Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

6 July, 2007

Defining the middlecore
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 9:40 PM

As I said in the previous weekend design challenge, I’ll discuss the middlecore audience. Who are in this category and why is it important to understand this group?

One problem here is that terminology, especially newly coined words, tend to have very fuzzy meanings in this type of discussion. Trying to discuss “casual” gamers vs. “hardcore” gamers gets people defining these terms in all sorts of ways. In some cases, it’s best for someone using these terms to define them as precisely as possible before using them. We again have this issue if we look over the comments in that post.

Looking over the comments, it is interesting to see that everyone so far seems to want to be part of this group. There seems to be a general feeling of unhappiness with the way thing currently are in the game industry. Not surprising, this has been a common sentiment. But, this also points out that there are a variety of reasons for why you slow down in playing games.

I’m going to argue that Jpoku and Talaen are talking about a different segment than I am. I part of their complaint goes back to another common complaint with games these days: innovation and originality. The original article I linked mostly focused on having less time, not that the games were boring. The author, SeanMike, even talked about one of the more interesting games coming out, Bioshock and how that failed to interest him.

I think the bigger issue here is time, as I said before. SeanMike talked about how he had less time due to external pressures. He also talked about trying to get out more: shaving off the goatee, getting eye surgery, and dating more. When you hit 30, your life starts to change. You start to look at your life and make the drastic changes you want before it’s too late. Finding a spouse, having kids, or settling down into a “real” job to plan for retirement become important for most people. These activities can cut into previous leisure time.

I think there’s also another factor here, where society still pressures people to “grow out” of games. Having an obsessive hobby when you’re 10 or 20 is okay, but once you hit 30 or so it’s time to focus on more important things. Society starts to pressure people even if internal pressure isn’t enough.

Okay, so using this definition, what can we do to appeal to this audience?

The wrong thing to do is to treat them like casual gamers. Most of the middlecore used to be hardcore, and they still want a bit of that hard-core experience. I think some of them fall back on casual games because those at the only ones that give them what they are looking for: gaming that doesn’t demand a ton of time. If you read SeanMike’s entry, it’s obvious that he still wants to game, and even though he plays causal games, they aren’t “scratching that itch” for a good game.

The proper thing to do is to reduce the amount of time commitment required to the game. For single-player games, this is difficult to do because people will play the game as much as they can if they like the game. And, people will remember a game more fondly if they get into the “just one more turn!” frame of mind. This is similar to how books are written: chapters are not convenient breaks for you to pause reading, because there is often a cliffhanger to make you read. And, it’s hard to say a book was terrible if you spent all night reading it. The same can be said for a game that does the same thing, even if it’s not necessarily compatible with the middlecore player.

In online games, we face different challenges. I think the middlecore and their lack of time is why we started hearing more and more about “the grind” and how terrible it is. “The grind” is usually a keyword for a large amount of time commitment to a game. More recent games have tried to reduce the time commitment required in the game: faster leveling, lesser penalties that let you get back into the game easier after failure, etc. The effective use of offline time, particularly in EVE Online’s skill system, have also allowed people to reduce their time commitment while still being able to keep up with others.

The middlecore also want their time to be more meaningful. Many people say that WoW’s advantages were the ability to get meaningful advancement in a short play sessions, particularly at lower levels, and the ability to solo. Soloing is important because it reduces the amount of time investment required to find a group when you play. (Of course, this creates problems later when you have to gently educate someone who has mostly soloed about the fine arts of working with a group….) This type of “bite-sized” gameplay tends to play well to people who have outside time commitments, and that don’t want to dedicate excessive time to a game.

What do you think? Is this the best way to get people with limited time? Or, is there some other secret? Or, is this a losing battle because people really should outgrow computer games eventually?


  1. I think that you have to be careful with a statement like this: “Most of the middlecore used to be hardcore, and they still want a bit of that hard-core experience.”

    I think that it’s been established that hardcore means different things to different people and we can’t agree on a definition. It sounds to me that what we’re really talking about, especially given the rest of your post, is time. A gamer who spends a lot of time playing hits 30, decides he needs to “get serious” about his life (whatever that means, really), and thus, doesn’t play as much. He’s gone from “hardcore” to “middlecore” as you’re describing it.

    But in my opinion, that shouldn’t really change his enjoyment from online games. Most MMOs are designed to be incremental. You don’t lose progress by playing less (normally), you just progress more slowly. In fact, with mechanics like rest xp you probably progress in a shorter amount of time played than if you had just played constantly. So what we’re really saying is that a gamer who chooses to play less misses the days when he could play more.

    That really just boils down to a lifestyle choice. He’s choosing to play less to focus on other things, and part of him regrets or resents it. There’s not going to be a well-designed game that “scratches that itch” for him, I think.

    Comment by Cameron Sorden — 7 July, 2007 @ 9:01 AM

  2. Yeah, I just re-read the first few paragraphs of your post, Brian. Sorry. I clearly haven’t had coffee yet. Ignore the first two sentences in my comment where I repeat what you’ve already stated. *bonk self* :P

    Comment by Cameron Sorden — 7 July, 2007 @ 9:03 AM

  3. This is a truly important design strategy that no one has seemed to master. After all, an online game operator really wants players to play as little as possible in terms of clock time, but stick with it in terms of participation (subscription, virtual asset purchases, whatever).

    The Nintendo DS games Animal Crossing: Wild World and Nintendogs seem to have balanced this very well: there is only so much you can achieve on a single day, but you keep wanting to come back.

    As a former (recovering?) hardcore reader, I have found short stories are more and more appealing – I am turning into a middlecore reader. I want the thrill and depth of a good novel, but without all of those pages and hours.

    It is a different art and business model, however, to satisfy the middlecore audience. The biggest costs in game development are for art assets, not gameplay, it would seem there are a lot of opportunities to build richer, but concentrated, experiences for players.

    Comment by Steven "PlayNoEvil" Davis — 7 July, 2007 @ 11:20 AM

  4. Interesting :D I quite liked the ‘effective use of offline time’ as an example of how to satisfy the middlecore. I’m not sure I was in an entirely different direction than yourself – to quote you, (you happened to hit the point I was trying to make on the head a little bit harder than i did): The middlecore also want their time to be more meaningful

    This is sort of what I meant really – Previously, these ‘middlecore’ people had several hours a day to play through moderate experiences. It didn’t matter that they had seen the gameplay innovations elsewhere, or that the story was particularly boring – they had the time to waste on the experience. I might even go so far as to say, they had the time to play five hours just for the one hour that they truly loved. Reasons they might have loved it: it was challenging, it was new, it was interesting etc.

    Now, given that they only have perhaps one hour to play: they want that ‘awesome’ hour straight off. “I want to know that after i’ve played for an hour, i’ll have regained that experience that I used to get from playing several hours a day.” So to bring it round full circle – the game needs to provide a sense of something meaningful. In my example it needed to be something they hadn’t seen before, but after your updated commentary, I think i’ll widen that to whatever it takes for the individual to get excited about e.g. if it’s a sense of achievement, makes goals achievable in a shorter timespan. Similiarly, if it’s originality they’re after, make your game a completely new experience.

    Comment by Jpoku — 7 July, 2007 @ 1:01 PM

  5. Cameron Sorden wrote:
    You don’t lose progress by playing less (normally), you just progress more slowly.

    Well, this is sometimes a problem because you can’t keep up with your friends. If you don’t play and fall behind your friends, you will not e able to play with them. Your example of rest experience (another use of offline time) shows one way to help circumvent this problem. But, this was a huge issue with EQ1 and other games like it.

    That really just boils down to a lifestyle choice.

    I agree. My point is that these people are becoming a different type of gamer, not becoming a non-gamer. I think there can be games to satisfy him, but they aren’t being made.

    Steven “PlayNoEvil” Davis wrote:
    The Nintendo DS games Animal Crossing: Wild World and Nintendogs

    Excellent examples of offline games. These games did have quite a bit of appeal. Note that they did have some staying power, but eventually did fade. Also, I think these games would make wonderful online multiplayer games.

    Good discussion so far. :)

    Comment by Psychochild — 7 July, 2007 @ 1:31 PM

  6. Designing games for shorter bursts of playtime could be difficult, if it’s similar to short story writing. Like Steven, I’ve taken a strong liking to short stories over the years. I also write them, and took some courses from a writer named Nan Cuba concerning short fiction.

    Good short stories are written with a tighter leash than novels. Most good short story writers adhere to Hemingway’s minimalism (the bare minimum of detail needed to impress an idea) and/or Poe’s “unity of effect” (all elements of the story focused together on a single point). More than novel writing, short story writing is similar to sculpturing: you begin with a lot, then repeatedly cut away until nothing remains but the absolute essence.

    The limited scope affects how readers consider objects in the story. If a particular image/symbol is repeated a few times in a novel, it may or may not be a big deal, and the reader is likely to miss the repetition. In a short story, using an image or even a particular word more than once can drastically affect the reader’s attention and interpretation.

    I’m sure that designing short adventures in games would be significantly different in ways. For one, it’s more expensive to design assets or write scripting and scrap it later. Game designers aren’t as free to experiment as writers. But I expect that short adventures would require more attention to details, like with short stories.

    Comment by Aaron — 7 July, 2007 @ 4:29 PM

  7. The solution, of course, is to have all of your friends move to China and live under socialist game time restrictions.

    That way, those 2-3 hours you can play Warcraft because of job restrictions are the same your friends play to avoid jail time.

    (This post may well contain nothing factually true)

    Comment by Ithielle — 10 July, 2007 @ 5:58 AM

  8. Just wanted to jump in and say I loved the write up. Inspired me to go on a rant over at my blog. Keep up the excellent writing.

    Comment by JoBildo — 10 July, 2007 @ 12:13 PM

  9. Late to the party as usual.

    I think it’s more than just time commitments, although that’s a big part of it. There’s a desire for depth that “casual” games don’t provide very much of.

    Of the examples you listed, I’m going to say that only EVE really does a good job of hitting the middlecore. Why? Because in the other games, you still end up wanting to do things that you don’t have the time to be able to do. Sure you can solo your way through tons of content in WoW, and do it as fast or as slow as you want, but the game is built to funnel people into raiding at the end (as are most other fantasy MMORPGs) and so ultimately your player ends up wanting to do something that requires a greater time commitment. Regardless of whether someone starts out playing WoW or any other game with raiding in mind, by the time they hit level 60 or so they are definitely thinking about it, because that’s where better gear comes from.

    EVE works around this issue in a pretty unique way – any player who can play for an hour or two here or there has the opportunity to experience everything that EVE has to offer, in all of its depth. They don’t necessarily have to worry about being online for 8 hours at a stretch for a raid, since EVE’s gameplay is very easily compartmentalized into smaller chunks of time. Show up for the battle, an hour later, you’re done, and off you go.

    Anyway, it sounds like you want to say that the “middlecore” are, as Absor once put it, “time-limited hardcore players”. I don’t really think that’s accurate, to tell the truth, but there’s not really an accurate term out there, so as generalizations go, it’s probably a fair one to make. Personally though, I think the best way to reach the middlecore, or hobbyist, or time-limited or whatever crowd, at least in the online space, is going to be to move away from advancement and progression-driven games and instead design games that are more experiential, and where the length of time you have to play isn’t quite as important as how long you have been playing overall.

    Comment by David (Tal) — 11 July, 2007 @ 11:10 PM

  10. David (Tal) wrote:
    Late to the party as usual.

    Bah, always time for an insightful comment.

    Because in the other games, you still end up wanting to do things that you don’t have the time to be able to do.

    I see your point, but this is true for more than raiding. When I’m playing the game with friends, I still want to play with them even I don’t have time. These games tend to be highly social experiences, and this can bring people back and keep them online longer than they might otherwise “want” to stay online.

    Personally though, I think the best way to reach the middlecore, or hobbyist, or time-limited or whatever crowd, at least in the online space, is going to be to move away from advancement and progression-driven games and instead design games that are more experiential, and where the length of time you have to play isn’t quite as important as how long you have been playing overall.

    I agree, which is why I talk about the effective use of offline time. EVE does this with it’s skill learning system, where your time offline still counts toward earning a skill. The end result is that characters that have been around longer have an advantage, not merely characters that have spent a lot of time online.

    Thanks for the insight. :)

    Comment by Psychochild — 12 July, 2007 @ 2:43 AM

  11. Misconceptions about casual gamers

    [...] wrote about hardcore people wanting less time commitment before in the post about Defining the middlecore. I defined the “middlecore” as the hardcore people that didn’t have a whole lot of time. I think [...]

    Pingback by Psychochild’s Blog — 10 January, 2008 @ 10:55 PM

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