A number of different tidbits on the web this past week have had me thinking about the whole ‘casual vs hardcore’ debate. For one thing, I disagree that casual gaming is the death knell of hardcore gaming, for a number of reasons:

1. It is true that casual games portals on the internet have helped gaming gather a head of steam as a more acceptable form of pastime. At the same time, there is nothing to say that game portals and online distribution systems have to offer casual games exclusively. Steam, XBLA, PSN, WiiWare, and DSiWare are all similar, if not identical concepts, at the service of casuals and non-casuals alike, and the ball is unlikely to stop there. Zeebo and OnLive are similar concepts, and both seem like solid business propositions aimed at catering to the needs and realities of gaming in different markets. Who knows, perhaps in the next few years we will not only see a move away from retail stores as the main sales outlet for game software, replaced entirely by digital downloads – with some concessions for special circumstances, like collector’s edition boxes. This could in turn lead to other, even more revolutionary changes to business models in the games industry – episodic content might make a comeback, for example.

2. Game development being what it is, I would imagine there are a lot of devs out there who make games not just to make a living, but also to create new and unique experiences, to push the envelope. I would imagine the folks at Rockstar might have something to say if their CEO decides to announce that they are dropping GTA and moving into the casual game space, because ‘hardcore is so pre-y2k’.

3. There is more to gaming than ‘casual’ and ‘hardcore’, and I can’t stress this enough. Before diving into this, I want to make a quick aside. James Portnow has an interesting opinion piece featured on Gamasutra on the subject of casual and hardcore. The main thing I take away from it is that yes, we do indeed need a standard definition of what casual and hardcore mean, which is where the title for this post originates. In my mind, the concept of casual and hardcore is defined by investment. Investment of money, of time spent not only playing, but thinking about, researching, reading, and even talking to friends or coworkers (if you’re that lucky) about games. It’s the way of thinking about the subject that makes most sense to me. A couple of examples:

A stay at home mom, who after doing all the things she needs to get done looks at her watch and realises she has 15 minutes to kill before her favourite daytime TV show comes on. She heads into the office and sits down and plays some game, any game, for a few minutes before getting back up and going over to the couch to watch her show*.

A teenage boy who gets home and runs up to his bedroom, excitedly pulling out a couple of games he has borrowed from his classmates and the bag from the games store with the other two games he traded his old ones for. Knowing that he doesn’t have much time to start playing before dinner, he restores the web browser on his computer and begins to check out his new games online, rereading the reviews he had found last night and which he relied on when he was choosing his new games at the store earlier that afternoon.

A young woman in her mid-twenties at work. She looks up from her desk to see that it’s lunchtime. Rather than get her jacket to go get something to eat, she goes to the fridge in the kitchen and brings back the lunchbox she prepared this morning. Sitting down at her computer, she runs the MMO she’s playing at home and, while eating her lunch, goes through her Tuesday lunch pre-raiding routine of buying potions, stat food, reagents, checking the guild calendar to make sure the times for tonight’s raid haven’t been changed. Once she’s satisfied with her preparations she shuts down the game, then opens up her web browser and checks the guild website for last-minute posts on the raid, then goes to the database site where she has her gear wishlist for her character recorded, and her favourite class-related blog.

Each of these people fall under a different category. The stay at home mom is obviously a casual gamer. She’s not all that invested in the game she plays. It’s a way to kill time, worse than watching her TV show, but better than watching the trail end of the previous show and the accompanying commercials. In the current day and age, if she has a DVR, chances are she would play the game a little longer, just so she would have ‘fast-forward time’ with which to skip the commercials once she does sit down to watch her show. Casual games are the games that require very little investment from the player – they are easy to get into, easy to play, and easy to get out of. Thus, the people we tend to define as ‘casual players’ will gravitate towards this type of game. It fits their playing style, and their investment wants and needs.

The young working woman, on the other hand, is the typical hardcore gamer: completely invested in the game. When they’re not playing the game, they are preparing to play the game, thinking about how to play the game better, theorising about the game, reading up about the latest metagame trends, maximising their playing time by being prepared, with a set of goals and a means to achieve those goals. I’ve used the example of the MMO because it is one of the major genres that hardcore gamers gravitate to, but it’s definitely not the only one. Hardcore gamers also gravitate towards highly competitive games, especially ones with visible rankings – First Person Shooters, Real Time Strategy games, Fighting games – all games with a high emphasis on competitive gameplay. Hardcore gamers also play single player games, but the competitive elements of the three types mentioned above become their own meta-game. There is a reason why players enjoy PvP – playing against and beating a real person is always more fun than beating the AI.

The middle example, though, the teenager, is different from the other two. They are more invested than the mom, as witnessed by the fact that they have put in more effort into finding games they might like, but they aren’t quite as invested as the young woman, demonstrated by the fact that his attention is divided between several different, and perhaps more ‘transient’ games. This is the Core Gamer, the gamer we don’t hear as much about, because they aren’t as vocal as the hardcore, and they aren’t they new kids on the block that everyone wants to impress, like the casuals. Core gamers are invested in the game, but they are always looking for the next great experience, the next great game. They don’t seek mastery über alles – only to master the game to experience everything it has to offern, and then to move on to the next one.

By classifying ‘casual’, ‘core’ and ‘hardcore’ in terms of investment in the game, we can define a number of nuances in the scale: Someone who loves their MMO, and browses related websites at work and talks to friends and co-workers about the game, but only logs in a couple of hours a night due to work or familial responsibilities is a not a casual gamer, because they invest a fair amount of their focus and even their some of their social relationships on the game: they are ‘hardcore’, based on the amount of out-of-game time they dedicate to the game and the number of these activities. Similarly, someone who spends hours and hours playing a casual game is a ‘core’ gamer because of the amount of time invested.

That is how I would go about defining casual, core, and hardcore gamers. A distinction must be made also in terms of the games played. There are most definitely casual, core, and hardcore games, and again, I would define them in terms of investment: casual games are those that can be enjoyed with a minimum investment of time, focus, and effort. The more of these the game requires, the more it moves along the scale towards hardcore.

I’m going to try to apply this to the list of games that appears in Portnow’s piece:

Let’s examine some of the games that fall under that definition [casual]: Bejeweled, Tetris, Peggle, Solitaire, Trism, Cooking Mama But that’s the list we expected. Now let’s dig a little deeper.

The following games also fit this definition of Casual: Galaga, Missile Command, iDracula, Tower Defense, Robotron, Everyday Shooter, Geometry Wars.

In terms of investment, the games in the first list fit the bill: they are all games that have a low barrier to entry, and can be enjoyed in short stints, with relatively little effort being required of the player in terms of focus or emotion.*** In the case of the second list, there seems to be a larger investment involved in playing these games successfully, in terms of time (time spent playing the game and getting better at it), and focus (actually paying attention to enemy attack patterns, learning the sequences in which enemies appear, and generally discerning what the dominant strategy is).

The scale can be applied to a game like WoW: Back in the day, players of Everquest were of the mind that WoW wasn’t as hardcore as EQ was: reaching the level cap was a matter of weeks instead of months, and even killing level-equivalent monsters required less of a time investment than in Everquest (players in WoW can kill equivalent level monsters that give experience, whereas back in the day, a same level monster in Everquest was more than a match for any class that couldn’t kite or self-heal reliably). And yet today, WoW is being accused of being too casual friendly by it’s hardcore players. It takes much less of a time investment in the current expansion to be outfitted well enough to raid than it did in the previous expansion. Most instances (instanced linear dungeon ‘missions’, so to speak) are designed to take no more than an hour to complete – where some 5-man instances in the original release of WoW were sprawling, massive things which could easily run into the 2 and 3 hour mark).

After that not-so-brief aside: The third reason why I don’t see casual gaming as the death of anything, is because neither casuals nor hardcores are the ones who make the money flow. The casuals aren’t going to invest $200 to $500 in a gaming console, plus however much else on games. In the same way, the hardcore are going to invest the money on the console, but they are going to be playing the same game for a long time, because investment necessarily includes time playing the game. This means that unless you’re one of the talented/lucky people who can charge a subscription to keep playing your game, you’re not going to see any more money coming in from these people once they’ve bought the box.** Meanwhile, the core gamers are the ones buying and playing all the different games that come out, even if they have to buy them secondhand, or a month or two after release when the prices have gone down some.

4. Related to 3., how much money are people expecting the casuals to spend on games? Every time I receive my friendly neighbourhood casual game portal newsletter, I quickly skim over the new offerings. I’m certainly not a casual gamer, but at the same time, I’ve been known to enjoy a few casual games as a core gamer – Peggle, for example, is fantastic, but I’ve played a couple of hidden object games, and I’ve come to the conclusion that once you’ve played a few, you’ve played them all. Yes, the stories and settings change a bit, but it’s the same mechanic, one that I don’t find particularly grokkable. So again, I ask, do casual gamers really buy that many games? How many variations of match-3 do they buy? Hidden object? Time management?  And, even if these games do keep selling, there’s the whole supply and demand thing going on. If all the developers of non-casual games decided they were going to jump on the casual game bandwagon, how long would it be until the whole thing collapsed into grey goo? More importantly, though, the people who play core and hardcore games would not transition to casual games just because. Chances are, someone would figure out that supply and demand for non-casual games were out of whack, they’d make a non-casual game, the non-casuals would buy it out of desperation for fresh product, and all the developers who had jumped ship would be scrabbling back to make non-casual game****

5. Related to 4., there is a chance that it will be the casual gamers that may decide or be convinced that they are ready to move on to the next step in their relationship with videogames. I’d like to quote Raph Koster’s Theory of Fun and say that at some point casual gamers will ‘master’ their chosen game genres and maybe hopefully decide to expand their horizons and become core gamers, but I’m not sure that part of the book applies here due to the mechanics of casual games, and even if casuals do master their games, chances are they would choose to expand into other categories of casual games*****

6. Finally (I realise this has already reached critical mass and will implode on itself shortly), while I have been dealing with PC casual games for the most part, I very much doubt console casual games are going to have much of a future if some developers continue churning out shovelware and marketing it as ‘casual’, ‘party’, ‘social’ and whatever Brain Age and Wii Fit are supposed to be. All I know is that, if I was dipping my toes into a new form of entertainment, say music, and people kept throwing crap at me that they hope I will buy bec ause I don’t know better, unless I have someone I can trust suggesting that I buy something, I am not going to touch anything else you market at me with a ten foot pole. Seriously, the way to welcome a newbie into the fold isn’t by PKing them and taking all their stuff, and then hope they’ll log in again tomorrow. Killing the cow to eat steak today deprives our children of milk tomorrow. I’d make other analogies to drive the point home, but it’s getting late and my focus is drifting. I’ll call it a night by posing a question: What can we as game developers do, what games can we make, in order to move people from the ‘casual’ end of the scale towards the ‘core’ central part of it?

Oh, and just for the record: Guitar Hero and Punch Out! are most definitely NOT casual games. Sure, Guitar Hero can be played casually and in a social environment, but it can also be played hardcore, and that’s how most of the people I’ve seen playing it play it. And Punch Out! is a classic game, if there’s a target audience for it, it’s the core 8-bit nostalgic gamer of the 80’s.

* Yes, I know this is a stereotype, perhaps even a phallacy in this day and age, but bear with me. To all the stay-at-home mothers reading this, their significant others, their grateful and ungrateful children: I have nothing but the utmost respect for the hundreds of thousands of hours of work and the massive investment of time, worries, sweat, blood and tears you make and have made to guarantee the happiness of your families).
** Of course, nowadays that is about ripe for change, since with all of the downloadable content services, you can cash in on your hardcore players by selling them maps, skins, and anything else you can think of that your hardcore playerbase are going to want enough to fork over the cash for.
*** At this point I have to pause and question my own assumptions: do hardcore players have more of an emotional investment in their games than casual players, or is the emotional investment caused by the amount of time and focus invested by the player. To put it another way, since playing a casual game successfully requires so little investment, does this cause a lack of emotional investment in these games? Does a hardcore player get frustrated and angry at losing at their game because of the amount of time and effort they have put in to not lose?
**** Or, harkening back to point #2, developers who cannot and will not make casual games will leave the companies and start their own gig making non-casual games, and chances are they would make more money than their previous employers.
***** While I think it would be great for the videogame industry if casuals could be ‘converted’ to ‘core’, I don’t condone the brainwashing or assimilation of other intelligent creatures against their will. If they want to, however, by all means, reel them in any way you can!