I did a post on my thoughts a few months ago on what I thought about the whole concept of “casual” game, and how it represents a dumbing-down of the gamer mentality. As expected, I got a few messages that said I was “mean”. My thoughts haven’t changed since then, and Nintendo’s E3 showing did little to change my mind that the playing field has become unbalanced. I do think, however, that my last post was more thoughts off the top of my head, and perhaps not as concise as I wanted it to be.

The whole “casual” conversation is a pretty redundant topic now, and one that I don’t expect to revisit often. For starters, I don’t think it’s the gamers themselves. I never have, and there’s nothing wrong about welcoming new blood into what is a fun hobby. What I’ve had issue with is how developers/publishers treat this new and growing demographic, which is funny, because the demographic has always been there. It just never reached mainstream news. Anyone who’s ever read a few issues of Nintendo Power during the ’80’s and ’90’s knows that someone’s five year old was plowing through Super Mario Bros. and other games, or somebody’s grandmother was rocking Q*Bert like nobody’s business (which it’s true that one of the top champs was actually a senior gamer). Sorry, but the Wii did NOT invent the expanded audience. Mainstream media did.

What the new “casual” game does not do is allow all these new gamers who want to take their place in “the next big thing” is evolve. That means, the title is so simplified that it never allows the chance for a player to evolve into a better gamer. Most of these games are so dumbed down to where they stay the same challenge level, and there’s no incentive to become a better player or seek out greater challenges.

Take Pac-Man for example. Anyone can pick up and play it within minutes. Anyone. You may get through one or two levels, but you can play it. However, you can become hardcore through practice and repeated play getting higher scores, and going 20, 30, 40 levels in.

Guitar Hero and DDR hold onto that philosophy. Geometry Wars does. Let’s be honest, any classic arcade game can and does. I hold these titles in a higher regard as a “casual” title because they meet the criteria: The games are simple in concept, and are accessible and interesting for anyone to play. Could Grandma beat you in Donkey Kong with a little practice? Well, the Q*Bert one did. If you read the article, it sounds like our grandparents can hang with the regular gamer just as well on Resident Evil 4, for that matter.

So why are game companies such as Ubisoft limiting their wares to almost exclusive line-up of pet grooming simulators and mini-games? They see the success of games like Nintendogs and Wii Sports, and try to emulate the sales success. The problem is, they miss the main points of what made these titles so successful (outside of Wii Sports already having the advantage of being a system pack-in): They were unique for their time, and the games were actually done well. Now these typs of games are a dime a dozen, and their relevance is diminished.

Another factor is diminished difficulty. While die-hard Nintendo fans will blindly defend the title regardless of its flaws, I found Mario Kart Wii to be highly disappointing, especially in light of the DS version. The awkward difficulty balance and shady computer AI will punish a skilled player in first-place by allowing 4-6 Blue Koopa Shells to hit the leader, and send them to last place. Nintendo’s boasted this is to give everyone a chance, and fail to call it what it is: Poorly designed AI. If players want to win, simply become better players, and stop expecting “wins” to simply be handed over because a player wants to be in the winner’s circle too. If it’s that important, play a multi-player game without any other players, and race around the track while the three other controllers remain idle.

The “everyone wins/no hard feelings” scenario that a lot of these games have now goes completely against what a “game” is. How fun would a board game like Monopoly or Clue be if everyone who played won, or at the last moment the best player decided to declare a losing player the winner? What’s the point of playing, then? What’s the incentive?

At this stage of gaming, all the new people who have come into the hobby are going to be lost just as easily if we do not continue to stimulate their interests with new ideas. Gamers should be less concerned about this whole “Whose side are you on” debate, and focus more on getting the message across to publishers/developers that all gamers deserve higher quality games that are dumped out simply to bank on the latest trend. It’s good to have new gamers, but don’t take advantage of them by shoving video “pick up sticks” in their faces as a game they obviously should love. For all their simplistic graphics, almost every arcade game in the ’80’s was based off some utterly bizarre and incredibly creative idea. Paperboy, Toobin’, Robotron, Tapper, Tempest, Donkey Kong, Centipede, Dig Dug…. These were simple in concept games, but where is that level of creativity now, or the needed challenge to provide a further incentive to keep playing?

Not every game is going to be a masterpiece, but some interesting new concepts or redefining classic formulas would be a lot better than dumping out the same title with slightly tweaked graphics for innumerable sequels. And of course, not every game is designed for the need to challenge finger dexterity (you’re not going to get really hardcore in a Live game of Uno), but in multi-player games, there needs to be some sense of competition, and the balance has got to better shift between the types of games publishers are offering. The industry seems to be in a small creativity rut, and adding more shovelware to the pile isn’t going to help anyone.

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