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What Games Are: The Ludophile Mindset

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Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly is a veteran game designer, creator of leading game design blog What Games Are and creative director of Jawfish Games. You can follow him on Twitter here.

There are regular people who like music on their phones and maybe listen to the radio or Spotify. For them, music is just a back track of daily life. Then there are interested people, who like good headphones, pay for a Spotify subscription or attend the occasional concert. Beyond these two groups lie the passionate 5%, the audiophiles. They follow bands, hunt down vinyl records, read blogs or magazines about music and spend serious coin on their habit.

In the games market the picture is surprisingly similar. You have the mildly interested who play free games on their phones and social networks and the moderately interested who buy one gaming machine and a couple of games over a few years. Then you have the self-described gamers, the ludophiles (ludo- as a general term means play). They follow franchises, hunt down retro cartridges, read blogs or magazines about games and spend serious coin on their habit.

What sets them apart is just as interesting. Music fans have no issue with the status of their medium. Music is art, music is cool, music is culture. Gaming fans, on the other hand, have lots of inferiority issues. A key dynamic that recycles is the idea of the game that proves that games are as good as movies. Last year that was The Walking Dead, so far this year it’s The Last of Us.

Another difference is the relationship with technology itself. Audiophiles are very much into both the sound and experience with their music. Formats like vinyl endure because audiophiles believe they sound better (whether they actually do is a question for the ages, but the point is that they believe it). Album art, memorabilia and visibility of collection are also important. History matters. So does the ability to pull out a greatest hit from 40 years and play it. Interoperability is key.

Gaming fans, on the other hand, tend to spend their money on the latest technology and forget interoperability. Backwards compatibility is generally not a strong motivator, with the most-dedicated preferring instead to own dozens of gaming machines and play the games of a certain year on the machines for which they were intended. A bit like if Universal Music Group didn’t just develop talent and publish music, but also made devices that could only play UMG music. Ludophiles are relatively comfortable doing this.

The really interesting thing about the ludophile mindset is the ways in which it doesn’t want games to change. Ludophiles do not like mobile games. They feel pretty ambivalent about tablet games. They regard that kind of future somewhat askance and prefer to cheer for stasis than progress. This is because they buy into the story of the medium itself. Games as a hobby are as much about participating in the story of the medium itself as having fun and playing games. To the true believer games are on an evolutionary path toward somewhere, a final destination of infinite perfection, and this is to be promoted and defended at all costs.

One of my favorite teaser trailers is the one for Halo 3 from 2006. It shows the Master Chief emerging onto a desert scene. He looks to his left and the shot pans out to reveal huge starships moving over to a basin. There is an ominous rumble, cracks appear in the landscape and megalithic doors rise up to reveal a bright light. The light reaches upwards in an awe-inspiring sight before the scene blanks out and we hear the line “This is the way the world ends.”

If you wanted to find a metaphor for how the ludophile views the threat against games, it’s a bit like this. It’s high dudgeon and drama and shouts of glee when changes are averted. The ludophile wants the amazing, the epic and the awesome. The Citizen Kane of gaming. But he also wants a console to be a console, a device with a type of controller that feels like it’s heading toward perfection. He’s not enamored of divergences from the path.

While the world loved the Nintendo Wii, plenty of console gamers always got hung up on its lack of HD. The news that OUYA sold out, that Towerfall is actually rather good, that Google may be working on a microconsole and that GamePop has released a free machine tend to fall on deaf ears. Where many observers like myself think that this interoperable Android-driven approach will yield big returns for the game console in the long run, today’s console gamer is a bit nonplussed. He gets hung up on the fact that Android is for phones, and phone games are “weak” for some reason. The microconsole doesn’t fit the ideal of aiming for perfection. Like the netbook or the tablet, it seems like a big step backward.

And that would all be fine if it seemed that the console sector was a viable market. But I don’t believe it is in the long term. I think it’s merely in a new-hardware exuberant phase, but its overall prognosis is starting to look awfully like the market for record players. There will always be loyalists, but the question becomes whether there are enough of them to really shift the needle.

Ludophiles are a fixed audience with fixed ideas of what the future should be. The perfection they aspire toward feels just out of reach, but it always seems to get closer. The Last of Us, for example, really is breathtaking. But that kind of game is also enormously expensive to develop, and is now at the point where it needs to sell 4 or 5 million copies to prove its viability. The technology required to power these advances is also incredibly expensive, so much so that neither Microsoft or Sony make any money from being in the games business. Nintendo does (well, bar lately) but Nintendo makes all its own content too, so there’s greater scope for margin there.

With the next generation bringing yet more increases on the development spending side (historically, this is what tends to happen), the risks inevitably go up. So do closures, high profile failures and a reduction in diversity. There are not enough ludophiles out there to satisfy that kind of price tag indefinitely, and so decline is inevitable. However decline will not happen dramatically, all at once.

“This is the way the world ends” is taken from TS Eliot’s The Hollow Men. The line that follows it is “Not with a bang, but with a whimper.” Not with the big supernova-esque explosion of ultimate victory and defeat, but with a slow decay. The death by a thousand cuts from phones, tablets, microconsoles, PCs, social networks and wearables. And what’s fuelling that is an end to the power advantage and a large leap forward in convenience.

The other 95%, the regular and the interested, always tend to gravitate toward good-enough rather than perfection, convenience over fidelity. They bought into DVD because it seemed much better than video, but not Blu-ray. They plumbed for digital streaming instead. They bought into HDTV, but not 3DTV, and likely have very little interest in 4KTV. They bought into iPads because they’re much simpler to use than PCs, and don’t care about some of the lost potential that they’ve given up. They prefer to subscribe to Spotify because who has the room to devote acres of wall space to albums. Or books.

And the same is true for games. Tablet gaming may not adhere to the lofty goals of the quest for perfection, but it’s cheap and super convenient. Microconsoles may be powered by relatively underpowered processors but this is only really their first year. 2-3 years down the road they’ll pack enough punch and get their messaging right that they’ll start to sound irresistible to everyone bar ludophiles. What happens when the world realizes that it can play good quality games, complete with game controllers, on its tablets? What happens when we can play games, either casual, deep or anything in between, from our phones and simply stream them to our TVs?

Not with a bang…