Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Are Casual and Hardcore Good Distinctions?

For the last couple of years, the biggest buzzwords in the videogame industry have been "casual" and "hardcore", which have been used to both describe general kinds of gamer, and the games that those gamers play. Supposedly, hardcore gamers are the people who spend most of their leisure time and disposable income on videogames, while casual gamers are those gamers who only play games occasionally. However, are these terms really accurate or useful? Despite how commonplace these terms are today, I can't help but feel that they serve more to obscure than to illuminate.

A big problem I have with these terms is that "casual" is really just another way of saying "not hardcore". Hardcore gamers are quite visible and well known in the videogame industry. Hardcore gamers supposedly make up the majority of console videogame players who have been playing for the last several generations, and their main genres include the major standbys of the last decade or so: FPSs, RPGs, and other games with complex plots and mechanics. The word casual sprung up in the last couple of years to describe the large influx of new gamers from the last several years who seem to ignore the big name games that the hardcore audience enjoys and prefer simpler games. The implication is that casual gamers and hardcore gamers are two completely separate markets.

However, I can't help but feel that there is a lot that is very misleading about the use of the casual like this. For example, the RPG genre is usually considered to be a hardcore genre. Yet, I have heard a lot of different stories about how a lot of people who generally don't play a lot of videogames are big fans of the Dragon Quest series of RPGs. Furthermore, I recently noticed on the Wii's Nintendo channel that Street Fighter II: The World Warrior is considered to be a hardcore game. Yet, back in the 90s, Street Fighter II introduced a lot of people who never played fighting games before into the genre. We also see examples like the Super Mario Bros games, which are typically rated as being Casual games despite their huge popularity among hardcore gamers. So it is nearly impossible to make a meaningful or clear distinction about the two groups.

The only common baseline about the difference between casual and hardcore games is that casual games are simpler to play than hardcore ones. Yet, this difference is really just a difference in how accessible a game is. Something that the industry seems to commonly overlook is that some games in a genre are more accessible than others. For example, most Dragon Quest games have much simpler gameplay and character customization than other RPGs. Someone new to RPGs could probably pick up and learn how to play Dragon Quest IV much faster than a game like Final Fantasy Tactics, which is so complicated that it has one of the most extensive tutorials in videogame history. SImilarly, it is much easier to learn how to play Street Fighter II than it is to learn how to play Guilty Gear X2. The talk about Casual and Hardcore games as different things obscures this fact.

Furthermore, much of the talk about casual and hardcore ignores that there are many different kinds of hardcore gamer. Nowadays, features like leaderboards, achievements, and the like are commonly added to games in an attempt to appeal to hardcore gamers. However, I am the kind of gamer who has never had any interest in those features, despite being a hardcore gamer by any other metric. The term "hardcore gamer" really describes a wide range of types of gamer, and many of these gamers have very opposing interests and play-styles. So it is impossible to design a game or game feature for hardcore gamers, which in turn means that the term "hardcore gamer" is not really useful from a game designer's standpoint.

The entire reason I started writing this article is that I stumbled across an article about the CCG, Magic the Gathering, written by one of its senior designers, Mark Rosewater. The article talked about how the Wizards of the Coast R&D team divides up their player base. From a quick glance, it is easy to assume that all Magic the Gathering players can be roughly divided into casual players who play the game occasionally and don't spend much money on it, and the hardcore players who show up to tournaments and purchase cards by the box. Yet, the designers of the game don't split up their players along these lines. Instead, the designers categorize their players as having one or more of three profiles: Timmy, Johnny, and Spike. Roughly speaking, Timmy players enjoy winning with big creatures, Johnny players enjoy creating and fine-tuning distinctive decks with special tricks, and Spike players just enjoy winning, by any means necessary. Some people also believe that there is a fourth kind of player, who play the game because they like the art and stories of the game. Now then, none of these categories really correspond to the concepts of casual and hardcore, since it is understood that there are both new, low-skill, low-dedication and experience, high-skill, high-dedication versions of all of these archetypes. However, these profiles are much more useful to the R&D team since they can actually design cards particularly for one of these groups.

I think that the videogame industry is missing something by just focusing on the terms casual and hardcore. They are simply not as useful of terms for designing games as some of the terms used by Wizards of the Coast for the players of Magic the Gathering. I think the game industry is going to need to develop a much more nuanced image of gamers as a whole.

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