A version of this article first appeared in the August 2010 issue of Game Developer magazine.


 

Talk about capturing casual gamers has been a constant in the games industry ever since the days that Myst and Tetris showed eyepopping sales to customers who, suspiciously, did not live in their mother’s basements and were known to shower from time to time.  For the most part, the games industry kept making hardcore games for hardcore gamer audiences, but in recent years, speculation about the idea that games have gone casual has reached a deafening pitch.

And why not?  The Sims, most assuredly considered a game for non-gamer significant others, dominates monthly PC top-ten lists and is possibly the best-selling franchise of all time.  Casual games like Zynga’s Mafia Wars has tens of millions of active players.  And while all the hardcore nerds were taking sides in the great 360/PS3 flame wars on the web, no one predicted that the Wii would end up very nearly selling more consoles than both of them combined.  Indeed, one could argue that we’re now firmly entrenched in the days of the casual gamer.

In an environment like this, it is not terribly uncommon to see hardcore gamers (and indeed, devoted game developers) trending towards something akin to despair.  There seems to be a very real fear that gamers for gamers are dinosaurs, hurtling towards extinction in a world where all games are Nancy Drew games and web apps.

I don’t see it that way.  I see casual games as creating the next generation of hardcore gamers.

Definitions

It has become common practice to conflate casual gamers with women and casual games as the kind of games that women play – often derisively.  The truth is much more complex than that.  Casual is not a market, nor is it a genre, as much as it is a level of investment.  A casual hobbyist does not commit hardcore to her hobby, but a hardcore one does.

Consider knitting.  To many, knitting is probably mentally one of those things that grandma does.  In game terminology, any such activity is surely a casual hobby.  Walk down the yarn aisle of Hobby Lobby or wander a knitting website like Ravelry.com and you’ll be quickly disabused of this notion.  Knitting is a skill that is easy to learn but hard to master.  Knitters swap rare patterns, go to conferences and crafting festivals, and spend vast sums of cash on hoards of yarn they can never possibly use in one lifetime, and form communities of likeminded, hardcore knitters where they talk in indecipherable slang and occasionally slag on the newbies trying to put together their first pair of socks.

Clearly, one can see certain parallels.

The point is that knitting is not a casual activity – but neither is it a hardcore one.  Instead, the hobby is one that easily scales itself to the investment level of someone who is interested in it, from the knitter who may pick up the needles once a year to stay in practice to the hardcore yarnslinger obsessed with knitting her own burial shroud.  Knitting is a popular hobby precisely because of that scalability.  This scalability of experience is one that is mirrored in the most popular games in our industry.

The Sims

The Sims story I heard was always the same:  someone I knew who considered themselves a ‘hardcore gamer’ bought it because it was Will Wright’s masterpiece, and played it a couple of days before they realized they were spending their time cleaning virtual toilets.  However, their wife, daughter or significant other had been watching over their shoulder from time to time, and before the friend could turn off the computer in disgust, this person, who normally treated video games with a mixture of disdain and disgust, asked simply, “Can I play?”

These stories were told often with a level of sadness and betrayal: the great Will Wright had sold them a casual game.  But the truth is more complex than that.  Many of these ‘non-gamers’ went on to play the game obsessively, spending endless hours in the game nurturing or torturing their Sims, shelling out hard-earned cash for the two sequels and dozens of expansion packs released, publishing their stories on the web, and creating their own (often spectacular) art to import into the game.  It turns out, the Sims has enough intricacy and depth for some of these players to be seriously hardcore Sims players.

And my friends, the husbands and boyfriends?  It turns out that for this game, they were the casual gamers.

The funny thing, of course, is that the game industry is driven by ‘classically hardcore’ gamers, and as a rule, we tend to have a problem making games that we can’t get passionate about ourselves.  This can lead to myopia that’s kind of staggering, and challenges the notion that the industry is too driven by casual-oriented business-think: 10 years later, the Sims has sold 125 million boxes or expansions for more than 2.5 billion in revenue, and yet no one has shipped a serious, well-funded competitor.  Meanwhile, a quick tour of the E3 floor shows that all of the ‘real’ companies are fighting for ever smaller slices of the space marine market, the racing game market, and the world war II shooter market.

Thanks to The Sims, millions of new customers are walking down the PC games aisle at Best Buy.  Now then, what are you going to do about it?

The Spectrum

Compared to the MMOs that came before it, World of Warcraft is a pretty player-friendly MMO.  Death penalties were light, travel times were quick, players could solo for a large part of their experience, and the degree to which a 14-year-old mouthbreather with too much time on his hands could ruin your whole day were severely curtailed.  Some players who looked back fondly at the wild west-like brutal frontiers of Everquest and Ultima Online were quick to deride World of Warcraft as a casual experience for ‘care bear’ players.

It’s not, though.  Being a top-end raider in WoW takes an enormous amount of skill, teamwork, and devotion of time and energy.  Being a PvPer at the top of the Arena rankings is even more brutal and competitive.  The difference between WoW and most of its predecessors was not that it was easier, as much as the game provided content and challenges no matter the player’s investment level : casual players could solo, whereas slightly more invested players can run dungeons and other light group content.  Hardcore players run raids and PvP arenas, and the top-end players chase ludicrously difficult achievements in those environments.  Furthermore, Blizzard continually works to refine this escalation and coax people up the ladder.

Back in 1971, Nolan Bushnell of Atari said “All the best games are easy to learn, and difficult to master,” a design philosophy now treated as instinctual by nearly every designer in the industry.  What this philosophy is describing is a philosophy of smoothly escalating levels of investment.  Casual to hardcore is not a binary option – it’s a sliding scale.  We as designers want to find ways to smooth out that climb so that players increase their commitment level to our game.  Good games convert casual players into hardcore ones, because these games are worth the investment.

Reexamining Casual vs. Hardcore

This idea that casual and hardcore are levels of investment leads to some interesting design thoughts.  For example, being too casual and being too hardcore could both be considered broken game designs. A casual game is one that lacks the depth for players to get truly invested into it, which means that people quickly wash out of it (something that is definitely not true for the Sims or Mafia Wars).  On the flip side, a hardcore game is one where the price of investment is more than the player is willing to pay.  Typically, the problem here is a poorly managed investment curve – when a player throws down his control in disgust and say “that’s impossible”, it typically means that the difficulty curve has risen too high before the player can bother to care about it.

The truth of the matter is that, while players tend to think of themselves as all-around hardcore gamers, in actuality they tend to be invested in only a few genres or titles.  A hardcore racing gamer may only play shooters casually, and be moderately into RTSes.  Furthermore, even inside the genre, a game must prove itself to earn a player’s devotion.  Put another way, whether you’re making the Sims or Dead Space, Farmville or Demon Souls, your gamers are starting as relatively uninvested, casual gamers.  Converting those gamers into devotees means coaxing them inward until they can find the fiendish strategic depths of your games.

This isn’t just about making things easier.  A game that is too easy, in fact, risks boring people before they can find your secret sauce.  The secret really seems to be about allowing players to quickly find a place in your game where they can learn, where they can demonstrate mastery, and where their level of skill and investment are rewarded.  Can your players find the spot for them in your game’s casual-hardcore equilibrium?  And can you make them want to go to the next rung up?