Streamlining. Casualisation. Dumbing down. Whatever you call it, if you dare to go to the comments section of nearly any announcement detailing the sequel to a popular game, you will quickly find one of these terms floating around – usually accompanied by various misspelled swear words and the occasional piece of punctuation.
If these tirades are to be believed, the modern gaming industry is nothing but a wasteland of lazy development, fanboy pandering and horrific displays of unprofessionalism. Games are gutted of their very being, complex mechanics replaced with tedious grinds and oversimplification. There is no effort put into games nowadays, no fire, no willingness from AAA developers to push any kind of limits except those of the patience and loyalty from “true fans”.
Or at least, that’s my experience. Perhaps yours is different.
But here’s the thing – let’s assume this is true. I am by no means saying that casualisation isn’t happening (it definitely is) or that it doesn’t have it’s drawbacks (it certainly does). But what people seem to forget is that no industry can exist without a customer base. While gaming, for some time, did subsist solely on quarters in arcade machines and the few people who were interested in purchasing a home console, we wouldn’t have the enormous, global phenomenon that we see today without the casual fanbase. You can bemoan streamlining as much as you like, but the fact remains that without it, we likely wouldn’t have many of the masterpieces we have now.
Development in any industry requires money. Sure, there will be a few people who create things for free (such as the glorious modding community), and everyone gets the occasional spark of cost-free inspiration, but the brunt of creation and creativity is enabled by cash. A company may very well be doing something for the pure love of it, but you need capital to keep the computers running. A more accessible game means a larger audience, which means more shipped units and more shipped units means more money to put back into development and the next big title. Sometimes the priorities end up going the wrong way, with developers seemingly caring more about pushing out substandard products as quickly as possible (looking at you, Arkham Knight), but on an industry-wide scale over a long period of time, this is how it works.
And occasionally, complex games have to be sacrificed on the pyre of development to stimulate that cash flow.
Look, for example, at the Elder Scrolls series, starting with Morrowind. From this initial point, we slowly see the series becoming more streamlined. Directions in a quest log become a map marker, while certain skills, abilities and eventually entire stats are removed in subsequent iterations. This series is a perfect example of how the more popular a game becomes and the wider the audience the developers needs, the more simple it becomes. As a result, we lost a great deal of the soul of The Elder Scrolls. But in return, we gained something much more significant: more fans.
Could you imagine that so many people would have latched onto modern gaming titles without simplification? While games like Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter were fantastic for those who didn’t mind crunching numbers, the fact is that most of the populace are more interested in killing monsters and completing quests than dealing with a character sheet. Gaming is entertainment first and foremost, creative expression second and a marker of some kind of weird hierarchy dead last. Sure, that list might shift around a bit depending on the intent of the developer and the reception of the audience (Death of the Author and all that), but games are here to entertain and engage. And if simplification enables that for a new fan, I am all for it.
And, what’s more, the more complex games never really died. We still see rogue-likes and modern iterations of classics with all the same or similar gameplay mechanics as we did decades ago, but they are just called “indie” now. Furthermore, those casual games generate more gaming fans due to their accessibility, and some of those could find themselves interested in developing a more complex or diverse experience – thus the enormous modding community is born. Even those who only want to be consumers may eventually want to test their mettle against more challenging games and thus, the cycle continues.
Casualisation tears apart extremely fantastic titles. It’s true. I am more often than not extremely disappointed by modern sequels of classic games, but here’s the rub: it isn’t about my beloved series. It isn’t about keeping the casuals out of the club. We may see things like Diablo lose some of its lustre, or The Elder Scrolls start lacking in depth. But for every loss we suffer, we make headway for the industry as a whole. Streamlining does not entail a good game and accessibility doesn’t necessarily require simplification: there is more skill to development than that. However, a simple game is by its very nature more easily understood by more people. And that means more fans, more money to the studio and eventually greater development on the fringes where what we loved about the originals are reincarnated.
Hardcore games, difficult mechanics, and complexity of play never truly die. They are simply sacrificed for greater growth – players, titles, innovation. All due in part to ‘dumbing down’. We lose a few series to mediocrity along the way, but on the grand scale of things, the casual fanbase is what keeps the core of this industry running. And that, fellow gamers, is why casualisation is necessary for gaming’s survival.