Core Corner: War Commander, Total Domination and more: Too much?

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Core gaming is supposed to be about games with more of a challenge than your average Facebook game. Core games are for players who want a little more bite in their habit, but not to the point that marathon gaming sessions require. If core gaming were a breakfast food, it would be just right. Core is attractive because it allows for many different types of play, but keeps the challenge level relatively high. A player can enjoy core games on a casual schedule or sink entire evenings into epic gaming sessions. Core tends to offers more choices than other styles.

One issue with core gaming is that some design formulas have begun to take over the market. Sure, we have super hero games that pit teams of famous characters against each other in turn-based combat and we can also choose from fantastic romps through dark and dreary dungeons, but the style of game we find dominating the core category is the RTS or city-builder. Real-time strategy or city-building games ask players to grab a virtual plot of land, build up a series of important buildings and objects and usually grow an army to conquer neighbors or NPCs. There are variations on the theme, of course, from fantasy settings that pit elves against catapults to futuristic army-builders that put players in charge of massive spaceships.
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The idea generally remains the same, though. Check in, put in orders that will take time to complete, and jump into a battle or two. This might be somewhat of an oversimplification, because the truth is that the RTS or city-builder is usually some of the most varied gameplay you'll find. Yet patterns are starting to emerge. Are we in danger of being overrun by carbon copies? Has the core market already been overrun? Next time you're on Facebook, see how many ads or invitations you see for RTS games. Look at the charts in the App Center and you'll see that, aside from standard casual games, you'll be left with quite a few core RTS city-builders. As of the time of this writing, some occupy the top slots: War Commander, Total Domination and Battle Pirates. They are well made and interesting titles, but it's easy to see the similarities even in their tutorials.

Every genre has its patterns, of course, just like every type of music has its earmarks that signify it as part of that genre. But core gaming cannot be defined by one play style. Core gaming is more a level of challenge and time commitment than a series of mechanics. There are core titles that offer side-scrolling action, puzzle-based questing or, of course, city-building and conquering. My fear is that city-builders might be so well suited for core gaming that its continued growth and success is inevitable, possibly leading to a genre bloated with rip-offs.

What makes a city-builder so perfect for core gaming? First, if we look at a game like War Commander, I can go away from the game and find completed projects just waiting to be enjoyed. Build times for many buildings can be short enough to perform several times in one evening, but not so long that I actually forget to check the game and lose interest. The city-builder must entice players to check in every once in a while or it just gets pushed down on a list of games.

A game like Total Domination has great music, voiceovers and other earmarks of a quality game, but also allows players to play at a relatively smooth pace. Quests are a great way to accomplish this, simple tasks that teach the basics of play or much more challenging series of events chained together. Either way, they appeal to the player's love of shiny new things, giving out goodies and needed resources as the challenges are completed. Battle Pirates provides a third, important mechanic that keeps the RTS firmly within the high ranks of core gaming: research. The idea is to grow a player's city, similar to how a World of Warcraft player might level his or her character, but instead of grinding through monsters, the city-builder sets research and waits for it to complete in real time. Times can be brief or can take days, depending on the level. Getting the timing right is often the difference between core gaming and casual gaming. Casual gaming allows the same variety of play that a core game does, but core games tend to dive deeper and take longer to grow in. Casual gamers often graduate to core games, but when they do graduate, will they find mostly RTS and city-builders? If they do, is this a good thing? It's possible that it is the standard way that games develop. In crowded genres, change is slow in coming. That is, until a few special titles come along and set everything on its edge. The rest of the genre takes note and the cycle begins again. So, while core games do feel too populated by RTS games, imagine it in only a year or two. Not only will social gaming change but core games will become more stylized, varied and perfectly suited to those of us who need a challenge, but on a specific schedule.

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Beau covers MMORPGs for Massively, enjoys blogging on his personal site and loves social and casual gaming. He has been exploring games since '99 and has no plans to stop. For Games.com News, he explores the world of hardcore Facebook and social games. You can join him on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.
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