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Mid-Core Is Bullshit
by Kevin Gliner on 03/07/13 03:35:00 am   Expert Blogs   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.


This post originally appeared on Point Line Square.

The game industry continues to believe that casual and hardcore players are separate monolithic audiences interested solely in games reflecting their respective play styles.  The latest entry along these lines is the mid-core game, which seeks to claim a middle ground between the two.

The underlying case for mid-core players is genuine enough:  there are many players who would like a deeper, more engaging experience without the burden of a steep learning curve or large time commitment.

But mid-core comes up short for the same reasons traditional casual and hardcore thinking does:

  • It confuses product specific engagement and commitment characteristics (where they are valid) with demographic characteristics (where they are not).  To claim there is an audience of casual players, hardcore players, and now mid-core players outside the scope of a single product is nonsensical.  These are different people for different products, and one game’s hardcore player is another’s casual player.  And remember:  everyone is hardcore about something.
  • It falsely assumes there is a spectrum of play from casual to hardcore where a given product falls, instead of treating casual and hardcore play as separate and compatible in the same game.  To make a game more casual is to make it more accessible;  to make it hardcore is to make it more engaging.  Good casual design increases a player’s willingness to play but does nothing to increase their desire to play.  Good hardcore design improves a player’s desire to play but does nothing to increase their willingness to play.
  • It takes a very narrow view of player behavior:  that an individual seeks the exact same play experience every time they sit down to play.

Of these, the last is most important.  In the busy, chaotic world we all live in, our ability to engage and commit to a product varies from day to day. When you build for mid-core, you haven’t addressed this problem any better than casual or hardcore approaches because you’re still building for a fixed level of player engagement.  Which means you’re still going to lose consumers when they want to engage more and there’s nothing interesting to do, or you require them to engage more and they don’t have the time.

It’s a lot like picking a single price point for your product — it can work, but it’s not terribly efficient compared to free-to-play models.  And it’s a poor strategy for any product hoping to build a long term relationship with the player.

We should enable high levels of casual and hardcore play in the same product, not find a happy medium between the two.  Doing so doesn’t re-align your product with a different demographic or change the level of engagement;  it expands your product’s audience to include a much greater number of players, without sacrificing one group to make room for another.

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John Bell
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I generally agree with what this article is trying to get across, of course games should have peaks and valleys in difficulty and casual and hardcore labels are overly dogmatic. I can't but feel that the statements made are just too broad and vague. All games should have casual and hardcore gameplay within them? For such an interesting topic, its unfortunate that no examples or real analysis is here, and then somehow touching on free to play business models got in there? I feel like grading this as a paper more than anything else lol.

Luis Guimaraes
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I cannot give you the formula for success, but I can give you the formula for failure.

Mike Engle
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"There are two kinds of people in the world: those who think there are two kinds of people in the world, and those who don't." -Robert Benchley

Steven Christian
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There are 10 kinds of people in the world: those who understand binary and those who don't.

Matt Robb
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What really gets me is your first point. I like really deep, really engaging games...but not when I'm waiting at the dentist's office or some such. You can alter the design of a game for how you want a player to engage with it, but that's not a demographic target. I've been playing Bad Piggies a lot lately, but not at home. I only touch it when I'm waiting somewhere for a short time.

When I actually sit down to play, it'll be an MMO, or a shooter, or a strategy game, or whatever. Casual vs hardcore is often a situational thing rather than a demographic one. Sure, you have your strictly-casual gamers that only play on Facebook or phones. You have your strictly-hardcore that travel with a beefy laptop everywhere they go. But midcore? There really isn't a situation halfway between waiting in line somewhere and sitting at home in front of your XBox.

Matt Agnello
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The dentist office example is good. It illustrates that someone might change from a hardcore to a casual gamer *throughout the day,* according to the current way we think of each.

I would argue, though, that midcore can exist because of the dentist example you described. In my own experience, I've had to downshift my game time because of professional and family requirements -- but I still love games that are ridiculously engaging, that I read about every chance I get, that I binge on for hours when I can carve out the time to do it. I change between a casual gamer (work, family, etc) to a hardcore gamer (binge sessions) depending on my situation and environment.

I think it's far more useful to think of games as experiences that have lots and lots of different touchpoints, and game developers and publishers should think of those touchpoints as a larger journey through their game. Some touchpoints will allow hardcore, high skill, high learning curve play. Others will only require a moment's time. All of those *can* be part of the game experience, and it's at that point that we can break from "hardcore" or "casual" and start to develop flexible experiences that don't care about either category.

Kevin Gliner
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Matt Agnello: that's a great summary of the point I'm trying to make, although I'd say that midcore exists in this context only as an arbitrary assessment of engagement somewhere between casual and hardcore. And it becomes equally irrelevant as we develop, as you say, more flexible experiences.

Kevin Gliner
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JohnnyB: Single price points vs. f2p is analogous to targeting a single level of engagement in a game. Single price points work, they're just not as effective. Likewise, mid-core games (along with casual and hardcore games) are built with a very narrow range of engagement in mind. That can work, it's just not going to be as effective as making a broader range of engagement possible.

Stating the obvious? Yes. But then most of the industry is not following the obvious. Not all titles are going to stretch the full range, but when you start with "I'm going to make a mid-core game (or casual or hardcore)", you've created a false constraint that limits what is possible.

As for data, would you disagree that most titles we consider "casual" churn audience too fast, and that most of what we consider "hardcore" put up ridiculous barriers to initial entry and require too much commitment to keep playing? When we think of games as being casual or hardcore we accept this as normal, and it leads to concepts like "mid-core" that simply look at a different slice (less casual than casual, less hardcore than hardcore) instead of expanding both.

Luis: I do think there are some better approaches for expanding casual and hardcore play in the same product (well, one in particular) – that's for the next couple blog posts.

Matt: I think the open question is whether you can give someone the opportunity to engage with the same game in a casual manner or a hardcore manner, depending on the circumstances. I think it's possible, and increasingly important, to have this flexibility for long term success.

Marc Miles
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Most of it boils down to depth and breadth. A hardcore gamer will go deep and wide with their experience over the life of the product/game while a casual gamer may just focus on one meta game or core gameplay. Even word games have their hardcore players and even well done big budget RPG's have their casual players. I do agree with you that catering to both is what makes a good product in the end.

A good product isn't synonymous with mass market, it has more to do with having numerous meta games within it (breadth) and each of them being a fully baked and entertaining experience (depth).

Mike Higbee
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I think one of the larger problem were seeing lately comes is when you take a franchise or game that traditionally had a hardcore playerbase and then simplify the mechanics or difficulty (or both) to appeal to a larger mid/casual player base, while isolating your core supporters. AKA the classic "We want the CoD audience".
It's a big gamble, because if your new audience isn't into the product you've already isolated your original fanbase.
The new DMC is a great example of how not to treat your core audience by calling them whiny, entitled, or boiling their arguments down to something like hair color on a character.

Peter Warman
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Thanks for linking to a post on our website but I belive your conclusions go excatly against the point that we are making illustrated by the statement that we make: immersive experience, casual gameplay emphasizing the fact that elements are mixed in a single game and cater to almost any gamer. We all know there is no strict division between hardcore gamers and casual gamers. I am also not a big fan of all the jargon and hyped terminology that we tend to use in our industry. It confuses investors who lack clear insight into the total picture. That is why we have started segmenting the games market based on consumers and their screens. It makes it easier to understand the changes and spot growth opportunities. From a game perspective I think the term mid-core game does apply, especially to mobile games, as the interface and game size restrictions and typical short game sessions force "core" type games to be reinvented. A more recent article that we did with [a]list games gives a more complete picture:

Kevin Gliner
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Peter: I thought your take on mid-core was the most thorough one out there, hence the link. At a high level I like a lot of the stats Newzoo provides – your infographics are great. However, I'm concerned that viewing audiences based on general play behavior (i.e. casual, mid-core, hardcore) leads to the wrong conclusions. As I note above, one game's hardcore player is another's casual player, and vice versa. There are hardcore solitaire players, for example. We fail to consider this as developers because we put solitaire in the casual game bucket, and then proceed to develop features that only address this play pattern.

Mid-core sounds like another artificially constrained bucket "positioned between packaged products or hardcore MMO games, whether on console or PC, and the "new gamer" targeted casual titles served up in droves on mobile and social platforms". Also: "the mid-core digital game segment comprises players looking for a more in-depth experience than a casual game, [and] not as time-consuming as a core game, both in terms of learning curve and game play progression". You do add in the comments above that "elements are mixed in a single game and cater to almost any gamer", so perhaps you really mean that mid-core isn't in-between, but instead encompasses everything we get in both casual and hardcore interpretations of a game. Would that be a fair interpretation? If so, that would be in alignment with everything in my post, but perhaps at odds with how mid-core is being discussed in the industry (and "mid-core" would be an odd way to describe it).

I'm not sure slicing this by demographic or by screen is any better – you'd still be making general assumptions about audience interest and behavior based on who they are and what they play on, instead of what they play and how they play (that said, I do find demographic and screen data useful once I've identified an audience for a specific title and want to understand what else they like, what their time constraints are, what screens they have, etc).

Emppu Nurminen
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While I do agree that people should look core vs. casual more as one axis of user engagement in games, the bigger problem here seems to be to see the medium alone to be the only axis of engagement for the content or IP. There are quite a lot of potential for games to conquer other areas, yet so few have tried and fewer have succeeded in it. Of course it's harder to create engagement with the content if consumption is seen so rigid matter.