When it comes to video games, I’ve usually described myself as a “casual” gamer. The whole “casual” versus “hardcore” gamer debate has become somewhat tired of late, but in modern parlance, “casual” is usually code for “moronic” while “hardcore” is code for someone who likes “adult” games with lots of violence, etc… But my notion of a casual gamer is someone who plays games and enjoys them, but doesn’t get all that carried away with them. The hardcore would be someone who borders on obsession. And not just a short term obsession either. Most gamers get engrossed in various games from time to time, but it’s rare for the obsession to last much longer than a few weeks (if that). But there are people who keep going, perfecting their performance to the point where (for example), they could complete Super Mario Brothers in 5 minutes (there’s a whole site full of these Speed Demos for all sorts of games).
I suppose I have some tendencies towards the hardcore. In particular, I’m a fan of probing, or exploratory play. I like to probe at the limits of a game, just to see what happens. I’ve written about this before:
Probing is essentially exploration of the game and its possibilities. Much of this is simply the unconscious exploration of the controls and the interface, figuring out how the game works and how you’re supposed to interact with it. However, probing also takes the more conscious form of figuring out the limitations of the game. For instance, in a racing game, it’s usually interesting to see if you can turn your car around backwards, pick up a lot of speed, then crash head-on into a car going the “correct” way. Or, in Rollercoaster Tycoon, you can creatively place balloon stands next to a roller coaster to see what happens (the result is hilarious). Probing the limits of game physics and finding ways to exploit them are half the fun (or challenge) of video games these days…
In short, I like to see what will happen. This will sometimes keep me playing a game long after others have gotten tired of a game. To me, this is the fun part. To the people who do speed demos, it’s all about skill. I don’t particularly care about skill (more about this later), and one of the ways Nintendo has been courting new gamers is to embrace the sorts of games that do not require hardcore skill in order to complete. To a lesser extent, PS3 and XBox games seem easier these days than things were back in the NES days. So there’s a lot of tension in gaming these days between making the game easy, making it more difficult, and making it friendly to new gamers.
A few months ago, Nintendo patented a system that sought to address this situation. The point was to allow them to make a difficult game, but give an option to us helpless casual players who aren’t interested in sharpening our skills for dozens of hours at a time just so we can make a particularly difficult series of jumps. Their idea was to allow players to let the game play itself through the difficult parts. So you get to a particularly difficult boss fight and instead of playing it a hundred times, you can just let the game know and it will play and defeat the boss for you.
There have been a variety of responses to this idea, mostly negative. Shamus calls it ungaming:
The problem is that the demo mode solution isn’t a solution at all. It’s a refusal to even address the problem. New players need a way to engage a game at their own skill and frustration threshold, and making a game play itself doesn’t help. Demo mode can’t turn a newbie into a gamer for the same reason watching Miles Davis won’t turn you into a trumpet player. You can’t learn to play if you’re not playing.
Sean Malstrom has an interesting take on how this functionality detracts from the skill based aspects of gaming:
I’ve been thinking about this frequently, and the answer I come up with is ‘mastery’. The old school gamer says, “I have finally got to level five!” The new school gamer says, “I am twenty hours into this game so far!” The old school gamer’s statement implies mastery. The player had mastered the game to such a level in order to reach level five. … The new school gamer’s statement implies intoxication, not mastery.
Malstrom brings up the various cheats from the NES era. In Super Mario Bros. there were Warp Zones that allowed you to skip ahead a few levels. The infamous Konami Code was indispensible for Contra players. Indeed, cheat codes became very popular in that era, to the point where even stuff like the Game Genie (a third party piece of hardware that you plugged into the game – it had all sorts of crazy cheats you could apply to almost any game) became popular.
Perhaps because a lot of newer games don’t have much of this, I’ve realized lately that I really enjoy cheating. Not for every game, but I did like my Game Genie. I like God mode and I like cheats that give me all the available weapons, etc… Why? Usually because it makes it a lot easier to explore the game world (i.e. to probe). One game I distinctly remember was called Rise of the Triad. The game was not especially fantastic. It was one of those FPS games that tried to amp up the violence and ridiculousness. I was almost immediately bored with it… until I found the cheat codes. The game featured some pretty neat weapons (in particular, I enjoyed the one that shot a wall of fire). There were a couple of cheats that I particularly loved – they let you change the gravity or even fly around the levels. A probing gamer’s dream. So I ended up enjoying the game quite a bit, despite not being very good at it in terms of “skill.”
I think this is why I don’t like Nintendo’s proposed system. It’s not that they let you get past the difficult part without having any skill that’s the problem. As I’ve established, that doesn’t bother me at all. It’s that the act of bypassing the hard part is completely passive. I like probing at the limits of the system, not watching someone show me how it’s done. I don’t want to do it the way it’s supposed to be done. That’s just plain boring. I say bring back cheating. Cheating is much more fun than watching someone else play, let alone watching the computer play. Of course, all of this is speculative. Companies patent stuff all the time (and as Shamus notes, it’s kinda ridiculous that some of these things are being patented at all, but that’s another discussion) and there’s nothing real to base this on, but it’s an interesting subject.