The Game Boy: How Hardcore Gamers Wrecked My E3

Nathan Grayson

There was something different about this year’s E3. Ok, aside from the 30,000 or so extra people and the occasional, chuckle-inducing swine flu masks strapped to the faces of germophobic show-goers. It was something subtle – invisible, even – but it happened with a great deal of frequency.

It was cheering.

Clapping, laughter, excitement. By and large, at this year’s show, people really, really liked what they saw. This should be a good thing, but in my cranky, cantankerous opinion, it’s not. Why? Because every last cheer, whistle, and imitation air horn blast sounded in raucous approval of the status quo. Another FPS. Another God of War clone. “Our game is a lot like Half-Life, but mixed with Halo,” developers would cheerily exclaim, bathing in the glow of audience members’ beaming smiles.

From me, however, E3’s flood of samey shooters and risk-free sequels elicited only one reaction: a quiet cry of “Down with the hardcore.” Allow me to explain.

As I mentioned earlier, most every big ticket title at this year’s E3 was some sort of rehash, sequel, or clone. Here’s a quick list of particularly obvious offenders: Modern Warfare 2, BioShock 2, Left 4 Dead 2, Halo: ODST, Halo: Reach, Dante’s Inferno, Metal Gear Solid: Rising, Assassin’s Creed 2, Crysis 2, Mass Effect 2, Alpha Protocol, etc, etc, etc. That’s not to say that my fanboy froth isn’t overflowing for many of those games; it is. I came away from E3 jumpy (though that might’ve been the fault of LA’s less-than-friendly neighborhoods) and excited as could be. However, I’m excited for me. Right now. I’m not, however, excited for the future of the gaming industry.

E3 showed me that the industry has finally solved the puzzle that is the hardcore gamer.  And now, like the savvy players it serves, the industry intends to exploit the crap out of its newly acquired knowledge. See, as it turns out, the solution to said puzzle isn’t all that difficult. Just stop giving hardcore gamers what you think is best and instead hand them everything they ask for on a silver platter. Oh, and use the word “hardcore” a lot. Every other sentence, if you can.

And what do hardcore gamers appear to want, as evidenced by sales numbers and – of course – cheers? More of the same. But bigger. Like, with more dudes and cooler guns. Oh, and graphics! Don’t forget those. Never forget those . Don’t worry, though; E3 delivered in spades.

My favorite bit occurred when Sony announced its new worst kept secret ever motion controller, and immediately proceeded to shy away from innovative, interesting uses for the bleeding-edge tech, instead opting to show us how it could be used for a – you guessed it – first-person shooter.

But what else would Sony have demoed its take on the waggle wand with, you ask? Surely not casual games, you probably wince, as the words dance through your Mountain Dew-hardened hardcore body like some kind of foreign virus. Well, to be perfectly honest, yeah – I’d have been much happier if most companies hadn’t treated their casual titles like attic-dwelling high school dropouts who don’t even get a place on the family Christmas card.

At least casual gamers haven’t been “solved” yet. Hardcore gamers are two parts FPS, one part RTS, one part Action, with sequels scattered liberally throughout, but casual gamers aren’t so easy. So long as non-gamers and casual gamers still exist, developers and publishers will have to try. Creativity and new ideas are the only way to lure in potential buyers who, thus far, have proved impervious to the industry’s advances. And for now, I’m thinking tiny timewasters and other games typically dismissed as casual fare will provide the best – and maybe only -- glimpses of novel gameplay ideas we’ll get from big, triple-A publishers. Which is a huge shame, because whether you like their games or not, those big-name studios are bursting with talent, a resource that – unlike the bland tastes of the hardcore gamer – isn’t being adequately mined.

Maybe when (if?) the economy is resuscitated back into stable condition, big-budget games might get a new infusion of creativity, but even then, companies like money. So long as we keep spending, they’ll keep dishing out the same stale goods. But beyond that unlikely avenue, is there hope? Perhaps. Maybe, due to increasing development costs, major publishers will eventually scale back development anyway, hopefully leading to more innovation. Or maybe this is the beginning of the fabled Indie Revolution, where indie games become our only source of innovative nourishment while multimillion dollar corporations, well, do exactly as I outlined in this article. Who knows?

All I can say for sure is this: Hardcore gaming as it is now – at least, in the eyes of big-name publishers – is caught in a big, uninteresting loop. Companies have solved the hardcore gamer puzzle, and now they’re receiving their monetary prize. Hardcore gamers, from what I can tell, couldn’t be happier.

Man, getting exactly what you purportedly want really sucks.

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