony and Microsoft, really. They want a piece of that pie desperately. Sony's trying it's own motion controller to try and get this market. Why I'm not sure; I guess they want to be able to say they can do the same thing the Wii can while serving more hardcore gaming, but it's worrisome that they're trying it in the first place. Microsoft, meanwhile, is trying it's own shiny toy with Natal looking for that piece of the casual pie; the difference with them being that their shiny toy doesn't even work right, with the gadgets creators not even able to get it to work right. They seem to be missing that it's not the games that bring in the customers, but the gadget itself; they're not going to be selling whole systems with the gadgets, so they're not going to make the kind of money Nintendo did. But still they try.

In todays gaming age, things have already gotten tough. Less risks are being taken and more safe bets are flooding the market. Just ask Activision, who flooded the market last year with six or seven products from their "Hero" line, most of them abysmal but still selling. Or look at the number of similar First Person Shooters saturating the market to the breaking point. While we have franchises that deliver and games still moving forward, things feel like they're starting to stagnate. The "me too" nature of upcoming casual additions to the system looks to make that only worse. It's scary, in a way; the console makers are starting to lose sight of the things that matter in favor of chasing that dollar sign, which almost never leads to good things in any medium. The chase for that casual dollar is even starting to bleed into the games themselves, considering the changes wrought with Final Fantasy XIII.

Are we headed in the direction of stagnation, like PC shooters hit so long ago? Are we headed towards a direction that slowly bleeds the good qualities of gaming? Is the casual gaming focus stifling things? Who knows, really. Everyone's got an opinion. In mine, we may soon be in trouble; when and if that time comes, we can probably point to casual gaming as the reason.

I sincerely hope I'm wrong. But really, most of us are sheep. Easily herded once the right things have been dangled. The scary part? I think they're starting to realize it.