• Gaming in the Modern Era

    Ever wonder why there's so much fighting in the forums (not necessarily TTP) about game updates? Gaming in the Modern Era takes a look at the underlying nature of the eternal conflict between "Hardcore" and "Casual" gamers, and what modern developers like Valve are trying to do to resolve it. We watch the rise and dominance of the "hardcore" gamer, followed by the introduction of a more casual kind of gamer, and see how newer games like TF2 try to bridge the gap between these schools of gaming.

    Gaming in the Modern Era

    Welcome to the 21st century. As technology in our modern society evolves at an unprecedented rate, it becomes of increasing demand that our entire society interface with various complex devices. Microcontrollers and processors are in everything. The Internet has revolutionized the way we interact with each other. The keys to a new world lie at our feet, and we’ve set everything up to welcome Attachment 849ourselves to our new home in the future. And we’d be there sooner, if more of us knew how to operate the doorknob.

    As advanced technology diffuses out of the realm of the engineers and scientists, it must be trimmed and prepared for public consumption. The corners must be sanded down, complicated pieces of tech jargon are translated into hip, catchy buzzwords, and touch screens are always a big plus. What we are left with is a bubbly, sleek package that, if designed cleverly enough, allows the average human being access to a wide array of devices and helpful tools. The steel chrome of the engineer is replaced with the "Apple White" of the everyman, and suddenly everyone's a musician, an artist, or some other expert. And now, in this day and age, video games, too, are beginning to follow this new trend.

    The Adolescence of the Video Game

    The first wave of video game console designers never had to worry about this sort of thing. They produced larger, more robust systems, and competed to see who could crunch numbers the hardest and fastest. Gameplay was still important, but colorful explosions and 7.1 Dolby Surround were what separated good games from awesome games. Their Innovation was progressive scan, anti-aliasing, and bloom.

    Attachment 850And what more could one want? Their audience asked for nothing more. Video games were, then, primarily an outlet for the social recluse, the otaku, the hermit. It was only socially acceptable to play video games (if you weren’t a kid) if you were of such a group. Those who used to stay inside and read Phillip K. Dick or watched Star Trek now had a new medium – an interactive one. Mankind has always gamed, but video games were game in its purest essence. Sports, and board games all have a gameplay to them, but not until the (initially) impersonal video game could you play without having to play the game of social play – a game one was not necessarily any good at.

    Video games were the perfect solution: they were constituted by nothing but rules. No "cheaters," nothing above the game: simply code that implied rules and a goal. Those that began playing games with this mentality are the community we call "hardcore." Their mission, as David Sirlin of Playing to Win fame explains, is simple: master the code. One's status as a hardcore gamer is dictated by how nimbly you maneuver the however complicated rules of the game, and how well you interface with the system.

    This arose in the "steel chrome" era of gaming. It didn't matter what Pac-Man was, why he was eating ghosts or dots, and why he had about 3 lives. Hardcore gamers are engineers: they see a system and are not put off by a perplexing facade. Rather, they probe and analyze it. Neither intuition nor style had anything to do with engineering, as intuition and first glances tend to deceive.

    Then, at some point, someone decided that they would try to make a real business out of games, and tried to market games to people that didn't really play very often. Suddenly, layers of abstraction were moved higher, and the style was modified to be more intuitive, to guide the not-so-hardcore to victory.

    A Clash of Worlds

    Enter the casual gamer.
    Casual gamers don't see the code. Casual gamers are what give the creative directors of the game jobs. They play a game to live a new adventure and to experience things like story, art, and music. When a casual gamer buys a game, they seek not a challenge, but an experience. While hardcore gamers sought to conquer the jungle gym of code they are given, casual gamers looked more to play around in a sandbox. Imagine their shock when the parents decided to put them in the same ball-pit.

    Attachment 851In the steel chrome era of gaming, there was no attempt to design a game for both schools simultaneously. Instead, gameplay sat in its realm, style in another, and attempting to excel in one category meant sacrificing proficiency in the other. You could cast incredible, colorful spells, or you could bunny-hop across the map quick-swinging a dagger.

    This has been a problem in gaming ever since the invention of Versus mode. When two players of radically different backgrounds meet each other on the battlefield, only confusion and frustration come about. The reason is clear and simple: they're playing different games. They have two completely different sets of rules, and radically different objectives. So, when forced to share the playground, they clash and become irritated with one another.

    Sharing the Market

    The developers of these newer games realized the financial power behind the casual gaming market. So, to appease their new friends, they worked tirelessly to make sure their games' experiences remained immersive and engaging. This meant that complaints about "cheap tactics" and "imba classes" had to be taken up and dealt with.

    Attachment 852In Final Fantasy XI, the ability for a fleet of Black Mages to be able to destroy the strongest of enemies instantly with one coordinated attack had to be scaled down. Meanwhile, in Counter-Strike, bunny hopping took a bullet in the tail, removing one of the hardcore gamer’s favorite tricks. The upshot of all this tweaking and polishing was the irritation of the hardcore community.

    One solution came from Nintendo. Their recent movement has been to avoid the issue entirely: publish games purely as stylistic productions, and leave core gameplay as simple as possible. As a result, they created a class of games played only by casual gamers. For hard gamers, the skill cap was too low and there was nothing to master. Anything missing the nuance of their classic, traditional games was as shallow and uninteresting as tic-tac-toe. The games were solely artistic and fun, something the soft gamer loved and the hard gamers despised.

    Attachment 853Sure, it was a solution. But a dividing one. Rather than face the challenge of making a world stylistically vivid and having gameplay to match, the less courageous developers would build for one market or the other. There were still those developers who would attempt to unify the two, but they would have to put up with the turmoil and drama of updates and exploit fixes.

    The Advent of Modern Game Design
    Sooner or later though, developers had to begin seriously considering these issues, especially with the rise of the MMO. If a game was not designed from the ground-up with unity in mind, it would soon fall apart.

    Galactic Baby Steps
    One of the forerunners of this “modern” style of gaming was Shigeru Miyamoto of Nintendo. When Nintendo decided to take a turn for the new age, Miyamoto put some modern considerations into Super Mario Galaxy. Miyamoto sought to create a game that would hook players of all ages and backgrounds; one whose controls were easy enough to learn from any background, but had the depth that more enthusiastic players sought.

    Any fan of Galaxy (or any of the other 3d Mario games) knows that Mario has at his disposal an arsenal of other creative tricks, like wall kicks and back flips that, while not necessarily crucial to solving every puzzle, offered a new tactic to the more apt gamer. Most importantly, however, the technique never rendered the basics obsolete. Whereas bunny hopping was, hands down, better than walking all the time, performing long jumps and other acrobatic tricks had some sort of drawback to them that reminded the player to stick to the basics until the time was right to pull the ace out of the sleeve.

    Miyamoto took a step in the right direction with this move, and helped ease more casual gamers into using more creative maneuvers. No longer are the best moves exploits: they are engineered for, finely balanced, and well animated.

    Team Fortress 2 and Valve at the Helm

    Easy enough to get gamers down to the same level, so long as they don’t have to talk to each other, right? Galaxy, while incredibly well designed, did not have to worry about the troubling aspect of online play, where the casual gamer is going to want to be able to fight the hardcore gamer on even ground. After 9 years of head-bashing and 2 or 3 whole, scrapped games, Valve took a lunge forward with Team Fortress 2, the first online shooter carefully designed with the union of hardcore and casual gamers in mind. Valve put an undeniably great amount of planning into designing TF2, and succeeded in crafting a game where the exciting and stylish moves are the most effective ones.

    Attachment 854What’s so special about TF2? Well, first off, the size of a hitbox is suddenly pretty much irrelevant. Your ability to crank out 200 FPS and focus on tiny pixels becomes mitigated by the fact that your machine gun’s “accurate” area is the size of a small rhino. Not only that, but only two classes have portable, automatic weapons: the Medic and the Sniper (that is, unless you count the close-range flamethrower or the slow minigun). The game lacks a single assault rifle. As a result, no player goes down without some effort. The first step in TF2's success was the forcing of hardcore gamers to learn new skillsets so that the rest of the crowd had the opportunity to catch up. Twitch headshot skills are irrelevant; "twitch" was passed to the Scout, and headshotting to the Sniper at a much slower pace.

    In addition, the nine classes of Team Fortress 2 are radically different characters, in multiple senses. Unlike traditional shooters, where everyone had an automatic rifle that killed in 3 hits at any distance, TF2’s weapon system restricts the effectiveness of certain classes to certain situations. No player went down without some sort of effort. Furthermore, the characters of the classes were craftily illustrated to signify what they were good at doing. Combined with comically over-sized arrows and signs, easy-to-navigate maps, and the introduction of a death-cam, Team Fortress 2 built a comfortable learning curve that any player could climb.

    Stylizing the world and characters along the lines of the intended gameplay also had the effect of clearly defining the rules of the game. For example: Rocket-jumping was a classic exploit carried over from many past games. Rather than throw out this exploit like they did so many others, they decided to embrace this one. The rocket jump gave Soldier depth and uniqueness, and could not reasonably be abandoned. So, Valve marketed the rocket jump in a trailer, and demonstrated the usefulness and drawbacks of using the rocket launcher. In a recent update, they added fire-trails to his feet, further convincing players that rocket-jumping was there to stay.

    Finally, Valve decided bring themselves up to the name of the game. Team Fortress 2 dramatically shifts the focus from individual skill to team cohesion. In classic shooters, one skilled player with a sniper rifle dominated the server. Now, by making it difficult for one player to make a significant dent by himself, the gamers who would once be unhelpful to newer players are forced to communicate with complete strangers, help the newbies, and build a powerful camaraderie. Valve exercises two different types of techniques here: those that actively reduce the effectiveness of a single player, such as the removal of point-and-click instant-kill weapons and grenades, and those that reward teamwork, such as the Medic's Übercharge system and the Engineer's sentry nests.

    With these tools under their belt, the developers at Valve took a rewarding step forward to create a game that got players of every background working together to achieve a common objective. These techniques, coupled with the super-glue that is Steam patch rollouts, provided for a masterpiece that sets the standard for future games of a more modern style. A modern game like TF2 is characterized as such: any game where mastery of the game and code is tantamount to drawing inspiration from its style.

    A Future for Modern Gaming?

    There aren’t many games out at the moment that follow the same philosophy that TF2 does. That’s probably because most developers are intimidated by such a difficult task. It’s much easier to repeat the old stuff, or develop new things that are forbidden to intersect with the old world. However, if the critical acclaim of TF2 and its thriving community are any indication, I expect more and more developers to being catering toward a universal audience. Keep these observations in mind when debating changes necessary to a game, and when deciding on a game to play. We should soon be able to look forward to more immersive, plausible, and stimulating experiences that live up to the hype, and if we make our desire for more games like this known, we may very well reach the point where we can bridge or even fill the gap between hardcore and casual and make games fun for everyone.

    Thanks for reading!

    Image References:
    Dresden Codak (Hob #4)
    Google Image Search for "Bunny Hopping army"
    Google Image Search for "FFXI Manaburn"
    Google Image Search for "DS Prints Money"
    Shot from an early TF2 trailer