What created the midcore audience?

Jon Radoff, our CEO, was recently interviewed for a Polygon article about the rise of midcore gaming (“Core gamers, mobile games and the origins of the midcore audience”). Jon talks about how it took time for people who were holding a phone to get used to it as a gaming device, and to ultimately accept that they were comfortable with it being a core gaming device. I agree with him, and wanted to dig deeper into why the whole midcore discussion is about people, not technology.

“Midcore,” as explained in this excellent Gamasutra article, has been variously described as “making a great, deep game more accessible,” “more competitive and more challenging than other social and casual games,” and “a space between AAA and Indie.” In a nutshell, it’s the split between casual games, like Tetris, Angry Birds, or Candy Crush, and hardcore games like Diablo, League of Legends, and Bioshock.

In the article, James Hursthouse of Roadhouse Interactive says that the technological advancements of tablets have driven the rise of midcore games, and DeNA’s Ben Cousins agrees with him. To both, the increasing power and sophistication of mobile devices drives more immersive experiences. Especially for tablets, the technology allows for different types of gaming, and once that technology reached a critical point, more technically powerful midcore games sprung up. Using that theory, as the gaming tablets become increasingly more powerful, we should start seeing hardcore games over the next few years.

However, technology doesn’t prevent midcore or hardcore experiences from forming. On Sunday nights, my family gets together and plays D&D on the table or floor. Using paper chips, a gridded map, and some dice, we spend hours completing complex quests, exploring the world, and finding treasure. Looking at the beginning of the gaming industry, many hardcore games required little processing power to be extremely complex and ‘hardcore.’ In my own experience, Battletech: The Crescent Hawk’s Revenge stands out as one of the most complex and hardcore games I played, even though it was made and released for x386 processors. It borrowed directly from the tabletop rules, and as such was incredibly difficult, yet really fun to play.

Rather than say technology creates a midcore experience, I echo Jon and say that social forces create an environment that allows midcore games to thrive. Tens of millions of people in the United States alone had to rethink what a phone was for and what it could do. Prior to the iPhone, it was rare for a phone to have a place for additional applications, let alone a high-density display with brilliant color. Some applications and games were ported to flip phones and feature phones like the Blackberry, but those games were secondary to the phone’s primary features, like calling or reading email. After the iPhone and Android phones were released, millions of people learned that it could be a device for gaming. Games were simple at first, partially because their developers were learning the limits of the system, but also because many of the owners were not used to gaming on a mobile device. Easily understandable games like Flick Fishing went on to see millions of downloads because it tied a simple gesture – flicking the screen – with something comfortable – fishing.

As audiences got used to playing games on their phones, the desire for more complicated games grew. The top 3 iPhone games of 2008 were relatively simple and lacked the name brand IPs we see in console games: Koi Pond, Texas Hold’em, and Moto Chaser. Many iPhone owners were not used to seeing their phone as a serious gaming device. In 2009, as iPhone owners became more savvy, the titles started to look more like modern console or PC games: The Sims 3, The Oregon Trail, and Need for Speed: Underground. From 2008 to 2009, we saw audiences get used to using their phone for gaming, and apps like iBeer and Pocket Guitar make way for Assassin’s Creed, Civilization, and Madden NFL. The desire for more complex games came from an audience accepting that a phone is a legitimate place to play games.

Looking at the Atari 2600, we can see a similar trend of simplistic games being supplanted by more complex games as their audience matured. The Atari 2600, first released in 1977, sold 30 million units during its lifetime. Since home gaming systems were a novel concept, the 2600 games began as simple ports of comfortable arcade favorites or easily understood concepts. Blackjack, Combat, and Breakout are standout examples of a simple concept brought to life in the 2600’s early years. The 2600’s pinnacle in the early 1980s saw many more complex games released. Bored by simple game mechanics, Atari players picked up (relatively) complex games like Dig-Dug, Chopper Command, Pitfall, and others. Pitfall, as an example of emerging complexity, has six elements a player must pay attention to: direction, top floor, bottom floor, obstacles, moving objects, and enemies. Breakout, for comparison, only has three elements a player must keep track of: the ball, the paddle, and the bricks.

At the same time that the Atari was churning out its most complex games, a new contender, the NES, was released. Even though it had a more powerful architecture and design than the 2600, it began slow and simple:  Tennis, Golf, Baseball, Duck Hunt, and other games filled out the North American launch titles. It wasn’t until two or three years after the NES was released that we saw more complex titles like Castlevania, Metroid, Mega Man, or Contra. Looking at the early NES games, Duck Hunt has players keep track of three elements: duck location, ammo, and number of ducks left. Metroid, released just a few years later, brings in over two dozen elements: enemy type, energy, missile ammo, Samus’ location, upgrades, types of weapons available, environmental variables, bombs, secret locations, and so on. Audiences were still getting used to the idea of playing games in front of their home TV, but once they got used to loading a cart in the NES, their hunger for more complex games drove game developers to create new and interesting game mechanics.

Every new system that opens up the market for gamers starts off slow and simple. Audiences become familiar with their devices or systems, and begin craving more complex experiences as they finish the simpler stuff that came out first. The iPhone, iPad, and Android are no different. The rise of midcore and, eventually, hardcore games on iOS and Android is a social phenomenon rather than a technological phenomenon. As people continue to get used to gaming on their tablet, we should expect games with the complexity of modern PC and Console titles to begin to populate the app stores. Game of Thrones Ascent hopes to be part of that trend, as we bring the game to iPad and Android.