Unraveling the 'strange beast' that is the mid-core gamer: PlayMesh's Shawn Foust reveals all

'It's an aberration; a Frankenstein creation'

Unraveling the 'strange beast' that is the mid-core gamer: PlayMesh's Shawn Foust reveals all
Shawn Foust is a VP at PlayMesh, handling a mix of business development, lore writing, and game design.

Back in my day (approximately three years ago), we had two buckets: hardcore and casual.

One could generally determine which bucket a game fell into by measuring the frequency of showers among the players. This number could then be cross referenced with the preponderance of caffeinated beverages in the household.

Of course, both measurements were merely proxies for the amount of time it took to fully engage in these games, but they were accurate enough. These were simpler times. Better times.

Nowadays, things are a changin'. It's not longer binary. There's a new, murky entrant into the dialogue: mid-core. It is a strange beast, and I don't much understand it.

A tale of casual, mid-core and hardcore

I'm inclined to continue the snark, but I expect someone will want me to get to the point sooner or later.

So here goes: mid-core isn't a type of game. It's an aberration; a Frankenstein creation that is one part casual, one part hardcore and all parts lame.

Games claiming the mid-core mantle are simply a casual experience in a hardcore setting. These games lack the defining element of a hardcore game: the depth of personal investment required to fully understand and participate in the experience.

For example, a hardcore game like League of Legends takes an inordinate amount of time to understand and grasp. You're looking at a 2 week investment just to get the point where you aren't getting reported for losing your lane.

And Final Fantasy is a game defined by multiple layers of experience and variety - battle systems, hidden bosses, character customisation, etc..

Conversely, casual games are easy to understand and progress in. Any time investment is more a product of monetisation strategy around gated progression rather than design depth.

A casual game seeks to deliver a linear, but potentially enjoyable, experience while a hardcore game seeks to complicate the matter significantly through the introduction of numerous variable - skill trees, loot variety, strategic options.

A mid-core game is an awkward hybrid. It skimps on the depth, instead favouring accessibility and audience expanders like 'virality.' 

The goal is to get a wide base of diverse players beyond the typical core market. I don't blame folks for going down this path. Cost per install ain't pretty and money doesn't grow on trees. Expanding the addressable market is extremely enticing, but I can't help but wonder if it's an optimal strategy.

Mythical mid-core

So there are two ways to look at what a mid-core game is trying to do. Either discover a new type of gamer, and/or build bridges between two very different types of gamers. Let's address each in turn.

I suppose the new mid-core gamer is a person that isn't satisfied by a casual experience but isn't really ready to commit to the gamer lifestyle. The thinking goes that this theoretical person wants a slightly deep game they can get their friends into.

Choices and sophistication should be present, but kept at a minimum so as to not alienate those unwilling to acquire the requisite knowledge to unravel these quirks.

Ideally, these newly discovered users will happily consume this hybrid between soup and stew and monetise to eternity - or until the content runs out.

Now, let's say this mid-core gamer is busy riding a unicorn (we might as well, since neither one exists) and so mid-core games instead adopt a strategy of trying to bridge the gap between hardcore and casual gamers.

Under this theory, the games will be offering elements of a casual experience while still retaining enough depth to intrigue the hardcore gamer. Sounds great as a talking point, but it's a bit more questionable when distilled to actual game design.

The simple fact is that the things a hardcore gamer values (sophistication, diversity, emotional range) are generally anathema to the things a casual gamer enjoys (ease of entry, constant progression, positive reinforcement).

Designing for both of these groups is unlikely to pay the sort of dividends that you want to see in terms of expanded audience.

The more likely scenario is that this is a bridge to nowhere, with casual players becoming alienated by the glancing interactions with hardcore savages, and hardcore gamers being frustrated by the inability to fully express themselves in the game.

Cool story bro. So why are mid-core games so popular?

Honestly? A combination of extensive marketing and a lack of meaningful hardcore alternatives.

Despite the hundreds of thousands of applications, hardcore gamers are actually an underserved market. Developers are so concerned they can't hit some magical viral threshold point that they're unwilling to just say "frak it" and double down on the hardcore niche.

Folks are off searching for the mythical 'scaleable' opportunity. Why settle for 5,000 users when you can have 50,000,000 million? I'd love to wallpaper our offices with Ferraris as well, but sometimes content needs to fit an audience and not an aspiration.

Luckily, the hardcore audience is huge on mobile. They're just wondering why no one is making games for them.

Folks that assumed handheld gaming died are silly. It's alive and awaiting development on the mobile side. What we see now are the cautious sprouts of what will be an enormous industry dedicated to diehard gamers on the go.

People that once took a day off to play the expansion to World of Warcraft will now have the option to neglect work directly in office due the constant access to high quality hardcore games.

It's just going to take some time for developers to stop chasing fairy tales and satisfy themselves with a burgeoning multi-billion dollar hardcore mobile market.

Talk is cheap. What are you doing about it?

As I mentioned previously, I came on to lead Valor with a mission to push it affirmatively down the hardcore path. When I inherited the game, it was prancing about on the line between mid-core and hardcore.

Our soon to be released revamp (Valor: Trial by Sword, same great app, new destruction) is going to make things real vicious, real fast. We've designed things so the slow ramp up period is radically reduced and people are thrown into a bloodbath almost immediately.

It's… um… fun.

Anyways, we're making a big bet that wallowing in the viscera of fallen players is our key to success. Valor is an old dog - around two years on the App Store - but we're going to teach it some new tricks. We're differentiating the game from others by stripping out mid-core sensibilities and throwing down the gauntlet.

Of course, we're running some risks as a result. New players are going to be a bit shell shocked by the environment. Folks used to tapping away with nary a concern are going to be in for some unpleasant surprises.

We're okay with that. We figure if we can get the most hardcore veteran players excited and invigorated, they can train up the noobs on the hostile environment. We can define our community concretely and build upon it rather than drift about afraid of offending people.

And you know what? If it all fails that's okay too. At least I have a number of people I know I can rely upon in the event of a zombie apocalypse. Valorians are dependable like that.
To find out more about PlayMesh and Valor, take a look at the company's website. For moment-to-moment updates on everything Shawn Foust, you can follow him on Twitter.

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