The Case of the Vanishing Hardcore Gamer

case of the hardcore gamer
What's happened to the Hardcore Gamer?

It was a dark, bone-chilling day at Ten Ton Hammer Investigations; the kind of day that makes you want to call off the dev interviews, procrastinate a little longer on that review deadline, and crawl back under the sheets. And that’s when she walked in. Framed in the wan light, she was eerily attractive, like some sort of 8-bit ghost of computer gaming past.

When she spoke, I half expected a syrupy female computron voice to complete her cold, clammy tapdance down my spine. “Looking for a case?” she said, and I looked down at the scattered browser-based games on my desktop. “Lady,” says I, “if you’ve got something more interesting than World of Ersatz Manga Online, I’m your man. I’m sure I can’t make it any easier than that.”

But, just my luck… she’s attached. Attached to one Hardcore Gamer. Not surprisingly, she hadn’t seen him in some time. More surprisingly, she thinks he’s gone missing. She’d been hanging around the dev studio lunchrooms, official forums, vent servers, even in-game voice chat channels. Nothing turned up.

Her man’s business was online gaming, and business had been good for some time. Lately, however, some shady characters had been popping up, stealing the limelight and, she suspects, the almighty development dollar. Once, he was the king of the MMOG jungle, but now he no longer seems to rule. She suspected some of his… associates had rubbed him out. I took the case, and without so much as a good day, she despawned.

The Victim: Hardcore Gamer

I dug out the dossier on one Hardcore Gamer. I needed to see what made him tick. Hardcore Gamer had been a part of the MMOG scene since it began. He was definitely the old school style of player. He didn’t log into a game for a few hours to blow off some steam or chat with some friends. No, he logged in to not only play, but to beat the game every way to Sunday. He learned the best possible way to play his class and he demanded nothing less of compatriots. A game had to be challenging to be worthy of his time and effort. Seeing your character die with little to no penalty to advancement - where was the risk in that?

He lived for epic gear won in massive raids. He lived to take down that raid boss, pushing though 4 to 8 hours of dungeon crawling to get to the supreme badass, and said badass only dropped said epic 5% of the time is the stuff of legend.

According to Hardcore Gamer, crafting should be more than gathering a few resources, hitting a button, and walking away. Good crafting resources should be rare, require travel to dangerous places, and force the player to face dangerous foes in order to acquire them. To sift out the wannabes, make crafting and research gathering occur in real time. Make it hurt.

case of the hardcore gamer
Hardcore Gamer - "This is what crafting should feel like!"

Likewise, advancement should be a challenge as well. Getting ten levels in a single night? Zooming through to the end-game content in a matter of days? B.S. Why play the game if there’s no challenge? The difficulty, the challenge, the struggle of it all was the reason to play.

As I completed my dossier on Hardcore Gamer, I realized that, to him, the challenge and difficulty of the game was fun. He didn’t want blind, repetitive grinding, he wanted the recognition that comes from getting to the top of the MMORPG mountain and knowing required a lot of patience and effort.

But times change, and online gaming was become increasingly easier. Aside from a few games, few devs made more than token concessions to Hardcore Gamer. Rewards were handed out not for winning, not for completing, but just for participating. Quests had become tasks on a checklist complete with step-by-step instructions and locations, raids dropped from welcome-all-comer affairs, to 40-mans, to 25 mans, to 10 mans, death had become an excuse to call your girlfriend on the runback rather than a experience draining, level dropping catastrophe.

The Suspects

As I dug deeper into the case, I saw that Hardcore Gamer’s views had some merit. Especially noticeable was his many posts on official forums bemoaning the state of the games today and how they should return to their former glory. After a great deal of research, I realized that his influence has been on the wane and I recognized some patterns of that diminishment and saw the fingerprints of the suspects that his lady had given me.

Suspect #1: The Gaming Dollar

The primary suspect was The Gaming Dollar. Hardcore Gamer and this turncoat had been buddies for a long time. In the beginning, it was Hardcore Gamer who brought The Gaming Dollar to MMORPGs in droves. Then a funny thing happened… success.

As MMORPGs became increasingly popular, The Gaming Dollar shifted allegiance towards Hardcore Gamer’s slacker brother: Casual Gamer. As Casual Gamer got more involved in MMOGs, The Gaming Dollar grew rapidly: from half a billion to $1.4 billion from 2005-2008.

case of the hardcore gamer
It's all about the benjamins.

Suspect #2: Casual Gamer

That’s when Casual Gamer arrives on the scene. At first, he is in total awe of Hardcore Gamer’s epicness. He too wants the coolest weapons, armors, spells, and end-game dungeon accesss. But Casual Gamer wants all the shinies with a fraction of the work.

Casual Gamer doesn’t want an all-consuming challenge or a steep learning curve. He logs into the game to have some diversion and fun for a few hours. He doesn’t want to spend his time traveling to some distant zone to farm some mats. He wants to kill a few things, get some cool rewards, trade some banter with his friends, and then log off. In essence, he wants the game to be easier. He wants the cash prizes and major endorsements for an easy jog on the treadmill while Hardcore Gamer chugs through the marathon.

While the Casual Gamer isn’t as knowledgeable about the game as Hardcore Gamer, nor as committed to spend as much time or effort into learning every facet of the game, he does have one advantage over Mr. Hardcore – there are a lot more of him. So much so that games cater to the Casual Gamer. The money that the Casual Gamer spends is just as good as that of the Hardcore Gamer, but since Casual Gamer spends some time in public, he has lots of friends. Soon all of Casual Gamer’s friends are playing because, well, all of Casual Gamer’s friends are playing. And every game wants the kind of breakout success embodied by World of Warcraft with its 12 million subscribers. While Hardcore Gamer has a presence in Azeroth, he’s outnumbered. Case in point: for the original Naxxramas, only 2% of players actually entered the instance.

Suspect #3: Lifestyle, a.k.a. Facebook

The way that people interact online has changed dramatically over the last decade or two. The number of people going online has increased from 16 million worldwide in 1995 to over 1.9 billion in 2010.  As more and more people go online to communicate and interact, online gaming is reaching more and more of Casual Gamer’s friends every year. Their online Lifestyle, however, is build around connecting and socializing. Accumulating items and achievements and exploring new worlds are sidelines at best, not the defining reason for online communities.

case of the hardcore gamer
Only sights such as this can make Hardcore Gamer cry.

Facebook has had a major impact upon online gaming and will continue to do so. Facebook games are, according to Hardcore Gamer, very simplistic and have an extremely mild learning curve. Their biggest impact is in that the games act as another layer of chatting between friends. Players play the game to have fun and chat with their friends. They can get items to give to their friends and have friends join them to help them in their game. The most popular game, Farmville, has over 81 million subscribers and 29.7 million active daily users. Casual Gamer has lots and lots of friends, it seems.

Case Closed

After investigating the suspects (and getting some online gaming in as well), I came to the conclusion that Hardcore Gamer hadn’t disappeared. He’d just been lost in the crowd.

We couldn’t find any evidence of malicious behavior among our suspects. Everything played out naturally. In the early days of MMOGs, it was the Hardcore Gamer who had to search out the online games to play and support them. As more and more people became connected, they began to flood into the MMOGs beloved by the Hardcore Gamer. This new breed of gamer, the Casual Gamer, had a different outlook on gaming and their numerical advantage led to game companies tailoring their games to their greater monetary influence.

However, Hardcore Gamer still makes his presence known in the out-of-the way places around the MMOG market. His prowess still shines in world firsts and the best gear, and you’ll find him in abundance in alphas and closed betas. Game designers still haven’t figure out how to break out of Hardcore Gamer’s endgame mold - Hardcore Gamer’s achiever ethic still influences the social and PvP aspects of advanced or level-capped play. Even better, a sub-category of niche games have arisen that cater to his style of gameplay. Games like EVE Online (and their 350,000+ and growing subscribers) and Darkfall proudly carry the hardcore mantel.

We brought out the usual suspects, but there are many, many more. Maybe a certain developer or publisher contributed to the seeming demise of Hardcore Gamer. Maybe Hardcore Gamer himself should be implicated in his own downfall. What do you think? Tell us in the Ten Ton Hammer forums!

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