The Rise of the Hardcore

By: Steve Fulton

Published: July 30, 2012 Posted in: PC Gaming Nonsense

Recently announced title The War Z looked interesting. Close parallels to the amazing Day z mod for Armed Assault 2, it boasts similar features; survival, scavenging, zombies, and an open world wide enough to get properly lost in. Then, spectacularly, they ruin it with one word.

“Perma-death (Optional)”

Way to kill off half your user-base, guys.

Hardcore - Duuuh?

Now, lets leave aside the idea that this is blatantly ripping off Day Z; that’s actually a good thing. The more developers that accept the idea that the current crop of genres aren’t exactly set in stone, the better. Leave aside the fact that it’s clearly aiming at a wider audience than it’s sister-game; not everyone is as comfortable with Day Z’s hardcore-sim engine as the rest of us, and it can be bloody daunting sometimes.

No, lets just focus on that one little word – optional. If the idea of perma-death is a turn-off for you, you can play a different version of the game, where you can re-spawn intact and bounce around like a big zombie-killing god with almost no threat whatsoever. Does this even sound good on paper? Ask anyone who has ever played Day Z what was the biggest impression taken from the mucky hours spent in its undead embrace, and they will reply “fear”. Fear of getting swarmed by zombies, fear of getting shot by bandits, fear of falling off a cliff while being eaten and shot… but the root of this fear comes from something far simpler than simply watching your character die – you lose everything.

Where there is no risk, there is no fear. The fear you get from playing a game like… um, Fear, is artificial. Built around jump-scares and creepy music. Possibly a dismembered body or two. This isn’t real fear, this is anticipation – expecting something to jump at your face while singing Susan Boyle songs, or at worst, getting killed and having to start again from a checkpoint ages back. This is not life-and-death fear. However, if you play a game for hours, amass wealth or treasure or loot for hours, and then have it all taken away from you in an instant, never to be reclaimed?

That’s real fear.

Hardcore - Sniper

And the assumption that those who actually enjoy true risk will plump for the “hardcore” mode is flawed. It’s like a racing game that allows you to turn back time. It doesn’t matter how dedicated and strong-willed you are, eventually, you are going to use it. It’s like dangling a bridge over a river with a small sign stating “For people who can’t swim”. If you can’t swim, you shouldn’t be fording a river in the first bloody place. The second the easy option is presented, it will be used. Oh, there will be a few people who grit their teeth for a while, but after a few “unfair” deaths, they will eventually give in. We all will. The solution? Don’t offer an easy way out in the first place.

Developers have pandered to weaklings and whiners for far too long. There is a revolution coming in the form of true, emotional feedback from games, and difficulty levels to match. Eve Online kick-started the concept, although was by no means the first. Flying a ship worth billions of ISK (the money alone would have taken a player months to accrue), only to be blown up by a clever gate-camp. It’s terrible, painful, heart-breakingly tragic. But it’s also one of the reasons for Eve Online’s success. The brutal nature of the game rewards patience, intelligence and erring on the side of caution. Flying a ship you can’t afford to replace is one of the first rules of Eve, and you will only learn it once.

And millions hate Eve Online for that very reason – it’s too hard, too unfair, too unforgiving. However those that still play, are playing one of the greatest story-machines of our gaming-generation, and an experience that will stay with you long after you turn off the PC.

Hardcore - Shiny

Another game that, at least initially, decided not to pander to pussies was Star Wars: Galaxies. Initially, becoming a Jedi was a mind-buggering mix of luck and sheer effort. The developers argued the logic with a few vocal whiners, stating that the time-frame Galaxies was set in, there were very few Jedi. And so, they were monitoring the number of Jedi (good and bad) carefully so as not to disturb the setting. But, a few years later, they caved to pressure and suddenly everyone was a Jedi, and the game is now dead. Way to kill your game, guys. Have a slow clap.

More recent murmurings from those of us who actually enjoy a challenge were heard during a World of Darkness news-release, which, incidentally, is being developed by CCP – the guys who made Eve Online. Perma-death was to feature in some way within WoD. Suddenly, a million ears pricked up, including mine. Until this point, I had no interest in WoD in any way, but an MMO with perma-death as a feature? Sign me up.

Now, those of you screaming “masochist” and various other S&M slogans, can bugger off. This isn’t about being slapped repeatedly with a stick for every mistake I make in a game. This isn’t even moaning about a world so bent towards making everything as accessible as possible (although this is the root of the problem), it’s about bringing games back to what they were meant to be – a challenge. Not in the “insert another coin to continue” nonsense, but something you can brag about in the pub on a Saturday night and not feel like a six year old.

Hardcore - DIE!!!

A real game will make you work for your bread. Yes, you can play Ridge Racer Unbounded and feel vaguely cheery at beating the AI, but try playing iRacing with a dozen other real people on the grid and coming higher than 8th. “Vaguely cheery” doesn’t quite explain the hole you just punched in the roof. You can play World of Warcraft for two years, amass stupid amounts of gold and hit level 85 just like everyone else, but try finishing The Binding of Isaac (a game you can finish in an hour) without losing any hearts. Good fucking luck with that, by the way. By the end, you will be exhausted, possibly in pain, and your nerves will be shot to hell, but damn it – you have done something few other will even attempt. There is no sense of accomplishment if there is no challenge, and if there is no challenge, there is no game. You’re just wasting time and electricity in an entertaining way.

My point is, Day Z is special because it simply doesn’t allow you to “game” your way through it. There are no auto-saves, if you die, the character dies and you have to start from scratch. Without this, the dread you feel is gone, and it’s just another shooting gallery with undead-flavoured targets. It’s not real, in a far more fundamental way than it currently is – no, Day Z isn’t real, but the fear you feel while playing it is.

And if Rocket ever adds optional perma-death to Day Z, you watch the servers empty like a broken bottle of milk. To the developers of The War Z – good luck, you’re going to need it.


Steve Fulton