By Rich "Beaker" Wyckoff
I've been designing games professionally for three years and thinking about designing them for most of my life (when not playing them). I tend to present strong opinions, but I want to make it clear that these are only opinions, and I don't want to come off like some of the famous names in the industry who seem to think that selling a lot of copies of a game and getting attention from the press makes them an expert on everything about making games. My tenet is that if you claim to know everything, you're missing out on the fact that there's always something new to learn, some other opinion which is worth considering, some experience you are still lacking...
recent interview with Mike Wilson of G.O.D. contained a quite shocking quote, "casual gamers have no place on the PC." This is the kind of thinking which has been holding PC developers back for years, and to have the head of the most developer-centric publisher in the industry publicly state the same thing is disheartening.
There has been a hardcore versus mainstream battle brewing on the PC for the last decade. Even before Myst and 7th Guest angered traditional developers by selling a couple million copies with designs which would have been pitched out by any company with a clue, Kingís Quest V was one of the games to start the trend by dropping the seriesí text parser and switching to a point-and-click interface.
KQV also happened to be a poorly designed game, and thus it was accused in many of its reviews as well as BBS-centered word of mouth (this was long before the internet, kiddies) of being a dumbed-down, prettified product made for the unwashed gaming masses. However, as has become common, the hardcore adventure enthusiasts blamed the bad design on the interface change, and it took years of excellent point-and-click adventures to erase their mistrust of the new interface.
It is a strange but welcome feature of our industry that the bulk of PC developers are also gamers. In last five years the industry has begun to overflow with developers for whom game-making is "just a job" (no doubt one of the primary reasons for the increasing number of crap products), but in the early nineties it was almost as if PC developers were making games for themselves.
Since so many developers are so hardcore, it is common to hear points argued fervently by the most diehard of fans on USENET echoed in design meetings, and this is where the problems in PC game development emerge. Should we really be doing nothing more than serving these USENET nuts? Mike Wilson seems to be in favor of this, but has he asked himself who these hardcore gamers really are, and why they exist?
It is really an oversimplification to draw a line between hardcore and casual gamers at all. To me, hardcore gamers are not PC-centric at all, but are just people who have grown up with and love digital entertainment of all types. The hardcore PC crowd, on the other hand, can include people whose sole idea of a good time is deathmatch Quake I, and would sooner die than even play Quake II, let alone pick up a PSX or N64 controller. Yet it can also include sim junkies who get as much fun pouring over the Falcon 4 manual as actually playing the game, or RPG fans who live for minute changes in numerical values.
The true hardcore are people who, if wealthy enough to own a computer also own most or all of the consoles, including the out-of-date ones. They can see the spiritual link between Doom and Contra, they understand that Tomb Raider is actually just Prince of Persia in 3D, and they donít think that Mario is a kidís game. They arenít fixated on any one type of game, and they donít think that single player is bad by definition. These people could care less about what system they play a game on, so long as the game is fun.
But these do not seem to be the type of people Wilson is referring to. Based on the rest of his comments, he seems to think that hardcore gamers would never deign to own a console, and that console gamers who canít afford PCs are be definition not hardcore. He goes on to say that people who have recently bought computers, now that prices have fallen so dramatically (it is possible for the first time to buy a very usable gaming machine for $1000 or less), will soon be changing them in for consoles, realizing that they didnít even want a PC after all.
This smacks of monetary elitism, pure and simple. I personally canít afford to keep a top-end PC at home myself, and I am lucky enough to be able to do most of my PC gaming at work. I am looking forward to not having to throw $2500 dollars at my next home machine, given that any PC will be obsolete in two years. But I donít think anyone would qualify me as a casual gamer. Am I supposed to drop out of PC gaming simply because I donít have thousands of dollars a year to spend on upgrading my system?
I could forgive these exclusionary attitudes if the games which were being made for the supposed hardcore really were more sophisticated than those being published on consoles. But anyone who has actually played console games recently should realize as I have that some of the deepest gaming to be had is not actually on the PC at all, but on the technologically primitive Playstation. PCs do have certain hardware advantages over consoles allowing the development of types of games like simulations with realistic physics, mouselook-based shooters, and anything online or upgradeable, but these advantages are diminishing rapidly.
Even if PCs have a technological edge, this doesnít automatically translate into depth of play. Gran Turisimo may not have a perfectly-realistic physics model, but it offers more ways to play and options to explore than any recent physically-accurate PC racing game. Final Fantasy Tactics has depth and secrets and types of characters that make the battle system of any recent PC RPG shallow in comparison. The sophistication of story and variation of the world in the best console RPGs like Xenogears makes Baldurís Gate look like a simplistic kidís book.
PC developers commit an even more grievous sin than failing to come up with gameplay which blows away the consoles: they fail to even polish their products to the level of even the worst console games. Even major releases ship with bugs which would never be allowed on a console, and basic elements like well-designed menu screens and control schemes are rarely even considered important by most PC developers. It is rare that any developer would argue for holding up release, because the PC hardcore scene is already used to downloading multiple patches and clicking through dozens of confusing screens to find necessary options.
"Casual" gamers, on the other hand, have this unwarranted expectation that a game should be well-planned and well-made. These crazy, non-hardcore people expect that a product has gone through enough testing to make sure that common options are easy to access and that it is free at least of logic bugs (although some developers would have you believe that PC games ship with bugs just because it is impossible to test on all hardware configurations, most of the worst bugs shipped are still purely in game-code which just wasnít banged on hard enough).
Casual gamers donít want less-deep games, they want less-annoying games. What passes for acceptable in the PC arena would never ship in a million years on consoles, but as long as people like Mike Wilson persist in ignoring the "casual" gamer, the hardcore will continue to cope with these problems and rave about how great the game is anyway. This is not an indefinitely sustainable situation, however.
The Playstation 2, while it will surely be exceeded in some statistics by PC hardware soon after it ships, if not even before, will still be able to make games that to average observers are qualitatively identical to PC games for a much lesser price. Both it and the Dreamcast have been built from the ground up for possible future high-speed Internet connection expansions, which could negate the big online play advantage that computers currently have.
If the Playstation 2 becomes able to give a better, cheaper deathmatch experience than a PC in a couple years, what reason does the deathmatch crowd have for staying loyal to the PC? If more-realistic simulations can be played on this console, why will simulation fans struggle with video drivers? Better RPGs are already available for consoles (but Iíll leave my justification of that statement for another column), and as an Ultima-bred RPG geek myself I have already almost stopped considering the PC a worthwhile platform.
It seems almost insane for a PC publisher to be taking a stance in 1999 against the casual gamer, the customer who makes up the meat-and-potatoes of the console market. Even if the hardcore PC market never does flee to consoles, writing games to just those players is going to, if anything, reverse the trend of ever-flashier PC games as the budgets required for appealing audio-visual content grow larger while the PC audience stays the same or even shrinks.
There are even bigger issues at stake here than facing tighter budgets: PC games have become a fairly crucial driving force for PC sales and hardware development. If the PC game industry gets stuck in the rut of serving the hardcore, games will become less and less relevant, and move over to consoles entirely. This could even lead to a scenario where a console manufacturer decides to add a mouse, keyboad, and hard drive to their console, turning it into a cheap internet-browsing, game-playing machine and beating PC manufacturers in the race to turn the computer from a luxury into a true appliance. Though this might be one way to finally rid ourselves of Windows, it would probably mean the adoption of some even more-awkward and less-powerful set-top OS, and true computing would probably remain the province of tech-nerds like us.
The point to make here is that casual gamers are good. The hardcore that Mike Wilson wants to appeal to arenít actually the true hardcore anyway, but more a collection of special-interest gamers. I have touched on the subject in the past, and I will say once again that with good design, a game can appeal to hardcore and casual alike. The PC and console industries need to be focusing their efforts on making games with truly broad appeal, and not getting swept up in the hardcore versus casual battle at all. Right now, we have a lot of games which are too arcane to appeal to average people, a lot more which are too stupid to appeal to anyone with a brain, and a very, very few good ones which anyone can, and will, play. Those games also usually sell the most copies, so why try to make any other kind?
- Rich Wyckoff is a professional game designer.
|Credits: Beaker's Bent logo illustrated by and is © 1999 Dan Zalkus. Beaker's Bent is © 1999 Rich Wyckoff. All other content is © 1998 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited, so don't do it. We have ways of making you talk.|