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Successful Games Can Be Simultaneously Hardcore And Casual
by John Hahn on 10/09/09 05:18:00 am   Featured Blogs

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The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

There are people who believe that if a game is too "hardcore" it alienates the casual players, and there are people who believe that if a game is too "casual" it alienates the hardcore players. I believe this is a false dichotomy.

I often look at activities that are hugely popular outside of digital gaming and try to figure out why they are popular.  Two such activities that hit close to home for me are guitar playing and billiards.  I've been playing guitar for 15 years and I play in a local amateur billiards league once a week.  So lets look closely at each.

Guitar:

The guitar is probably the most popular instrument on the planet.  Everybody and their dog (it seems) knows how to play a few chords and play a few simple melodies on the guitar (commonly called "cowboy chords").  However, to truly master the instrument and become a so-called "guitar god" you must practice religiously for years and years to build up your dexterity and eye-hand coordination in order to play more complicated passages effectively.

Also, master players usually have very good soloing/improvisation skills, so they know what scales and notes fit well as a solo over a particular chord progression, etc.  Also, master players typically have very thorough and almost encyclopedic knowledge of the different types of amps, effects, and guitars and what kinds of tones you can achieve using different combinations thereof.

So, to paraphrase:

  • Easy to learn the basics and "just have fun"
  • Very difficult to master
  • Lots of what I call "geek appeal".  In other words, the art of playing guitar goes deep enough that you can spend time in online communities and elsewhere learning and talking about different guitars, equipment, and playing techniques and develop an encyclopedic knowledge about all of it and become a "guitar geek" so-to-speak.   You can also spend years studying general music theory and become a "music geek" to enhance your guitar playing repertoire.
 
Billiards: 

Anybody can go into a local bar, pool hall, or pub and pick up a pool cue and start playing and have fun.  It's very easy to learn the basics.  Hit a ball with a stick and make it hit other balls, trying to knock them into holes.  Simple enough concept.  However, this simplicity is VERY deceptive.  A player can spend a lifetime honing their skills of playing and learning the different techniques for making shots.  

The finer points of the game are VERY difficult to master, especially defense and "English"/cue ball placement.  Also, advanced players typically have thorough knowledge of more advanced types of equipment such as the different types of cues (break cues, playing cues, masse cues, etc.), and they know the proper situations to effectively use each apparatus.

Again, let's paraphrase: 

  • Easy to learn the basics and "just have fun" 
  • Very difficult to master
  • Lot's of what I call "geek appeal".  In other words, a player can study the game of billiards and become encyclopedic about different equipment and playing techniques, thus becoming a "billiards geek".

Starting to see a trend here?

Now let's look at some of the more popular games out here.  I'm cherry picking to make the point about the false dichotomy.  There are popular games out there that might not match up quite as nicely, but I still the think the overall point I'm making has validity.

Most recent Mario games out there: 

The basic game mechanics are very simple and the game is very easy for people to just pick up and play.  However, there's lot of stuff to collect (typically stars/coins).  Usually when you collect everything you unlock some kind of special area or whatever.  In the very least you get bragging rights and it gives people with OCD something to do for hours.  

Some of the collectibles are usually very difficult to get and require lots of practice and trial and error.  So these games are easy enough for casual players to pick up and have some fun, but they also have enough hardcore content to keep the more advanced players satisfied for a while.

Summary:

  • Easy to learn the basics and "just have fun"
  • Difficult to master
  • Lots of "geek appeal" for hardcore fans of the franchise.  Some people just love collecting all the stuff and finding all the hidden easter eggs and whatnot. 
Mario Kart games:
 
I'm sure you guys are getting the trend so I'll start cutting it down to just the summary. 
  • Easy for anyone to pick up and start playing and having fun
  • Very difficult to master and win the 150cc cups.  
  • Nice rewards/unlockables for mastering the game.
  • Lot's of geek appeal in general.
Zelda games:  
  • Easy for anyone to pick up and play.  Simple game mechanics.
  • Difficult to master (get everything in the game).  In other words, lots of collectibles and other content to keep more hardcore players engages for hours.
  • Lots of geek appeal with the story and whatnot.  There are online communities and websites devoted to the lore and universe of the zelda games.
World of Warcraft:
  • Easy enough for a very wide demographic to pick up and play it.
  • Difficult to master (learn the advanced techniques, gear combinations, conquer all raid bosses, etc)
  • Tons of geek appeal.  I have groups of friends that sit around for hours and talk about different gear specs and develop an encyclopedic knowledge of the items and game world.
The list could go on and on... 
 
In short, the whole casual/hardcore debate is a false dichotomy.  If a game is easy to pick up and play, but very difficult to master and has lots of "geek appeal", then it appeals to both "hardcore" and "casual" players.  
 
Another way of thinking about this is that a game can be designed so that the players make the game as hard or as easy as they want it to be.  In other words, you can take a fun game with simple mechanics and there will be players that pick it up and play it and have fun and take it at face value.  
You will also have players that develop advanced strategies to play the game more effectively, and they become concerned with learning the finer points of the game.   The game itself hasn't become more difficult as far as the basic mechanics are concerned, and instead, the player has made it more difficult within their own mind in order to compete against tougher opponents/obstacles or to accomplish some other goal.
 
For instance, once you understand the fundamentals of billiards and you become proficient at making shots and the physics involved, then the game itself never gets easier or harder.  The skill level of your opponent and the complexity of the strategies within your mind makes the particular instance of the game easier or harder depending on the situation. 

Making a game more hardcore doesn't mean making the game mechanics more complicated.  It means creating the game so that players who choose to do so have the option of learning advanced strategies of play.  Making a game casual doesn't mean dumbing it down.  It means making the mechanics simple enough for anybody to pick up and play, but not so easy that this type of player would be able to accomplish everything the game has to offer.


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