Rise and Fall of the Hardcore

It has been lingering in the minds of gamers for some time now. Ever since the Wii appeared and the video games market went more mainstream there have been a number of players that have felt threatened by this big bulk of casual players. Is this something we should be worried about? Is the development of triple A titles in peril? Some seem to feel that way.

It´s strange that this feeling comes around in one of the most prolific years in AAA games in recent memory. The feeling that the iPad or Facebook (which will eventually share their market) could really change playing habits is real for some, but I think we are nowhere near a situation that will see a generation without boxed consoles.

This fear isn´t something new really. As an industry, there have always been trends that many have tried to follow after one major success; most of the times, however, following another company´s trail to success has proved many wrong. Put World of Warcraft as an example: WoW has been a game that has engaged a huge player base and managed to have them pay a monthly suscription to keep the game going; overall, a massively profitable move by Blizzard. However, we can really say that WoW has been the last suscription based MMO that has managed to make profit (yet to be seen if The Old Republic can really maintain that business model). That hasn´t stopped many studios  from thinking they could pull it through too and, essentially, more games than we could care of have tried to follow the suscription model and the WoW formula. The latest to fail has been DC Universe Online (it lasted 10 months with a suscription based model) and Free to Play is the new king of the fray. So far it has proved a model that can sustain a game by not forcing users to pay; but, again, it is yet to be seen if all the games being released under this model will manage to survive.

Some years ago, the industry was going bonkers with the success of Zynga´s Farmville and many stated that the micro-transaction games were the future and the way to go. As many times before, many companies have followed Zynga´s road to success and been proved that it is not as easy as it seems to make a game popular; or profitable in that sense.

Now this brings us to the iPad/tablets and Smart phones. After seeing the wonders of the devices released and all future possibilities of the portable systems, experts are seeing that there will be no space for the consoles in the market. The main basis to arrive here is the belief that they share a common userbase, but most of the iPhone/iPad users with a console don´t use the system to play at home, therefore we could be talking about giving the user more possibilities instead of really stealing players. Cloud gaming is also seen as a possible option to channel the core market into tablets. Just recently, Onlive announced support for tablets and some games, such as L.A. Noire, adapting a control scheme for a touch-screen. Personally, I think that being able to take with you and continue your save on the run is quite interesting. But the real question is: can we really be bothered to leave the controller/keyboard/mouse and control games exclusively with a touch-screen? If the future does pertain to tablets it will probably be linked to extensions; thus limiting the systems portability; thus losing the point of PC/consoles disappearing.

Denying the success of the “softcore” market is impossible. The Wii has affected both Sony and Microsoft as the iPhone has in some ways affected what is to be expected of a portable system. Users expect more for less and it is still to be proved whether softcore players can be tempted to buy another system when they are already satisfied with what they have. Wii U will have a big say on the issue and many are saying that this will be Nintendo´s demise… but wasn´t that said when the Wii came out too? The future is impossible to predict, but we can know for sure that competition will be there and that a sole product can´t offer what everyone wants. The Wii and Smart phones have managed to break that barrier that existed before: the controller. As a result, people are more aware of video games and it is now more socially accepted. Boxed products are making more money than ever and it is no longer geeky or a kid thing to play video games. Triple A games won´t be menaced as long as there are people willing to buy them and, according to the market sales, there doesn´t seem to be a lack of customers.

It’s clear to everyone that the future will almost entirely be digital; that handhelds will have a hard time to find an interested userbase to compete with the iPhone; that cloud gaming will be on the rise. But there is the law of demand and offer, and I for one am still interested in sitting on my couch or PC chair with a perspective of a deep gaming experience.

So, do I think tablets/phones are a direct threat to the consoles? A lot remains to be seen, but with the current situation the answer would be no. The future is pretty much that: future. As such we cannot really know what will be down the next curve. We pretty much believe we have seen everything but there could be much more we haven´t even begun to imagine.

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You got an achievement!

Aaaah… achievements. The thriving of getting one… or not? I remember at first how satisfaction would go through my body when I first heard the magical Xbox 360 achievement sound (Kudos to whoever designed that sound… subtle, but yet very noticeable) and an icon with a title displaying in the bottom of my screen. I anxiously press the guide button to see what that flashy highlight of my gaming session was about and… Oh! I had gone through the tutorial of the game… awesome.

Achievements have been one of the defining features of this generation of consoles and ranking up your gamer score or just plainly unlocking new trophies/achievements has deemed a big success. However, both gamers and designers have realized that simply implementing achievements in a game for the sake of having them doesn’t really prove very satisfying unless there is some real sense of achievement. I am not what I would consider an achievement hunter: I normally don’t bother about them except for those that pose a challenge or are just plain fun to obtain; I do, however, enjoy when one is particularily satisfying. I started thinking about this when playing the co-op campaign in Portal 2 with a friend via Steam and unlocking the “Can´t touch this” achievement. Now, before you rush off to look it out in the internet, let me advise you that it is one of those achievements that is more gratifying to unlock if you don´t know how. The simple concept and yet the exhilarating moment of obtaining it makes you think that a designer did think a user would do that… and rightly so. I´ve been humming the song ever since. Achievements are normally done in the last minute as there is no gameplay design thought around them, and that is obvious most of the times. Getting an achievement for completing a game can be expected, but the reward in that is the fact that you have finished it yourself. The “Can´t touch this” Portal 2 achievement is a wink to all users who unknowingly find it, creating a real connection between designers and player.

Not many games offer interesting achievements/trophies, most of them are implemented because they have to be there, but, when used properly, they can really serve to enhance the experience. Or maybe it´s fun to save Fallout 3 every Achievement level to obtain all 3 polarities of conduct in the game (good, neutral, evil)… maybe for some, but just not for me. Crackdown is a game that got me to continue playing the game once finished thanks to some challengingly clever achievements like the juggler ones, because it is damn fun to juggle cars with a rocket launcher!

Developers are still trying to get it right, but complacency and disregard for the utility in a game for achievements can pop in and render them practically a formality that will cause the player to lose that excitement when the popup appears. One of my first games for the Xbox 360 was Need For Speed: Most Wanted, and that game had the worst implementation of achievements after the Doritos game in Live Arcade: complete the game for a 100%. It is obvious that, with achievements like the one mentioned in Portal 2, developers are finding ways to implement them better and, although I do believe that nonsensical achievements will continue to exist, we are getting there already.

Steam achievements are one of those that are going in the right direction; assuming that players expect achievements when passing a tutorial or killing their first enemy is a dealbreaker.

I have just mentioned 2 of them, although I can remember many more damn good achievements. If you think there are some that are absolutely worth a mention be sure to comment!