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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

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.


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.

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.


  • 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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Chan Chun Phang
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This however only applies to single player and cooperative games in general. When competitive play comes in, the casual usually gets sidelined badly because the player is generally unable to pick the skill level of the opponent, which tends to be adjusted towards the hardcore. And not all "easy to play, difficult to master" games appeals to casuals as well. Chess or Go don't appeal to casual players as much, even if they're playing against an AI, despite the rules being very much fixed and basic.

I would say that there still IS a dichotomy between casual and hardcore gameplay, it's just not quite as obvious. The issue would be that in all examples you give, the tools are the same, yet the objective is different. You are in itself designing two different goals for the casual and hardcore.

So to put simply, to appeal to casual and hardcore players, there must be two separate goals designed for each. If there is only one single objective, you cannot cater for both.

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While I'm not sure that playing the guitar belongs in a list of games anymore than drawing an illustration (as they strike me as more a matter of expression than a game), you do bring up some interesting points.

Most classic games, like poker, are played against another person. Accordingly, it is your opponent that really sets the level of the game as opposed to the game itself. This holds true in multiplayer video games as well and illustrates the importance of proper matching- something we almost take for granted in our real world games. It would be disastrous if a grade school softball team was put up against a professional baseball team and the results are equally painful if new players are pitted against veteran players in video games.

Above and beyond team balancing, there are some successful examples of game designs that help bridge the gap between skill levels. As someone who never quite got into first person shooters, I was incredibly grateful for the newbie friendly classes in Team Fortress 2. I was able to contribute in a meaningful way to my team as a Medic or an Engineer while I developed the motor skills and coordination necessary to play other classes successfully such as the Scout and the Sniper.

Single player games, on the other hand, provide an entirely different challenge. Creating an environment, set of challenges or opponent dynamic enough to cover all skill levels is difficult, especially when you are dealing with a goal oriented game (with creative and exploration based games like Sim City being obvious exceptions).

I think this is where the real difficulty of game design comes into play when dealing with hardcore and casual players. How do you create a game that uses a familiar and well liked set of mechanics such that it manages to challenge both new and veteran players? Challenging optional content is great as you mentioned, but it still doesn't address the fact that as a veteran player, I'm too often forced to go through the same challenges that are designed for new players.

Without intending to be insulting, I don't believe that modern Mario or Zelda games really qualify as "hardcore" (I'm thinking more along the lines of Super Mario Brothers 2 Japan/lost levels) and it is the lack of challenge that drove me away from those series which I once loved. I certainly won't argue their commercial success, but for players such as myself, I just don't have the time to spend running around on "Starter Island" anymore.

There is a reason that I love games like Ikaruga and Mega Man 9 and there is a reason those games never reached the types of commercial success that Mario and Zelda have. While it certainly isn't impossible to create games that can appeal to all skill levels, I would definitely argue that it isn't always appropriate or even what is best. Sometimes a difficult game can be a great game, even if not everyone can enjoy it.

Enrique Dryere
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Excellent article. I agree with its overall message. The hallmark of well-designed gameplay is that it's easy to pick up, but difficult to master. This isn't necessarily true of every type of interactive digital entertainment, but it's true of most traditional games.

Mike Siciliano
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"I would say that there still IS a dichotomy between casual and hardcore gameplay, it's just not quite as obvious."

I say the whole alleged divide is false to begin with. Gamers are just gamers. Some games are easier than others. Trying to divide them into separate camps that must be treated differently is pointless to me.

If you want to reach a mass audience your game has to be easy to understand and control even it's a tough game overall.

But if you're making a more niche title, like Metroid (which has never been a mass market game), then it doesn't really matter as long as you can satisfy the fans I suppose.

Chan Chun Phang
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"Some games are easier than others. Trying to divide them into separate camps that must be treated differently is pointless to me."

It's not the game itself which is difficult or hard, it's the goal which is. Some games are inherently difficult to generate goals of specific difficulties though, which is why some games are more suited towards casual or hardcore. For instance, Horror and survivor genres tend towards the hardcore, simply because it's hard to evoke certain emotions without there being a certain level of potential failure.

"If you want to reach a mass audience your game has to be easy to understand and control even it's a tough game overall."

The reason why that is the case, is because casual IS the mass audience, based on numbers. And besides, just because a game is easy to understand and control, makes it no more or less a casual or hardcore game.

Take for example, any PvP game. The difficulty of the game solely depends on your opponent, yet the controls remain the same.

Take for example, Kart Racing vs realistic Racing Sims. Other than brake and gear handling (which if you play automatic, is no longer the issue), the controls are almost identical.

Chan Chun Phang
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I know of the ranking system, however there's a couple issues with such:

a) Prone to failure: No ranking system can accurately rank players (since skill levels change over time). And even worse, you can end up in a scissors/paper/stone situation, where player specialization can lead to varying levels of skill within the same "ranking". Not to mention ranking systems generally requires several games before a "stable state" is found, during which you may alienate both casual and hardcore players (hardcore less so).

b) Prone to abuse: Basically, other than high competitive "one time" formats (caveat: it's just harder even so), any sort of persistent state ranking system can be manipulated. The more players there are, the harder to track and constrain such acts. For instance, you have power-leveling and alt-funding..

Inherently, most PvP games work around by 3 forms: Match selection (meaning causal players can choose their own matches, not required for hardcore), optional handicap, and distribution of easy/hard gameplay cooperative classes (meaning casuals can use an easier gameplay class, generally to assist the more competitive players).

Regardless, all options does necessitate a gameplay divide between both type of players.

John Hahn
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There's also a less common method (less common in video games), which would be a handicap system.

For instance, in my local billiards league, everyone is given a skill level, with a 1 being a total beginner and a 9 being an expert. Everyone that's new to the league starts out as a 4 and goes up or down from there depending on their performance. Your skill level can change every week as it is adjusted after each league match based on your latest performance. They prefer to match people with opponents of the same skill level, but it isn't always possible. To make up for this they have a handicap system. In 9-ball, for instance. Each ball that you pocket is worth 1 point, except for the 9 ball, which is worth 2. So if I run the table and make everything but the 9, I get 8 total points and then you make the 9, so you get 2 points.. etc. Skill level 1 means you only have to make like 11 points, skill level 2 means you have to make 22points, 3 means you have to make 33 points, and so on. So if I'm a skill level 4 and I'm playing a skill level 3, I have to make 44 points and my opponent only has to make 33. The first player to reach their goal wins the match. This evens the playing field and gives advanced players a challenge even if they are playing less skilled players. If a level 9 is playing a level 1, he has to make 99 points before his opponent makes 11.

A lot of "hardcore" players don't like handicap systems because they believe that being hardcore means they have the right to own noobs and give them constant grief, or "gank" them as it's commonly called in MMOs. They don't want an even playing field with new people, and frankly, there is some merit to this line of thinking. What's the point of leveling up in a MMO if a level 1 always has a chance to kill you because of a handicap system? Handicaps don't work in all types of games, but it's still a valid option in certain situations, like golf, for instance.

Chan Chun Phang
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I do agree about the handicap system, but that itself has to be carefully designed. Not all handicap systems are equal, for instance, the dreaded "blue shell" is one of the most controversial ones.

Also, the right or "own noobs" mostly lies with the "killer" phenotype, it's perfectly possible to build handicaps for explorers and achievers (social phenotype are almost impossible to restrict/control due to being reliant on emergent social interactions). For instance, for achievers, there can be a "don't use healing items during a dungeon run" handicap which can lead to greater rewards, while casual players still get their usual rewards and aren't affected. (An example: Ragnarok Online has a "Supernoob" class which basically rewards one who manage the trudge their way through multiple job levels without changing jobs.)

But in the end, it's still designing an extra system on top of the existing system.

Following the thought though, one might want to consider researching on designing handicap systems. To me, there is four important guidelines for a good handicap system: It must be clear, consistent, concise, and chosen.

Clear: All parties should know the handicaps that are being implemented.

Consistent: Handicaps should not be enforced at random.

Concise: Handicaps should affect specific elements of gameplay of target player, as opposed to affecting everyone equally/randomly.

Chosen: Handicaps should be opt-in, in that players should know that they're being handicapped where applicable.

Having said that, not all handicap systems has to follow said guidelines.