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What does it mean to be “hardcore”?

March 11th, 2010 by Troy Goodfellow · 18 Comments · Firaxis, Gamespy, Industry, Preview

When I read the strapline attached to Anthony Gallegos’s preview of Civilization 5, I was stopped a little short.

It’s not just for the hardcore anymore.

It’s not? When was it? Is Civilization a hardcore game for hardcore people? I tweeted my curiosity and was met with a nice chorus of replies from friends and colleagues. Former PC Gamer Editor in Chief Gary Whitta pointed out that Civ gives him migraines, and of course it is hardcore; anyone can pick up a shooter and know what to do. Kombo’s Tiffany Martin said that I was seeing the game from inside my strategy gamer bubble where Civ is positively user friendly compared to, say, Hearts of Iron.

By any objective measure, Civ itself has become more “hardcore”, if what we mean by that is a game that requires more attention and calculation. The original Civilization was as user friendly as any strategy game ever made. As great as the UI is in Civilization IV, its main purpose is to make the dozens of new relationships transparent.

But when a game sells hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of copies, is it still a hardcore game?

Part of the problem with using “hardcore” as an adjective for a game is that a lot of people play apparently simple games in what we would see as a “hardcore” way (Hardcore Rock Band players, as an example) and others will play a complicated game – and enjoy it – on easy settings and never really grok everything that is going on around them. From where I sit, hardcore is an adjective best applied to players – not games.

It’s also a little weird to suggest that Civilization 5 will become less hardcore by importing mechanics from Panzer General.

Lots of new previews of Civilization 5 out there. I’ll make my way through the information and report once GDC is over. Not that I’m there. But I do wistfully read the coverage.


18 Comments so far ↓

  • Scott R. Krol

    I don’t know, I think you can apply it to both players and games. For example, I’d consider Dwarf Fortress a “hardcore” game. I’d also consider someone who plays it 40+ hours a week a “hardcore” player.

    In wargaming we’ve always referred to the more complex, rule intensive games as “hardcore” so I can understand why someone who may not be into strategy games (as often is the case when sites assign their people to cover strategy games) would refer to it as hardcore whereas if you grew up on monster tabletop games you view the Civ series as a quaint, light beer and pretzels strategy game.

  • Tim McDonald

    Indeed. My own definition of hardcore, slack as it is, involves effort. A hardcore game is one that requires the player to put in a fair amount of effort and attention in order for that player to have any measure of success at all.

    Just about any game can be “mastered,” and a hardcore player is one who’s willing to put in the hours needed to approach a certain level of mastery, often at the exclusion of other things. I daresay you can have hardcore Peggle players, as much as you can hardcore Modern Warfare players. That, in turn, fits into the definition of a hardcore gamer – one who often plays games, in general, to the exclusion of other things.

    Three loose definitions with plenty of holes and room for corollaries, but hopefully sufficient to get my views across.

    Civ (the first one, at least) was never a hardcore game. I doubt I’d ever call it casual, but I imagine most players could stick it on the easiest setting and within half an hour have a firm grasp on building cities and units, researching technologies, and effecting basic diplomacy. Sufficient to enjoy yourself on a lower difficulty until the late-game muddle hits, certainly.

  • Zer0s

    If by the PGeneral mention you mean the one unit per tile thing, then actually it does make it more friendly, since it makes much more common sense to have one tile, one unit in your mind than making stacks of doom to have a chance at taking cities and the like.

  • Quinten

    I think that Civ 5 will still have the quality of a hardcore game, but they are trying to appeal to audiences broader than the people who bought Civ 4. RTS’ are going through a period of streamlining and reaching out to other demographics, why can’t Civ?

    I love Revolution, it is my favorite Civ. I’ve played all but the original for hundreds of hours each, and Rev is the one I still come back to. Integrating elements of Rev into the main series is exciting to me. I also like to see more tactical combat and hex grids. Combat always felt TOO abstract to me, and this could fix that feeling for me.

    Anthony was someone who always played Civ4 to tell funny stories about Communist Ghandi destroying the Tao British with tanks. I don’t think losing the hardcore elements will affect his play too much.

  • Jared H.

    Hardcore has no real meaning, it’s an industry buzz word meant to create hype for new games. “You’re not a geek for pre-ordering Complex JRPG 7: The Reckoning, you’re a hardcore gamer!”

    Now if you talk about it from a business perspective, you have the Core gamers (the established, loyal market) and the Expanded gamers (the new/disinterested market ). When Civilization first came out it was a simpler game and appealed to a wide range of people, but as is the case with franchises, sequels strive to make improvements over the original. The problem is that as the sequels gain complexity they appeal more to the Core gamers and are harder for Expanded gamers to access. As less expanded/new gamers come in game designers put more effort into pleasing the core gamers which only makes the problem for difficult. Look at what happened when Mario went 3d, Core gamers loved it. Mario 64 was THE game to have, but if you compare the sales numbers to the 2d Marios it did not do as well because it many members of the Expanded market did not buy it.

    I imagine what Anthony was referring to is that the Civ 5 team is attempting to make the game more accessible to the Expanded gamers, which some of the previous games may have been too cumbersome for.

  • Naum

    Also, ‘hardcore’ can denote the requirement of having a high end machine to play.

    Over the past 10 years, PC gaming has diverged into hardcore gamers with the latest high end graphics card and rig, with mainstream gamers left to the console market.

  • JonathanStrange

    I remember renting Civ 2 years and years ago from a video movie rental store and getting the rather thick manual with the CDs. The clerk just looked at the book and wished me luck understanding it; he personally would rather not have to study just to play a game. I wasn’t about to argue with him that the manual was mostly for atmosphere and fun, but … what are you going to do? Enlighten the world?

    The Civ series are difficult mostly in comparison to games that require virtually no analytical thinking – but that doesn’t make them hardcore except in the very broadest definition of the word. I suppose if one didn’t like math, algebra is hardcore and integral calculus makes you head explode.

    I’d say the Civ games are more like algebra; you have to do a little thinking but most anyone can do it. And maybe even enjoy it after awhile. Once you got good and avoided things like quadratic equations and the “cottages vs. farms” controversy.

  • Sarkus

    Compared to a lot of games even Civ1 is complicated, but I agree with the idea that it’s relatively simple compared to current versions of the game. I tried playing it not long ago and while the graphics were somewhat painful, the sheer simplicity of the design still shows through. While what Soren Johnson did with Civ4 was brilliant, every version since the first has complicated things – more techs, more units, more gameplay angles added.

    It would be interesting to see what the reaction would be if the next Civ was just Civ 1 with updated graphics. Outside of the addition of borders, the rest of what has been added has been primarily aimed at pleasing the fanbase, the most vocal of whom are “hardcore.”

  • Ironus


    Yeah, the funny thing is if you read the intros to those thick manuals, they will advise you not to sit down and read through them straight but rather to play the game first and then come back when you want to go into nitty gritty mechanic details.

    I really don’t see how a game with 9 levels of difficulty settings is strictly in the niche realm of the grognard …a “hardcore” strategy game to me is a Matrix or Paradox design…Civ 4 is a game even my parents enjoy (they are definitely, assuredly not hardcore). As I understand it, games like Age of Empires 3 and the Total War series also have high sales number…are the players who enjoy those games “hardcore?”

    I wonder what the author of that piece thought of Civilization Revolutions.

  • Chris Nahr

    Well, Civilization Revolutions was pretty much just that: Civ1 with updated graphics. I believe it was received fairly well but not the blockbuster that Civ1 was. Of course there are many more video gaming options today, so it’s hard to make a direct comparison.

  • JasonUresti

    Civ 1 was one of the first PC games I ever played, at 12 or 13 years old, and I had little trouble picking up how to play the game.

  • Nicholas Tam

    The way I see it, there are two interpretations in play:

    1) The sensible interpretation. A “hardcore” game ensures its own longevity owing to its depth and the variety of play that it permits. It leaves room for player creativity, self-imposed challenges, and lots of optimization involving mastery of the underlying mechanics. The Civ series fits squarely into this category, and I would be astounded if Civ V did not. (I haven’t heard the same said of Civ Rev, however, especially its portable variants; and I highly doubt the Facebook Civ is going down this route, whatever form it takes.)

    2) The more common interpretation by people who use the word “hardcore” in diametric opposition to “casual”. In this sense, a hardcore game relies on a lot of existing familiarity and intuition with the principles of the mechanics and/or genre. For example: going into any D&D-derived RPG with an understanding that Constitution usually has something to do with your character’s health and Intellect usually has something to do with spellcasting. Or going into an RTS with an intuitive idea of expanding, rock-paper-scissors unit counters, and focus-fire. A lot of this may be hidden under the hood in a “casual” game. But it might also be all over the place in niche titles for genre connoisseurs.

    (Unfortunately, this interpretation is usually co-opted to apologize for poor/outdated interface design or exploitable bugs; interface improvements and QA are derided for reducing difficulty, eliminating micromanagerial tricks, or dumbing it down for the masses.)

    Civ isn’t a series you can pigeonhole here so much because it’s practically a genre in itself. The learning curve is no Advance Wars, that’s for sure, but ever since Alpha Centauri entry-level players have been able to get by just fine with governors and worker automation, and play a full game on an easy difficulty without ever having to understand terrain improvements or citizen specializations. But you still have the option of leaving everything on manual control, tweaking your economy every turn, and going for space-race victories in the One City Challenge. That’s got to be hardcore in its own way.

  • MikeX

    IMHO, hardcore refers to the non-casual gamers who enjoy playing complex games of the genre. Hardcore rpg players will like deep stories with unexpected twists and many quests with multiple ways to solve them. Hardcore strategists love to manage things (armies, cities empires) and to be challenged continuously. If the games sells very well, means there are many players who like that type of game, even hardcore players :)

    Civ is a game for hardcore strategists. It’s deep, complex and the sheer number of options scares the casual gamer who just wants to have some simple fun. Even if it’s really simple to learn and you can play it on easy, it takes someone who want to rewrite history to understand civ.

    IMHO a player who likes shallow strategies isn’t a hardcore player and he won’t like civ. Yes, he can play on easy but that’s not “real” civ and after some time he’ll be bored and he’ll try playing on Noble and he will fail…

  • Jimmy Brown

    “From where I sit, hardcore is an adjective best applied to players – not games.”

    I agree completely, Troy. I would further suggest from my experience that “hardcore” is a matter of attitude. Many people can be very interested, highly practiced, and skilled; they can spend a lot of time focused on a certain game or certain type of game. But they lack the hardcore attitude.

    I think of it as similar to the MST3K definition of an extreme sport as being anything you do while screaming very loudly.

  • Justin Fletcher

    What does it mean to be “hardcore”? Nothing. It has so many meanings that it’s meaningless.

    From where I sit, hardcore is an adjective best applied to porn – not anything else.

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  • Skyrider

    It’s a problematic word in our language that’s been stretched and overused so much that it’s not a particularly useful word anymore. If anything, it’s more of a hype word now than anything else.

  • Skyrider

    Oh, and I still have that nagging sense that something about this next iteration of Civilization seems not quite right.