Turning the mainstream into hardcore gamers

Znet’s John Davison has a piece up on GameDaily Biz about focusing on encouraging “hardcore” gamers rather than chasing after that mythical mainstream success. Davison makes a good point, that maybe we’re defining too narrowly what it means to be a hardcore gamer: “A core gamer, we are all led to believe, is someone more interested in playing Dragon Quest VIII than speaking to a girl. He’s a Nintendophile, has a questionable attitude toward personal hygiene, rarely socializes in the real world, idolizes Japanese developers, and gets his kicks from hentai. Sure, that’s one particular kind of core gamer, but what if we look at this differently?” Instead, he says, we should consider being “hardcore” as “a form of behavior rather than an expression of taste. Really, being a core gamer is choosing to play games above any other form of entertainment. Any game can be responsible, and the step toward playing 10 hours a week or more is just the beginning of the journey.”

This sounds right in theory, but it reminds me a little too much of the same discussion in the comic book world. Somehow those core comic readers always gravitate toward superhero titles, thereby keeping the industry readership constrained and contained to only that smallish group of hardcore readers. The equivalent group of gamers are the ones thrilled with Dead or Alive 4 finally coming out, with the online multiplayer options for Perfect Dark Zero, with the insane number of cars available in Gran Turismo. Video games can’t succeed by only focusing on these players. The key is creating games that make hardcore players (behavior wise, like Davison says) out of people who don’t care about the usual hardcore gaming stuff. The Sims, Civilization, the successful massive online games have all done this precisely because they broaden the possibilities and expectations of what video games can be. They show a mainstream audience that there’s more to video games than shooters and racers and fighters, more even than Mario and Zelda. So while Davison says that “for true results we have to continue to engage and nurture our relationships with the ever-growing ranks of the hardcore,” you can only keep those ranks “ever-growing” by making games that appeal to non-hardcore gamers — that is, the mainstream.

Davision might be getting caught up on the notion that “mainstream” entertainment often means bland, lowest-common-denominator stuff. In this case, though, mainstream just means a game with broad enough appeal to encourage new players to pick it up. A crappy movie tie-in — the classic “mainstream” title — won’t nurture more hardcore gamers. But Guitar Hero or Nintendogs — games that are aimed squarely at mainstream audiences — will.

— January 20, 2006

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