Round Table: Is Nintendo Neglecting the 'Hardcore Gamer'?

The first of a new series of features that sees the Nintendo Life staff members sit down and discuss all things Nintendo.

Welcome one and all to Nintendo Life's new feature: The Round Table. This is where you get to see the staff debate and discuss the most topical issues going around. From stereotypical views of Nintendo’s consoles, to our feelings on the evolution of gaming; you’ll find it all here on a regular basis. And, at the end of each discussion, we welcome your input on the issues at hand.

Starting off these features was our staff discussion on Nintendo’s focus. Our staff were asked whether or not they though Nintendo’s dominance of the family market has lead them to neglect the ‘hardcore’. Here are the results:

Tom: I suppose I'll kick this one off... Yes, Nintendo are neglecting the hardcore gamer, there is no other way around it. Games like Wii Fit, Wii Sports, and Wii Music are their creative direction now – family games. Even titles like Mario are becoming simpler; Galaxy took me little effort to fully complete, it even started to get a bit tiresome with how easy it was. Twilight Princess is the only game that I feel can be deemed hardcore – that and maybe Fire Emblem.

I always wonder if this is a good or bad thing, and it's hard to tell. One thing is clear though: the Wii has become a new platform for gaming – a social experience – out of necessity. Nintendo didn't have the resources to compete with the likes of Sony and Microsoft, so they went in a different direction and sacrificed power for innovation. If they tried to emulate a machine like the 360 or PS3 they would have been dead in the water within the first year. So, yes Nintendo have lost their focus on the hardcore, but they did so out of necessity. And let's be honest, the Wii has some great casual multiplayer games that even the most hardcore amongst us can enjoy.

Brody: Tom, it's obvious that Nintendo is definitely going full force towards their new market, but I wouldn't necessarily consider this a change in focus. Looking back at their previous consoles, it's clear that Nintendo has always been about innovation. The Gamecube stood still however, and obviously lost against its competition. I think that with the Wii, Nintendo has more or less gotten back to their old ways. Sony and Microsoft are upgrading their consoles by streamlining and polishing what they had before, whereas Nintendo is completely renovating. The difference this time is that they got a huge result from their efforts, and as such everyone is concerned with how Nintendo is going to use their power over the market.

I honestly don't think that Nintendo has forgotten the hardcore audience; they're simply trying to keep the market alive. In the process we're getting some very different games than we're used to, and those are the ones that are selling like hot cakes: Wii Sports, Wii Fit, etc. Despite how well that approach is going for them, Nintendo still dishes out the occasional comfort food for gamers, Mario Galaxy, Metroid Prime 3, Brawl, and so on. I think in 2009 that fact will be even more evident. My point is, despite the success of casual titles Nintendo is still providing for hardcore players. Whether or not they're providing enough is up for debate, however.

Eric: Nintendo is aiming their sights where shots are easier made, and I don't blame them for this one bit. The Gamecube was not a success (despite it having some successful titles), and the Wii seemed to be a far out, last ditch effort to get back into the “wars.” The gamble paid off, and the Wii is currently the champ – the main cause of this being that more people who were not gamers bought the Wii. As Tom said, if they would have tried to just make a PS3 or 360 clone, it would have been the Gamecube all over again – which makes Miyamoto sad.

I think Nintendo is going to put effort into the direction that the support is coming from – the “casual” market. – look at Wii Fit. It’s still sold out everywhere I go – and despite its price, it’s outsold GTA4 and Halo 3. The “hardcore” may be loud, but I don’t believe they’re the majority here. I think Nintendo has made the right choice by catering to the audience that has brought them back to the top.

The whole “hardcore” versus “casual” thing gets to me sometimes, as the definition of each can vary depending on the person using the terms. Casual, to me, does not mean family/party games being played by soccer moms and retirement home occupants, rather it means people who don’t have hours on end to devote to gaming. In the same way “hardcore” doesn’t mean that every game has to be rated “M” for Mature and be filled with profanity, severed limbs, and suggestive themes – it’s a term referenced to people who like a challenge, and don’t want the game to be helped along with answers to every puzzle given by a NPC. I like to think of myself as somewhere in between those two definitions, as even though I don’t have the time I used to play games anymore, I don’t want to have my hand held through the whole thing.

Darren: I think there is no question that Nintendo are neglecting their "hardcore" fanbase following their success in reigniting the “causal” market. I can’t really blame them either, as a business it makes sense to keep churning out stuff that sells like Wii Fit, Wii Music, Brain Training, etc – it’s obvious now there is a massive market for this. While I think Super Mario Galaxy and Mario Kart Wii were both excellent, sadly Nintendo are neglecting their core franchises too much these days (unless you count those rip-off repackaged 'Wii control' Gamecube games). Why are we still waiting for an F-Zero Wii game? Can’t they just outsource it to Sega again if their internal studios are too busy making the next big hit for Johnny Casual?

As a result of this shift in focus I am finding myself spending more and more time gaming on the 360 nowadays. The 360 game library has a much broader appeal, they have causal stuff like LIPS and Scene It on offer of course, but they do not neglect the games, which core gamers enjoy. It’s not just Nintendo’s Wii platform to make a novelty quiz game or some waggle controlled monstrosity in order to make a quick buck. Only SEGA have really tried to buck the trend recently by publishing HOTD Overkill and MadWorld, soon to be joined by The Conduit, which is a welcome change of pace. If Nintendo only made 20% of their upcoming games to appeal to that market I wouldn’t have any complaints.

Tom: Darren, I think you hit the nail on the head when you mentioned the New Play Control! games: it's Nintendo churning out previous hits for a new audience, without thinking of those who played them before. Sure, the games are still as good as they were before – if not better – but I would prefer something new!

I'd certainly say that Eric is right in the sense that the 'hardcore' are hard to define- therefore hard to neglect – but it's certainly the loyal fanbase missing out. If only a few more of Nintendo's games were aimed at the hardcore, it would be enough to satisfy the demand, but the 3rd party developers also have a heavy impact on this. Put simply, Nintendo need a new RareWare: a company willing to provide the truly epic games, not these shameless cash-ins. And I certainly agree that even if 20% of games were hardcore, then I would be happy.

I also want to go back to a point Brody mentioned: the innovation that Nintendo have shown. Sure, they've captivated the market now, but will they be able to sustain this demand? The trouble with things like Wii Fit is that they are one-trick ponies: unlike GTA, I doubt we'll see so many Wii Fit incarnations – there's only so much you can wring out of these games. That leads me to wonder what will happen if the new userbase starts to dwindle: will people like Darren (and myself), who play their 360s for the 'hardcore' games, still be around? And we have to consider the next round in the generation: Sony and Microsoft will definitely try and latch on to Nintendo's business model. Nintendo need franchises that can be sustained- i.e. Mario – well, to be more accurate, I need these franchises!

Do any of you guys find that, to get the best of the casual and hardcore, you are becoming one of these Wii60 or PSWii 'true gamers'?

Sean: Well define "true gamer," I mean I've never been a big console gamer. Every time I've bought a console it's been because I'm trying to recapture something from the arcade -- so does someone who almost exclusively played games in arcades for years and completely skipped the 8 and 16-bit Japanese console era (outside of playing at friend's houses and then limited largely to playing arcade ports like Street Fighter) count as a "real" gamer? This is my fundamental problem with the framing of the question because it implies that people who play games can be slotted into neat categories. I'm enjoying Fire Emblem right now and I don't play Bejewelled at work, so clearly I'm not exclusively interested in casual titles, but the bulk of what I own and play can be played for 10min and put down.

In order to frame is conversation properly I think you need to state what it is you're looking for that Nintendo isn't doing and look at their actual published output objectively because I think you'll find there is a good balance there and they're putting out quite a lot of content compared to other publishers. "Nintendo has abandoned their fans" usually seems to translate as "Nintendo hasn't put out an update to my favourite franchise", and whilst I can understand that, it means something different from "Nintendo has stopped servicing true gamers." I for one would rather see Nintendo put out new content than a sequel to a game that's appeared on multiple consoles. I mean we have the VC, so if you want to play game X from system X, then Nintendo should really just do that and be done with it. If there's some fundamental improvement, then great, but otherwise move on.

I don't want to compose a list here, but I'm pretty sure Nintendo has put out at least two releases to appeal to their traditional fanbase per year so far -- is that not enough? If they were the only publisher on the system then clearly the answer would be "no," but they're not the only publisher for the system, so given the number of other releases they're publishing (and let's not forget they're publishing a fair amount of WiiWare as well), I think the answer is "yes."

Between WiiWare the VC and 25+ disc titles both Gamecube and Wii on my shelf I feel no need for another console (if the PS2 was less hideous I would be tempted if only for the arcade compilations), so no I don't find myself leaning towards Wii360/PS360 status, but clearly my tastes and past experience differ from others contributing here...

Brody: I can certainly understand why someone would want to be a multi-console owner at this point. The fact is, these platforms are extremely diverse, and a complete experience may require two or three consoles. Personally however I am content with my Wii and DS. Maybe that counts against me as a "hardcore" gamer, but I personally find it more than enough to keep me interested.

Now in regard to what Sean was saying, about the actual number of games Nintendo is putting out. I think that's where the debate begins. To look at Nintendo's quality titles on the Wii, it's easy to be impressed. However, are there enough of these games? That's the big question. For most company's I'd say it's more than enough, but with Nintendo people expect more since in the past they've always been the main support for their own console. People always wanted to see more 3rd Party support, and now they're getting it. But the flip side is that Nintendo doesn't need to support themselves as much and I think people are having a hard time with that.

The problem is that the 3rd Party support, while admirable, is just not up to par with Nintendo's classic reputation for good games. We've seen quality titles here and there, but nothing substantial. Sega is obviously pushing towards a change with games like MadWorld and The Conduit. Only time will tell if others follow suite, but I certainly hope they do. A year ago I was saying that the Wii would turn out like the DS, with games to satisfy everyone, casual and hardcore alike. At this point I don't think that has been quite achieved, at least not in the best sense.

Tom: You're right Sean: trying to categorise gamers into casual and hardcore is a bit of a mistake – many are hybrids, as you pointed out. You're also right about them releasing the right quantity of their traditional franchises, but there has been a noticeable shift in the content of these games. I alluded to the difficulty level of Super Mario Galaxy in the start of this thread: it's simply too easy, nothing required thought – it was aimed at the casual market. I like games to have a bit of challenge to them, a sense of reward after completion. Who, when they got all the stars in Galaxy, felt like they had achieved something significant?

I'm also not inclined to play too many of the old games available, because I've played them before. I want new iterations of titles and new challenges, even if they add new levels and follow the same format as the previous game – Fire Emblem is a casing example of where keeping the format the same doesn't detract from the quality. At the same time I still want the games that are short and fun to play. Brody's example of the DS catering to all audiences is what I would like to see applied to the Wii: the best of both worlds.

Sean: Points taken, although I couldn't get all the Stars in SMG and felt pretty chuffed about getting 102. Of course that turned to disappointment when I found I needed to get all of them to unlock Luigi, which apparently provides for more of the challenge you might have been looking for. For me the shadow races were beyond my platforming skills and over my frustration limit.

I still think you guys are just being too picky!

Corbie: I agree with most of the assessments made so far in that Nintendo is clearly pointing their focus on the casual gaming market. And in truth, why would they change that approach given how successful it's been for them so far. While I'd love to see a bit more emphasis placed on some of the more "hardcore" genres, I've finally come to the conclusion that if those are the types of games I want to play I either have to stick with the retro consoles I own or the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 consoles. While it's not practical for everyone to own multiple consoles, it has become necessary for those of us who love Nintendo and their first-party offerings, yet still like to play some of the more hardcore-style gaming titles.

I guess we can hope that eventually Nintendo will try to be more open-minded with their approach to the Wii, but considering how far into the lifespan of the console we already are, it's difficult to imagine them altering their focus enough to produce any type of significant change.

REN: To begin with I wouldn’t exactly call any of this a change of focus; since when are we talking about here? I think since Launch and shortly before Nintendo was pretty clear that Wii was strictly a game machine focused on playability and fun – they were indeed trying to reach the giant looming market of less-than-hardcore gamers. I was plenty impressed with the measured challenge level of SMG. Sure, there was always a little in my mind that said “this is still no where near as hard as some of the old 2-D classics including other Mario’s”, but there was a lot of enjoyable content there that lasted a while and still managed to get pretty hard near the end.

I think there is a big point missing here, that is a little hard to define and it’s part of what bogs down this long running debate about “casual vs. hardcore” (which I also tire of since it’s totally subjective anyway). Difficulty levels have just changed and there’s no going back from that. Nintendo was simply looking for a new way to attract an audience with different expectations than the aging gamers (and impressionable 12 year old boys). Think for a minute about the fundamental elements of what makes a video game: like in film there is a need for a certain amount of what's called “suspension of disbelief”, but in a game it was almost essential that this was always in play. There was so much absurdity going on that had to be overlooked in order to just go about the task of jumping onto floating cubes made of brick or tossing fireballs or eating turkey off the street to repair ones health. As game technology rockets forward this suspension of disbelief gradually decreased due to the relative accessibility of truer physics and realism within a game, which means that ultimately games are easier to play and simply require more content and much deeper gameplay to sustain for the number of hours that an older game did.

In short, games have changed. What so many of us fondly remember as great games that were so much harder and longer were often hours of memorizing where hidden heart shapes are, trying to find the actual edge of a jumping point, trying to work through challenges that had to be memorized so meticulously as to be done the 6 times it took to come back without any saved game, even learning to find just the right camera angle to help a character run straight as a 3D engine tried to compensate while you move forward and had you veering off an edge. Now what do we want in expect in our great “hardcore” games? : that a story be dramatic, with good voice acting, lots of action, crisp cinematic cut scenes, great nuanced AI, limited re-spawning, clear visual edges, deep original puzzle parts, intuitive camera, multiplayer options, even online options, achievements, unlockables, etc.

Did any of our favourite games before, say 1990 include anything unlockable? Was there ever a single year with more than one SMB or Metroid or Zelda release at a time? It didn’t matter because even though we had more time to play them they still took a hell of a lot more running around and experimenting than any game now does. Does no-one remember the days when these were just game challenges to overcome once you’d had too much pizza and soda and stayed up for 10 hours? I’m not saying those are good things for a game, I’m just pointing out the selective memory of the “hardcore” gamer.

I’d love to get a PS3, or more likely an Xbox, for some of the hardcore titles but when I’ve played some recent games on them I find that once I get the hang of the controls they’re very easy to master. It’s like too much is possible, and too well spelled out. We’ve saved so many princesses, so many times while battling archaic technology so now that it feels really real, we can save her with our eyes closed and I’m over it. So I say bring on the weird casual games and let the indie developers run with the new play controls. Find us new hardcore entertainment, PLEASE, but until we get headsets with VR stuff, I’m stoked to try some more creative and even practical tools that are built into all the high tech consoles we have now (net stuff, cooking, waggle sports, puzzles, whatever). I get enough cheesy sci-fi from movies so I don’t mind waiting for the really great games.

Sean: I like where you're coming from REN and without getting too much into the next topic, it's a big part of why I think old franchises should be left alone; especially when we have the VC for re-experiencing them.

Tom: Blimey Ren, I think you've pretty much covered all our loose ends there – even touching on some future round tables! Looking back to the past, I find myself agreeing with you about games being hardcore due to control issues. I never considered that a game being well developed could make it easier to complete and less of a challenge. It's good food for thought!

I suppose we’ll wrap it up here guys, and see what everyone else has to say…

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