Friday, March 18, 2005

Understanding Gamers: Console Gamers

There are essentially two kinds of gamers. There are those who play games once in a while perhaps as leisure or a break from their daily routine, and those that eat, breathe, and sleep with gaming. What I’m going to talk about is the latter. They’re the subculture in society that non-gamers don’t understand. This series of articles will try to explain gaming from a gamer’s perspective.

Ironically, while the gaming console is perhaps the most mainstream of games, some people might not know what a console system is. I mean everyone knows what a PC is, but when you mention a game console, you might get a “huh?” Perhaps you might be more familiar with gaming consoles if I mention the specific brands, such as the Xbox and the Playstation 2. Essentially, gaming consoles are computers you play at home that are dedicated to gaming. They’re already pre-assembled as it is and no major tweaking is involved.

I mentioned that gaming consoles are the most mainstream of gaming systems. Why? Well, the masses are the main target of gaming consoles. You don’t need to be tech-savvy to play a Playstation 2 or an Xbox. Before Microsoft coined the term “plug and play”, that’s essentially what a gaming console did: you plugged the unit into your television, insert the cartridge or CD, and viola! No need to check for system requirements, install the program, or bother about hardware and software compatibility. A game for the Xbox will work on the Xbox, no questions asked. The same goes for the controller: I don’t need to configure my hotkeys, figure out if this button will work or not, etc. And in the case of peripheral accessories (such as mice, joysticks, guns, or dance pads), I just need to plug it in. I don’t really need to figure out which plug goes into which socket. A gaming console is built to work with itself with the least of hassles.

Of course while it’s easy to get into console gaming, talking about the topic isn’t as easy. Because honestly, console games have been around for the longest time and it’s surrounded by lots of genres, from sports to action/adventure to strategy. Each one has its own style of gamers and subculture. However, there are some notable trends when it comes to console gaming.

The first trend is that console games are played with two or less players. Sure, some games allow several players to participate (thanks to some peripherals like a modem or a multitap) but most console games involve the participation of one or two players. Right now, while there is movement towards online gaming, gaming consoles haven’t really reached that point yet. For two-player games, the interactivity between human beings is either you’re allied with the other player (as can be witnessed in some action/adventure games), or you’re playing against the other player (like some sports games). However, for the most part, I think that console games tend to revolve around solo play. I mean whereas a PC gamer would spend hours in his room by himself yet talking to several people around the world, a console gamer will probably spend hours alone in his room, playing against one opponent: the computer. And perhaps this is the biggest asset of gaming consoles. Gaming consoles were designed to be played at home and when you’re at home, and that usually means you don’t have a lot of company. There’s just you and the computer. Strategy games and RPG games fall under this category, where players pit themselves not against a live opponent but against the computer. When you’re bored and have no one to play with, a console game is perhaps a good alternative.

Another trend is that a gaming console isn’t peripheral-heavy. I mean sure, there are rifles, dance pads, and steering wheels, but for the most part, they aren’t part of the basic set-up of a gaming console. Those peripherals only come into play when a gaming console is trying to simulate the arcade experience (which itself is diverse since an arcade machine is designed to excel in one thing, while a gaming console has to support a lot of needs) and is keyed to specific games (i.e. a dance pad is only useful for games like Dance Dance Revolution, while a rifle is only supported by certain shoot-em-up games). The beauty of the basic controller is that one becomes familiar with it yet playable across multiple games. Of course since you don’t need to be upgrading your gaming console with new parts every six months, the good thing about console games is that the playing field is more or less equal. That’s perhaps why players spend lots of time playing video games, because the only thing that you can really nurture in console games are your skill.

The third trend is the ability to save games. I mean two decades ago, the only games that had a save feature were strategy games and RPGs. Now, nearly every game has a save feature, whether it’s a sports game, an action/adventure one, or first-person perspective games. You might be asking why this sudden development. Well, first, the earlier games were really quick and short. If you were good at it, a game could be finished in less than a day. Those games that took longer than that had a primitive save feature called passwords (and 80s gamers know how much of a hassle it was to jot down passwords and remember them). The second development is that games now are geared towards customization. I mean in sports games, your personal stats can now be recorded and ported over to someone else’s gaming console. The same can be said for your customized car for racing games, or your customized character for action/adventure games. The third important development is that of replayability. Unlike PC games where the same game can be played over and over again, thanks to competition from other human beings, the same can’t be said for console games. For the most part, it’s you against the computer. In time, that gets too repetitive. That’s why game designers nowadays try to insert additional features into their games, whether it’s finding secret items, multiple-endings, or recruiting special characters. Even RPGs, which are lengthy games in themselves, now have mini-games in them just to retain the attention of the console gamer. And to take advantage of that, you need some sort of way to track your progress. The save game feature rewards players who invest their time and effort playing those games.

The fourth trend is that console games are built with the latest hardware and possess state-of-the-art graphics. As much as gameplay is important, console gamers look for the whole package, such as good graphics, good sounds, good controls, and having a really fun game. I mean haven’t you noticed that most console games are now in 3D? As much as an important factor gameplay is, some video game companies are hesitant to promote certain games by that factor alone. It needs the other aspects as well, especially considering gaming consoles are nearly as powerful as your PC.

Having said all that, what does that leave us with? Well, console gamers spend lots of time playing video games, because it provides quick and easy entertainment (i.e. you can play alone with it), you improve your skills by playing often, and one gets to keep track of their progress thanks to the ability to save games. But as impressive as console games are, it has less replayability than other games. I mean whereas you could keep on playing the same PC game for the next six months (at least those with multiplayer capabilities), the same can’t be said for console games. A console game is only good until you unlock all its secrets (whether that takes you a week or a year, depending on how frequent you play it). Once you reach that point, unless you’re playing against another human opponent, it’s time to buy a new game and move on (although it’s refreshing to come back to an old game once in a while).

Console gamers favor variety. Instead of just playing the same game on and on for several months, a console gamer is more likely to breeze through a plethora of games. And console systems find it more convenient to adapt various genres of games, offering a more diverse selection.

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