Posted by: seanmalstrom | July 6, 2008

The Hardcore Niche


There is an article at Gamesutra called “The Hardcore Niche”. The article is basically about coming to the realization that hardcore gaming’s future will be a niche. The comments there are also good reads (not because it mentions Malstrom’s Articles, as I tend to be more shocked when this site pops up).

I’ve always considered the hardcore’s future to be niche. It is because the costs for hardcore games are so high and growth is either stagnant or falling. Meanwhile, the new market is growing by leaps and bounds. The New Market will out-grow and swallow up the old market.

I also don’t believe the Hardcore and Core are one. Core gamers are those who enjoy such immersion experiences but hardcore are technology first, gameplay second. Hardcore are the ones who play game engines as opposed to games. “Look at these physics!” “Look at these polygons!” They are also the ones who won’t shut up about the Wii being ‘Gamecube turbo’ while Core gamers don’t care about the technology, they just want cool, immersive games.

For twenty years, the hardcore and core have been attached to the hip. Their interests coincided with one another. Where the hardcore got all excited about the latest processors and graphics, so did the core as that meant more immersive games. However, the core will split from the hardcore and shift, ever so slowly, towards the New Generation. The reason being is that the core care about the experience while the hardcore care about technology, high art, and heaven knows what else. It is not uncommon for a Core Gamer to say that Wii Tennis is the BEST Tennis game, despite ‘deeper’ tennis games, because ‘it provides the more immersive experience’. Core gamers also enjoy Wii Fit to Brain Age because it is a ‘different experience’. Hardcore just cry they are destroying gaming.

The big problem is that new advances in graphic technology are no longer creating new experiences. The HD Twins’ failure is more than the issue of price. People are not excited by ‘HD visuals’. The Wii, and even the PS2, are ‘good enough’ for many.

As New Generation is creating the new, surprising experiences this cycle and Next Gen is creating boring, stale, last gen experiences with its ‘great technology’, the Core will slowly shift to Next Generation and meld with the New Gamers all coming in, like immigrants, to form a very interesting new game market. The hardcore will wither on the vine.

The writer of the article finds the hardcore becoming niche an unhappy event. I actually don’t think that is the cause of his distemper. I have noticed that hardcore games are not really making ‘games’ but ‘art’ itself. Hardcore gamers masquerade as the wine-drinking-sophisticated-movie-watchers.

The cause of unhappiness is the thought that gaming is becoming less and less of a ‘high art’, that it has become like selling soap.

There is another option. Instead of thinking the decrease of the hardcore means a decrease in ‘art’, we need to re-evaluate what the meaning of ‘art’ is in video-games in the first place. There was much debate over it earlier with no real, final conclusion. Perhaps the industry was wrong about what is and what isn’t ‘art’ in video games? I think we should take New Generation as an additional clue as to what makes games art rather than seeing games become ‘art-less’.

Thanks to the Cinematic Era, the Narratologists had the upper hand for a while. Narratologists believe all gaming tells a narrative in our head. Will Wright recently spoke of GTA IV telling him a narrative even if he randomly went down any street and took any car and shot at any police. A ‘narrative’ is formed through that. Wright’s belief in this came from many people making ‘movies’ and ‘stories’ out of their Sims characters.

But will someone ask Will Wright what narratives, he thinks, games like Brain Age, Wii Sports, Wii Fit, and Tetris provide? It seems to me that New Generation absolutely destroys the Narratologist argument.

Hardcore gaming does not have a monopoly on art in video games. The problem is not that ‘art’ is becoming niche in video games as hardcore becomes niche. The problem is that ‘art’ is still quite unknown. If New Generation contains ‘art’, then it would be growing as New Generation grows. Over time, as we watch New Generation grow and grow like an ever enlargening balloon, a pattern might be discertained that could shed new clues as to what is ‘art’ in video games.

We shouldn’t think that because the hardcore becomes niche that art in video games becomes niche as well. Lately, the hardcore have been like vocal weeds choking off growth. Now that they are out of the way, let us watch, and wonder, at what grows out. Let’s not call ‘New Generation’ ugly for it is only currently a small sprout. Soon, it will be the main tree providing shade and fruit for the industry.


  1. >>>Will Wright recently spoke of GTA IV telling him a narrative even if he randomly went down any street and took any car and shot at any police. A ‘narrative’ is formed through that. Wright’s belief in this came from many people making ‘movies’ and ’stories’ out of their Sims characters.

    But will someone ask Will Wright what narratives, he thinks, games like Brain Age, Wii Sports, Wii Fit, and Tetris provide? It seems to me that New Generation absolutely destroys the Narratologist argument.<<<

    This is the same Will Wright who proclaimed that non-gamer were missing the point when they were pointing out that a kid looked like he was in a zombie state while playing games. I say he was skirting the issue because he had no argument to counter that accusation. Nintendo had the counter of course as I expected and gave Will Wright such a counter; but that was after the fact.

    And I don’t think Brain Age, Wii Fit and Tetris absolutely destroy the Narratologist argument either. I think there is a narrative in those games. It might very short; but it is there. I think Will Wright couldn’t come up with one without puking in his own hand after saying it if you catch my drift.

    It shouldn’t surprise anyone that a lot of people think hardcore and core are the same. Hardcore is doing the time honored tradition the Religious Right does all the time: Speak as if they represent all gamers when they represent no one but themselves.

  2. The “art” of a videogame is easy to define. It is gameplay.

    Super Mario Bros. is a stunning piece of interactive art. Not because of HD graphics, orcastrated music or engrossing narrative. But because of polished, engaging gameplay.

    Super Mario Galaxy is a stunning piece of interactive art as well, for the same reason.

    Videogames must be measured on their own merits. The key element of a videogame is gameplay, and an innovative approach to gameplay can elevate a game to art, regardless of the graphics.

  3. @gregory weagle
    I think he was being ironic with the “destroying narratologist” phrase about how Brain age and wii fit are way appart from pseudo-masterpieces like GTA and MGS4

    Competly agree! Videogames are a way for entertainment. Just like the art from magcians is to create an ilusion, the art from videogames is the core of the gameplay.

  4. I know where you want to go, but you can’t said games like Wii Sports do not tell an story. An experience is an story. The problem goes when the developer believe the story is the experience.

    No, seriously, I can mock up an story based on Wii Sports. I mock up a story based in Dr. Mario Online Rx in the moment I hear about the game, I always mock up stories from everywhere.

    That why I believe Miyamoto left Mario and Link like silent characters. You’re the one who are supposed to be in the story, no otherwise.

    And something is art when cause to you a reaction and emotion. Has nothing to do with the Colors, or the complexity or another stuff. When something touch your heart no matter how that’s art. I love Mario Galaxy for that: Everything in this game, from the graphics and the Toad Brigade, including Rosalina’s Story Book touch something inside me. And the same goes with Mario Kart Wii ^^! I love everything in the game, including the Blue Explosion telling me the first place is not that far away.

    As a Nintendo Fan, I love this generation, because you can see, it’s like an aura, the inspiration in the game. They’re having fun doing their work. And that you can feel it ^^! (That’s art for me too, by the way ^^!)

  5. The Wii would be closer to being art more then the HD twins. I mean really the game play that nintendo creates is very much like walking around a great sculpture letting your eye dance and travel the surface. One look at nintendos games and you realize how much they can do with so little.

    Then I look at the normal mapped to hell games we have coming out. Talk about busy design, it’s almost throw up like and becomes very generic. The only respect they get from me is man that took a while to make.

    I’m just wondering when the guys up at new york will get Wii motes working on PCs so they can make some installations that people can acutely touch! Or better yet if nintendo makes a game that’s just about interaction. Now that would be cool.

    Some artists may loose relevance in the wake of people waking up to better design verses more crap on a model. I’ve seen some damn good low polygon models by some of the people that helped make many of the older games.

    The current HD gen is a symbol of that spark being lost. Suddenly instead of pushing in all directions only one direction has become the way to go and it is not paying off. With out the Wii it would still be happening because people are just not excited at being ignored even though the hardcore tries to speak for every one. I’m pretty unhappy with the current state and thinking going into HD games right now. I’m not the only one it seems.

  6. I agree with rdaneel72. I’ve just completed my 3 weeks study of Super Mario Bros. and I do believe that, unlike most games, that it has reached the level of art.

    The problem with the kinds of games that the hardcore demand is that they’re not very well designed. I can’t believe some of the design decisions in games like WOW. It’s like they’re stuck in the past.

    Not only is Super Mario Bros. one of the best games ever made, but its solid design allows it to appeal to just about every type of gamer. That’s the level of design everyone should be striving for.

  7. Way off topic here Malstrom, but I think there’s something else that’s broken – which is the route to market for Wii games.

    There’s a big audience out there that doesn’t track the blogs or the mags and probably doesn’t in the main kick off fast from pre-launch ads. So how do they know what to get? It’s word-of-mouth and retail – and the retail side looks broken to me. It is geared towards the launch now, sell out next week, today’s top ten market and not to the slow burn long tail stuff.

    So if the guy at Gamestation thinks Wii is for ‘casual’ minigames that’s what he orders, that’s what’s on the shelves and that’s what he sells. It is a self-fulfilling bias.

    So there is a big challenge for the retailers as to how they sell into the new market. Any sign of anyone rising to it?

    (I spend a few minutes each week surreptitiously re-arranging the stock in the local retailers to bring good games to peoples’ attention – but that is kind of a low-level approach!)

  8. Will Wright has been aiming all of his games squarely at the so called “new” generation for the last 20 years, and quite successfully. I’m not sure what his comments about user generated content have to do with games that don’t involve it either.

  9. @Bill

    I am referring to where Wright uses ‘schema’ or ‘abstraction of a world’ or ‘toy experiences’.

    Brain Age does not do an abstraction of arithmetic. It actually IS arithmetic. Yoga is not an abstraction on Wii Fit. It actually is Yogo. The user is literally doing the exercise in a most non-abstract way.

    If such non-abstraction, non-immersive games sold so well, it sounds like Wright’s definition has no legs.

    The point of all this is to show that the idea of video-games as ‘art’ will only be answered by Time and then only when we are pushing up daisies. We are nowhere near close to getting to the ‘art’ of gaming. People should view this with happiness as it means new worlds to explore. Instead, the “Hardcore Niche” writer is sad because he thinks the ‘art’ that is progressed by hardcore games will be gone. Rather, he should be celebrating because we are getting a little close to what such ‘art’ is.

  10. Good art uses the medium it needs and it uses that medium (many surrealist paintings, for example, would not be possible as statues). Yes, a game that fails to leverage the fact that it is a game is not good art, no matter what else it has. Great movie sequences, artistic style, etc are for other media, if you want to make a movie then make one! Don’t throw a crappy game of stat comparisons in between! It’s like the difference between the first movies with sound and Fritz Lang’s M, the other movies had sound because they could, Lang had sound because it was integral to the movie. A game that doesn’t think itself a game shouldn’t be a game.

  11. Wrights definition may not fit all games, but it certainly fits his games. He is right in that games *can* allow the user to express themselves creatively, and in this they are unique. Whether they all do or not is not the point. This is surely better a better game design philosophy than cut scene after cut scene, and the sales of Sim City and The Sims speak for themselves.

    Just because certain games cannot be described as art does not invalidate the idea of games as art as a whole. The 7 o’clock news uses film and is popular, but is not art. You wouldn’t use that as an argument against Ironman being art, just because they use the same medium.

    I think defining art to mean that we cannot know if something created in the present day is actually art is a stretch. The exact definition of art is no doubt as argument that will continue to rage on long after we’re dead, but I agree with the previous posters in that a game like Super Mario Bros is art largely through it’s mechanics.

  12. I don’t completely disagree with you. However, what about a game like COD4? I would call that a very immersive experience and would attribute some of that to the high quality graphics. The level where you control the bomber bombing the village looks like newsreal footage– amazing.

    There are definitely snobs out there, but I also think there are hardcore people who feel their needs aren’t met by the Wii. These are people who buy 1-2 games a month (or more), and there simply aren’t that many good games coming out for the wii.

    I’m glad for the expansion of the market. My parents got a wii on lanuch day– it’s made them very understanding of my favorite hobby. However, the last game they bought was Chicken Shoot. I don’t think that is a good direction d=for games.

  13. Thinking about what the core/hardcore distinction can show us about the nature of art in games, I have to wonder whether the reason why both the ludologist and narratologist positions exist is because “games” are actually two distinct forms of art, rather than because one of the two sides is wrong.

    I tend to be far more sympathetic towards the narratologists’ position, even though it’s clear that you can’t really judge all games under that position – with things like Wii Fit and Brain Training being perfect examples of that. But, I can’t really take the ludologists’ position either, because it seems equally unfair to games which place importance on their narrative ambitions at the cost of the game’s internal logic – which, in fact, comprise the majority of games that I find enjoyable.

    If you view these as the bases of two separate art-forms rather than two dueling definitions of a single one, it provides a different way of thinking about the core/hardcore distinction. The core group generally would like to see games follow the ludologists’ path, improving their rules more and more to provide a fun experience. And, as mentioned, the HD consoles don’t really do much towards this end at all – they follow the same rules as consoles always have, and the games therefore tend to follow the same rules as games always have. The hardcore group (or, well, the part of it that isn’t only concerned with technical specs), following the narratologists’ path, would find the HD consoles much more appealing, because the upgrade in graphics actually does provide a step forward for storytelling potential, whether through first-person immersion or empathy with the characters. Changes in gameplay mechanics, on the other hand, might not really make much of a difference at all – swinging a remote to swing a sword instead of pressing a button doesn’t change the immersiveness of the world (as opposed to the immersiveness of the play) or the player’s relation to the characters much more than HD games change their mechanics.

    (“Core” and “hardcore” probably aren’t the best words to use for this distinction, really, except for the purposes of following the definitions set up in the original article. The relative size of these groups could easily be different from what the names suggest, and there are probably other positions that exist, as well.)

    In any case, both of these groups will likely have little appetite for games that follow the other path completely, and the paths diverge so greatly that following one of them as opposed to the other will leave the other group with nothing but scraps. This makes the idea that “the market will show where the art in gaming is” highly suspect – there’s clearly something in both camps that resonate with people (though they’re often different people), and we’d be missing something if either one disappeared. Which, of course, is what the hardcore is afraid of, really – not that games are becoming something that’s not-art, but that the art-form that they care about might be swallowed up by one that they don’t.

    So, I don’t agree that the hardcore should celebrate that we’ve gotten closer to finding what art is; it’s one step forward towards one definition, yes, but it’s also one step away from an equally-valid definition – the one that consists of what the hardcore liked about games in the first place.

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