As a whole, probably not, but it seems that the developers and publishers of late seem to think so.

Where does one begin with the whole term “casual” gamer, the new industry buzzword that separates this new audience of gamers that are new to the hobby versus the “hardcore”, who have been doing this hobby for 10, 20, 30 years now?

For the record, I consider myself a “hardcore” gamer. My gaming diet began with an appetizer of the Atari 2600 and full-blown ’80’s arcades. From Intellivision, Colecovision, and the Apple IIc, I went to the NES, Sega Master System, and on and on and on into present day. I’ve played games most people have likely never heard of, or probably never will. I’ve played imports and quirky, very Japanese games that would make one scratch their head in wonderment. And I played Wii Sports, which I thought was novel upon the Wii’s release. But I don’t play party games, or these new so-called games that proudly uphold this new “casual” moniker, and there’s a very simple reason why:

Most of these titles are crap.

But it seems “casual” goes to three categories: Newcomers to gaming in general, children, and women. “Hardcore” seems to apply to everyone else these days. “Casual Vs. Hardcore” is the new “Pirate Vs. Ninja” debate on the internet, but taken much more seriously, with more problematic consequences.

I’ve known quite a few girl gamers in my lifetime. I can’t think of one who was all giddy about Barbie, or Olsen Twins, or Ubisoft’s “Animals that end with a ‘Z'” series. Most I knew liked classic arcade games, or Tomb Raider, or Dance Dance Revolution, or Pokemon or Rock Band. I’ve known a few to even like Doom.

The same principle applies to kids. I got my start with Pong and Combat, and don’t get me started on Pac-Man. The NES-era kids cut their teeth with Super Mario Bros. – They want to play what their older siblings are playing, or certainly the newest and trendy titles. Bear in mind that “M” rated games are still relatively new to gaming as a whole, only really being around the last 15-plus years or so. So there’s a huge library of titles to play and work with. So why are they getting crappy “made just for kids” titles that talk down to them and have no challenge at all, much less put together in any sort of quality manner?

And then there’s the newcomers, which I hold the Wii accountable for, better or worse. These are the people who were drawn in by the novelty of the Wii’s wacky waggling controller, and the whole fad excitement of the Wii itself. Everybody must have one! They’re impossible to find, so that means it must be the greatest thing ever! And it’s worked… a little too well.

Upon its release, the Wii wasn’t taken seriously. When it took off, developers and publishers were gobsmacked by the runaway popularity, and had to desperately flounder to put something together to get their part of that sweet chunk of change. Wii Sports had simple graphics and short, simple gameplay. Everybody’s playing Wii Sports! It’s the wave of the future!

Note: Wii Sports was packed in with the Wii. That’s why everyone owns a copy.

So explain Nintendogs. And Big Brain Academy. And Brain Age. Sure. All portable DS titles. Made by Nintendo. And no one had done it before, and done it as well. Of course, it’s going to spark interest because it’s new. And different.

By the time developers/publishers put out their own similar games, they seem to fail to realize that it’s already charted territory. This is similar to Nintendo putting out Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time on Nintendo 64. They implemented this brilliant “lock on” system to the title that made 3D combat so much easier to do. And within the next 2 years, we get flooded with knock-off clones that are nowhere near as polished, or not as fun. Some will even craft an entire game around just one feature.

Wii has brought simple, but novel games, cutesy avatars and really did bring in a whole new audience to make the hobby more mainstream. The problem is two-fold, however. Most of these gamers are ready to gobble up the Carnival Games and Game Party titles that come out. So when these titles make a financial killing, it gives the developers/publishers the idea that this is what gamers as a whole want, and we end up with a lot of games that take minimal effort to create and release. Developers are getting skittish about producing games with depth now. “Quick and easy” isn’t going to sustain the industry forever, and we need to move forward as an industry, not backwards.

Nintendo, who had a devil of a time losing their #1 spot with Nintendo 64 and Gamecube has pretty much gotten back to the top of the pile again in terms of sales. I admit that I nursed them through the other systems with my own support, and I steadfastly believed in them for the Wii. And the general impression from Nintendo has gradually become one of “We no longer require your services” to their mass of loyalists and long-term fans, effectively turning their backs on them to embrace this newer audience. Microsoft and Sony are scrambling now trying to get a piece of this pie, as “casual-mania” has taken over the industry, but aren’t as quick to dismiss the core gamer in the process.

Nintendo has allowed the Wii to be put in a bad position. Cross-platform games are an afterthought, usually being ported from Playstation 2 titles, which still sells well considering its last-gen status. The Wii, as a current-gen system, gets shovelware and down-ported games, and most high-profile titles are exclusively regulated to PS3 and the 360, bypassing the Wii entirely. While the Wii isn’t the graphics powerhouse of the other two, it is still capable of producing really impressive and stylish games. I wouldn’t be surprised if Smash Bros. Brawl is the last of the old-style traditional games on the system.

To be blunt, developers know they can dump total shit on the Wii and completely get away with it, as the “Seal of Quality” logo has just become box-art filler. This is such a different mindset from the NES days. They didn’t want to end up like the 2600, so they mandated all of these restrictions on their third-party developers. And yet, poor quality games on the Wii run rampant like those children that are allowed to run loose and unrestrained while the parent remains oblivious to their behavior. But they do have time to essentially give the middle finger to their long-standing fans, which is going to bite them hard when their new audience moves on to the next fad.

Wii Fit is their next smash fad, but what’s to say that it won’t go the way of the Power Pad? Kitschy peripherals have never had a long support life. I’ll be stunned if this one breaks the trend. Still, I expect a billion crap titles to be released immediately to feed into the hype generated by Wii Fit, so expect the shelves to be lined with even more shovelware. No wonder the good games have a problem selling: No one knows what to buy anymore.

We don’t need to squander this new audience, but the new “casual” gamer needs to be educated on making better purchases for quality titles that still allows the family to play together. The Lego adventure games (Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and the eventual Batman) are titles that bring an enjoyable gaming experience while allowing adults to play a game with their kids. Other examples of “general audience” games are Cooking Mama, Guitar Hero, Dance Dance Revolution, Rock Band, Endless Ocean, and even classic arcade titles like Ms. Pac-Man or Dig Dug. The Wii’s Virtual Console is also an all-ages experience that anyone could enjoy, though Nintendo’s seems to have lost interest in the service.

The point is, casual games should be designed to cater to all players in concept and in gameplay. It’s disheartening that developers push these titles on people to make a quick buck, when the low quality says a lot about what they think of their customers. It’s very apparent that developers do not take these gamers seriously, or take them for being very intelligent. Developers have taken to exploiting new gamers more than ever these days, and it’s going to end up hurting everyone.

Game companies need to be responsible with what they put out, and console manufacturers such as Nintendo need to be even more responsible about the types of games they allow on their console. Nintendo definitely needs to be more proactive about reducing the number of these low-quality games on their system, and stop catering to such a singular audience. Casual gamers deserve much better than this if they are going to sustain and flourish within this hobby. While many of these games lack the blood, sex, violence and moral depravity that so many people are concerned about corrupting the industry, look what happened to Atari: Pac-Man and E.T. didn’t have a single collective boob between them, but they still managed to topple an empire. Remember the Great Video Game Crash of 1983? I see a lot of signs pointing to history repeating itself, and while Nintendo isn’t leading the charge, they aren’t putting a stop to the companies that will lead the industry there. It’s not Nintendo’s sole responsibility, either. Every company has a responsibility to self-regulate their behaviors, and what goes on their system.

There’s going to come a time where casual gamers are going to burn out on the endless mini-game compilations once Wiis are more readily available, and that’s going to leave Nintendo in a bad spot since they’ve been so dismissive of long-time and loyal gamers of late. But ultimately, game companies are going to have to stop letting developers treat the their game console like some throwaway children’s toy and not a viable investment as a sustainable hobby.

These are just a few initial thoughts. I may expand more if there is interest in discussion, as this is a topic that’s best handled by multiple sources.

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Filed under: general gaming