Frustrating /= hardcore. Hardcore /= more worthy.

Poll? What Poll? Oh all right, that Poll where I promised enlightenment in a day or two. Well, you should be happy I didn’t just promise enlightenment, take your money and deliver bubkes — I see adverts for that all the time on TV. You may be unenlightened, but at least you’re not broke.

Where was I?

Ah yes, the playstyle poll. I had a sudden thought, a couple of weeks ago, that it’s not really the games we play that are hardcore or not — we are. Because as far as I can tell, “hardcore” for a game tends to mean “has a crap interface, lots of bugs, and systems that aren’t that well designed”. That’s not hardcore — that’s just low quality.

But death penalties! Item wear! Not getting your first pair of shoes till you’re level 20 and having to go see the quest givers uphill in the snow both ways, twice a day! That’s hardcore! Eh… I suppose. Here’s my contention though: it’s not just how the systems are designed, it’s how the players approach the systems. And I’m far more interested in how we categorise ourselves than in how we categorise the games, because at the end of the day it’s our personal playstyle that determines whether we stick with a game or not. An MMO can be cocaine-in-a-can without the unfortunate addictive side effects, but it won’t do it any good if it doesn’t gel with the players’ playstyles.

So it seems fully 3 1/3 out of every 10 people I know are hardcore; I’d like to know which third, but we may not be that well acquainted. To me, hardcore means that someone is willing to put up with an entirely unreasonable amount of frustration thrown at them by a game, for whatever the reward may be. Hardcore means someone who not only accepts crap interfaces, lots of bugs, and badly-designed systems, but rather revels in them because it paints them as more dedicated than everyone else. Hardcore means…

Yes, all right, I’m being unfair. That’s actually Elitist Hardcore, a player type for which I have very little time because I outgrew that kind of Alpha dog posturing years ago and I really don’t need to see who can pee further to determine who is more important in the greater scheme of things. To be equitable, however, I also don’t much like the Whiny Casual type — you know, the people who loudly demand every damn thing that’s available in a game without their even having to log on. At least show up for class, you lazy bastards!

We’re actually all hardcore to some extent or another — we’re just not all hardcore about the same things. I was quite willing to log on at stupidly antisocial hours and spend more stupidly antisocial hours looking for that lovely-jubbly cat I got last week; to me, that’s hardcore, because I’m willing to change my real life schedule around in order to obtain a bunch of pixels in a game. (By that definition, incidentally, the young would tend to be far more hardcore, because they have more time available and can give a game a far higher priority than we ageing responsible types can.) I’m not hardcore about getting items, doing dungeons, or doing that raiding thing, for a number of reasons we don’t need to get into right now — point is, I’m not willing to prioritise those things ahead of other pursuits, so that makes me not-hardcore in that domain. I can harvest nodes allllll day — that’s hardcore harvesting right there, and most of the time I’m pretty hardcore on crafting too. Being the first to discover new content? Meh, not so much; not hardcore.

Death penalties and item wear and all those so-called “hardcore” game mechanics, they’re not hardcore; not inherently, anyway. I don’t consider myself hardcore and I never had any problems with Asheron’s Call’s death penalty system, which included xp penalties and corpse runs. (Okay, at 2 in the morning on a school night I did kind of have problems with them, but anyone with an actual life would.) Neither did I mind EQ2’s death penalty system, back when it actually had one. What I do mind are systems that penalise me either randomly (BLAM! You’re dead, hahaha isn’t that funny? — and fortunately I can’t actually name any games that do that right now) — or that penalise me excessively for hitting the wrong key. If I hit 0 and I should have hit 9 in the course of a normal fight, and suddenly I find myself at the lifestone with a 3 hour corpse run, that’s excessive.

Systems that are designed to add an element of caution and the idea of nothing being permanent or free (e.g. item decay) aren’t hardcore in and of themselves. When they’re well done, they add depth and a level of immersion that is entirely lacking in games that don’t use them. Actions having consequences is a good thing, even in MMOs. I expect a little extra work when I die; I expect my gear to slowly degrade over time (even though these days, the primary purpose of item decay is as a money sink and not as an immersion-booster). When they’re badly done, however, they’re just a pain in the ass. When they’re done as a way for the designers to say “Nyah nyah, we’re so much more hardcore than you, you noob!”, they’re a gigantic pain in the ass. Yes, I’m exaggerating and no, I don’t think devs sit in their cubicles being all Dr. Evil all day, but there are hardcore devs just as there are hardcore players — just sayin’.

It’s all about the proportions. Penalties in moderation I’m fine with — they actually enhance my gaming experience, when they’re done right. Outrageous penalties, or penalties that get applied because I inhaled when I should have exhaled — I’m not hardcore enough for that. I’ve never liked arbitrary effects, in real life or in games, and when they’re designed into games I’ll usually just get up and walk out, because they’re not arbitrary, they’re designed to frustrate me, and that’s not something I’m willing to pay money for.

Just to get the odd comment kicked off, here’s a very biased summary list. (They can also stand in for actual comments. No posting on my part means a sharp drop in the amount of commenting, and that’s something I miss more than I realised I would!)

1. If you’re not hardcore, it means you want everything for nothing.

2. If you’re hardcore, it means you EARN what you’ve got — by extension, if you’re not hardcore, you’re a scabbing moocher and just got lucky.

3. If you’re hardcore, it means you live in your mom’s basement, that she dresses you funny, and that you still don’t believe women — sorry, chicks — actually play games.

4. If you’re (elitist) hardcore, you’re somehow better than everyone else because you’re willing to put up with a sadistic amount of frustration without exercising your human right to free choice and walking away — that’s kind of like enjoying hazing. Basically, it’s putting up with bullying and saying thank you sir may I have another! But hey, YMMV.

There’s a very big difference between putting in a reasonable amount of time for a reasonable reward, and putting in a stupid amount of time for that same reward. In that sense I overdo things when I harvest all day in games. In that sense, some raid encounters that are designed to be as punishing as possible are just stupid. Ironically, it’s possible Blizzard are starting to understand this; from what I’m hearing and reading about Cataclysm dungeons, you have to actually pay attention to what you’re doing, but if you do, it’s very much more rewarding than it used to be. Good.