The phrase “casual gaming” is something of an insult to those of us who consider ourselves real connoisseurs of the medium.
“Hardcore” or not, anyone with a history of heavy RPG, shooter, RTS, or really any in-depth gaming experience defies the definition of “casual.” I’m certain the majority of you reading this fall into that second category; I know for a fact I do.
What worries me is the stigma the “casual” market’s earned from those of us far more indebted to games than the general populace. I don’t think it’s really such a bad thing, but not for the reasons you might assume.
There’s a couple different subjects I want to clear up to make my point, the first of which is something like a brief version of my gaming history.
Where Xiant’s been
When I was a wee one of perhaps seven or eight, and Blockbuster still ruled the rental market (do the math), I remember perusing the gaming section and seeing a box with the words Final Fantasy VII on it. There was this weird looking blond guy with a big ass sword for art, and I scoffed. Surely, I thought, this can’t be something I’d enjoy. And for several weeks, the box remained on the shelf, unrented, at least by me. When my curiosity got the better of me, I asked my parents to rent it for me. If I’d had the ability, I wouldn’t have slept, eaten or left my room until I finished. And FFVII is something like 60 hours long.
I can still play that game from beginning to end and after fifteen years, it’s yet to get old for me.
I remained a staunch supporter of Final Fantasy, and any other JRPG/adventure game out there, Zelda and Mario taking second and third behind FF. I got a PS2 and Armored Core 2, which succeeded in broadening my horizons immensely. While FFX still dominated when it released, I was no longer bound by any single genre. As though to drive that point home to myself, I bought FFXII and never even opened the box. There were new vistas to enjoy, and by the time the 360 and PS3 released, JRPGs no longer held me in the deathgrip of my childhood.
I didn’t get into the whole Halo craze, nor did I fall into the CoD trap. Instead, I spent the first few years of the “next-gen” console generation searching for my new niche. I did a stint in the MMORPG Eve Online, which lasted just long enough for Killzone 2 to release. Here was a whole new world of guns and multiplayer and matchmaking and shit-talking. I was the biggest n00b out there, but I learned fast. And I was addicted to the FPS genre even faster. I played KZ2 until it died, at which point I got a laptop that could just run the games of the time. I’m writing this article on that same laptop, as a matter of fact.
For a while I searched. I played FarCry 2, a pirated version of CoD4 which barred me from multiplayer, a few single player games I got my hands on. And then I found, somehow, Team Fortress 2.
It was August of 2008, and the Heavy Update just dropped. TF2 was still relatively pure. Hats didn’t exist, the map count was exceedingly low, and if I hadn’t found the TN servers, I might not have spent the 1600 hours I have under my belt. I met stabby, WiNG on one occasion (we didn’t meet again until T3), and so many other good friends I still play with on occasion.
Today’s young gamers, though…
The problem with the story I’ve just told is that the days where it can happen are ending. Or at least, they’re ending in the way I’ve described it. But more than that, I think the most important aspect of bringing new blood to the medium, the games themselves, are drifting into dangerous waters. Back when I got into gaming, the “hardcore” games, the ones we want kids to play, were far more accessible. I don’t mean as far as purchasing or piracy is concerned. In that respect, it’s never been easier to enter the hobby.
Instead, I’m talking about ratings. Final Fantasy, Medal of Honor, Armored Core, and games like them were rated T, and anyone could buy them. Oh, there were M rated games like Metal Gear Solid, Tenchu, Zone of the Enders, Syphon Filter, all of which were paragons of their respective genres. But these weren’t games to “get people into gaming.” Those kinds of “hardcore” didn’t yet require a parent’s approval for purchase.
Now, the majority, if not necessarily all, of the games we call “hardcore” and that we want everyone to play, are rated M. Kids have no option but to bring in their parents to buy them these games. Elder Scrolls, Uncharted, Battlefield, Gears, Halo, Assassin’s Creed, BioShock, and more, all rated M. And when we see kids online playing these games, we deride them and laugh at them. But how else will they enter our hobby if we won’t let them play the big boy games that really define what the medium is capable of?
I’m going to hate myself for this, but…
We need to embrace the mobile, Facebook and tablet markets exactly the same way we do the console and PC ones. It’s hard to do, considering the history the last two have, and the relative novelty of the initial three. As Facebook and Google and smartphones become more and more integrated into the lives of maturing children and teens, their exposure to games like Farmville and Angry Birds will only increase. These games will define where they begin as gamers, in exactly the same way me finding FFVII in Blockbuster did. What we as a “hardcore” community must then do is find a way to introduce them to our side of gaming, with its violence, deep storytelling and powerful imagery. Steam’s already begun this with the Free-to-Play model, and if they don’t have Facebook integration, they will soon. CoD Elite is linked directly to Facebook, and with good reason.
My theory is this, as I think you’ve already gathered. The two disparate elements of gaming, the casual and hardcore markets, must inevitably merge back into one entity. Games like Infinity Blade are already attempting to do this, and succeeding, more or less. The bridge must be repaired, strengthened, and walked on again. There are those in both camps who do not want this to happen. From where I’m standing, it absolutely must happen, or gaming will split down the middle and become two completely separate things. The casual market will be gaming, and the hardcore will be something else, or vice versa. As the art argument grows as the elephant in the room, which gaming environment first takes that crown might define the future.
I hope the world of gaming reunites before that can happen.