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Opinion: Redefining Casual For The Hardcore
Opinion: Redefining Casual For The Hardcore Exclusive
April 28, 2009 | By James Portnow

April 28, 2009 | By James Portnow
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More: Console/PC, Exclusive



[In this Gamasutra opinion piece, designer and Divide by Zero Games founder James Portnow looks at the definitional divides between casual and 'hardcore' gaming, asking whether there's a market gap for core games with casual-style mechanics.]

To date the ‘casual’ market has targeted the ‘casual’ gamer -- but the question arises: "Do the ‘hardcore’ need casual games as well?"

Y’all know I get uppity about definitions, but here’s one term really does need some defining: "Casual Game". Who knows what "Casual Game" means these days? Unfortunately, I’m not really qualified to make a sweeping definition of "Casual Games"(I know there are some guys at PopCap that have put a lot of thought into this, and I encourage them to share those thoughts with the rest of us!) but I’ll give you a little bit of the reasoning that led me to pen this.

This year, Braid won the Interactive Achievement Award for best casual game -- but by the definition I’ve been running with, it’s not a casual game. So I started looking at media use of the phrase "casual games." It’s all over the place, but I’ve really only seen one constant: at this point, casual games are defined in the popular media as "non-violent games," and we’ve begun to adopt this definition.

For the game designer, and for the industry as a whole, I believe this definition to be counterproductive. Non-violent games are great, and they deserve a lot more discussion then they currently get, but to me, "casual" is a play style, and "non-violent" is a descriptor of one aspect of a game’s creative IP.

As a designer, having a definition for "casual" that helps me better understand the gameplay needs of the player I’m addressing is much more useful.

On that note, trying to justify an exacting definition of a casual game could take up a whole article, but for the sake of argument, let’s define a casual game as:

1. A game that can be played in short sessions (10 minutes or less)

2. Lacks finality (there’s no definitive point when you’ve finished the game)

3. Replayable ad nauseam

What does this definition mean? It means that casual gameplay doesn’t just have to appeal to the “casual gamer" i.e. your mom -- after all, let’s be realistic. That’s what most of us think when we think of “casual gamer”, demonstrating that, at this point, that term clearly needs redefinition, too.

Let’s examine some of the games that fall under that definition: 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.

Note that half of the games on that list are old arcade games. I postulate that there is a market hole here. "Casual Gamers" aren’t the only ones without time; many hardcore gamers (especially as we, as a group, grow older and have greater responsibilities) are looking for short session experiences.

So why hasn’t this hole been addressed? Because from the death of the arcade to the end of the PS2 era. it was practically impossible to do economically. If we look at casual games as they exist right now, they’ve come to a stable price point capping at around ten dollars -- making production of such titles largely unviable in a brick-and-mortar, box product environment.

The popularization of digital distribution (Xbox Live Arcade, the PlayStation Network, WiiWare, Steam, &c.) and its ubiquity across all consoles changed all this. If you look at the best-selling games on most of those platforms, you’ll find a number of games that are considered casual under the definition given.

Another factor that has contributed to the viability of this type of title recently is the pervasive nature of handheld devices today. Be it the hundred million-selling Nintendo DS or the fact that every cellphone in the world can now run at least simple games, much more of the population now possesses a device which allows them to play games when they can’t be doing anything else.

It’s the Laundromat principle. Every Laundromat in the United States used to be equipped with one or two arcade games. Why? Because they knew that if people had nothing to do and had the means to do so (in their case, readily-available quarters) they would pay to play games.

So how do we craft great casual games for the hardcore player? Well, that’s a science to be re-learnt. So far we’ve turned to old arcade games for inspiration, and the old arcade games are certainly a good place to turn. Back then, games of this nature were created out of necessity. Replayabilty was vital not only from a technical perspective, but from a financial one as well.

Beyond that, my analysis is: limited but simple mechanics that require a great deal to master seem to be the key to making casual games for the hardcore (this may seem obvious, but it’s all I’ve got).

My purpose here isn’t to teach design principles for games of this nature. I would be a fool to try and do so. My purpose is to achieve a paradigm shift in what we consider "casual". If a person looks at "casual games" from the perspective of what mechanics make up a "casual" game rather than the aesthetics, one immediately sees that there is a vast underserved market segment.

We can confirm this supposition simply by examining the data already provided by the few casual games for a "hardcore" audience and see the market traction they’ve had.

Actually, my purpose is slightly greater than that...

Many of you reading this are better designers than I: it is my hope that reading this brief essay will spark some thought. I speak about casual games for the hardcore because that is what leaps to mind when I begin to think about the term "casual" mechanically (and I see the evidence for the need for such games), but it is my ardent hope that some of you, in thinking about the mechanics of casual games come to leaps that well exceed my own.

[James Portnow is a game designer, formerly of Activision, and now at Divide by Zero Games, where he is also the founder and CCO. He received his master's degree in Entertainment Technology from Carnegie Mellon University. He can be contacted at jportnow@gmail.com for comments on this article.]


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Comments


Thomas Bedenk
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This topic kept me thinking for quite a while now. Even though some of your thoughts seem obvious (and you stated that yourself) they still describe what is going on in the market.

Redefining the term "casual game" is necessary but a task that is almost impossible to accomplish. Once the public definition of a term gets widely spread there is almost no way of purposely changing its reception.

I am a game designer myself working on a "expert casual game" title. And I have been wondering how to communicate that in the description of our game Zeit2 ( http://www.zeit2.com ).

For now lets go with your definition of casual games that is quite appropriate in my point of view. In short the aspects you described address accessibility and time consumption. One of the main aspect that differs the two different types of "casual games" is on what basis of background knowledge you are designing your game and how challenging it will be.

Lets call these the two types of casual games "expert casual games" and "novice casual games" in need of better names.



Expert casual games (ECG) are designed for a target group of core games that know about gaming conventions, history of games and control schemes.



Novice casual games (NCG) are designed for a target group of inexperienced gamers who are just starting to get contact to the medium of computer games.



This main difference affects how a game can and should be designed and influences the meaning of the main aspects of casual games. While both groups don't have the time or desire for long play sessions and steep learning curves the approach to address these issues are likely be very different.



Accessibility for expert casual gamers means that the game designer can expect knowledge about the process of game interaction that is not present with novice casual gamers. Expert gamers for example know the principles of a side scrolling shoot'em up and can concentrate on the alterations to the existing concept. They expand the existing mental scheme of that genre during their current game experience rather than constructing a whole new concept out of existing non-game experiences.



Well I am about to make this entry way to long so for now I leave these rough thoughts as an impulse to start a discussion and reflect about this topic. I am looking very much forward to read more about this topic soon.

M. Smith
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I don't get this article.



"Hardcore" i.e. veteran gamers play casual games all the time. There is no distinction for most gamers.



Go listen to a game podcast or read a game magazine. These so-called hardcore gamers are talking about and playing casual games all the time.



I think the barrier you're seeing here is in your head and does not exist in reality.

Tom Newman
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Great topic!

The "hardcore" absolutely needs casual games as well. I know no hardcore gamers who don't also play more casual fare when the need arises.



This article brings up a great point, in that there is a difference between the types of "casual" games hardcore gamers play vs. those played by non-hardcore gamers. I would easily be considered a "hardcore" player, but I still play arcade games from Donkey Kong and Joust, to Geometry Wars and Galaga Legions. These meet much of the criteria for a "casual" game, even though the skill required for these games is far from "casual". I'll also play Peggle, Soduku, and even Mah Jong Solitaire, which can be enjoyed by beginners as well.



The problem is that there are way too many types of games and way too many types of gamers to simply split these games up in two categories.

Bob McIntyre
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Where is the line drawn at defining casual? Playing an online match of a fast-paced RTS (Warcraft 3) usually takes under half an hour. A fighting game (Street Fighter) can run a whole match in only around two minutes. The new Resident Evil features a few quick-play online modes, one of which works offline as well.



These are all "hardcore" games in the sense that they have significant depth and are "hard" or "competitive" (if you play online against other people) games. But each individual match is clearly "pick up and play" like a casual game.



Do we get some kind of points for putting words in quotes? If so, I think I just dominated you guys.



L2P,

Bob

Chris Crowell
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You have opened up two cans of worms with this interesting article, the definition of Casual and the notion of a gameplay gap for the poor under-served hardcore players (I jest).

I very much agree with your Casual definition points 1 and 3. I am still on the fence about 2 (no end game), as I think you have lapsed back into the Content rather than the gameplay with that one.



Re Gap: In my own designs I try to accommodate the novice & expert, and the casual and hardcore.

my recipe is:

- minimum success thresholds, with difficult optional bonus successes.

- easy to understand controls that activate emergent actions. Optional planning lets hardcore players figure out maximum yield combinations.

- long term activities and difficult trophy achievements for optional Hardcore gameplay.

M. Smith
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@Christian



Who are we taking about here? The only group I can think of is professional/competitive gamers. They certainly seem none too fond of casual gaming and actively protest/insult it, but then they are vocal minority and not at all representative of gaming vets in general.

Ted Brown
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Good observation, James, and good definition of "casual". I would add "accessible" as well, if only because the nature of the game session is a brief diversion. I don't sit down in front of my Xbox and HD projector just to play a game for 10 minutes.



As an example, I'm a lapsed hardcore gamer who gets his dose with "casual" sessions of QuakeLive and Exteel, which probably do not appeal to mainstream gamers as we understand them. The DS gets picked up if I'm not already in front of a computer.



So I guess we need a new word for hardcore casual! That always makes things better! =)

Bob McIntyre
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Christian,



I'm a "core" gamer or whatever you want to call it. I like competitive, challenging games. If a game's easy, I get bored fast and kick it to the curb. But I don't care if someone else likes Cooking Mama. That's ridiculous, Cooking Mama doesn't hurt anyone. I might say that a certain specific casual game is crappy or poorly-designed or something, but actively attacking casual gaming across the board looks to me like a behavior that would better be associated with 13-and-under males than with "core" gamers. It honestly looks like a vocal minority of pipsqueak kiddies who can't spell or use capital letters appropriately and who believe that their favorite games (the ones where the spaceman blows up the aliens) are under some kind of threat from Bejeweled.

Sean Parton
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Nice article, James! Definitely thought provoking for me, as I wrap up one game's update to soon be started on the next.



@M. Smith: I think it would be safe to say that "professional/competitive gamers" are a subset of hardcore gamers, but are far from it's only type of people in that group. Keep in mind that while some games like Street Fighter IV are commonly considered hardcore, they do well with casual gamers as well due to how the gameplay can last only a short period, anyone can pick up and play it (against someone of the same skill level, obviously), and there's no definitive completion point (you can keep playing matches). Which, amusingly, is the three points James made in his article.



With increasing attention from different demographics, it's becoming less and less productive to think as gamers and/or games as being binomial in terms of hardcore or casual. It can, however, make for a good starting point.

Aaron Casillas
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Some tangent thoughts and ideas:



I've been watching a lot of novice players to games and have had the great opportunity to introduce non players to our medium. Over and over again, the one defining factor has nothing to do with understanding the game mechanics overall, but really has to do more from my experience with the number of buttons the player has to manage on the controller.



Games where the controls are simple, like 1 button or none introduce non players into our market much more readily.



Perhaps the answer in creating a much more deeper "casual game" has really do with the vertical manipulation of mechanics; similarly Less mechanics but deeper vector combinations.



In regards, to hardcore gamers needing or wanted a deeper “casual game” I play them all the time, a nice relief from having to learn where the “fire” button, iron sights and the skip button for this long movie are located on the controller.

Mac M
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Reading this article, i have a feeling like you are saying that casual means arcade, all arcade games are casual, but not all casual games are arcade.

Casual game has fast playing experience, it's just about the core gameplay, the player should experience the core gameplay in a few minutes, but doesn't necessarily need to last less than 10 minutes(that's arcade).

Casual can have finality, Mario is a casual game and it has an ending.

Replayable, again that is arcade, in those days the designers wanted the players to come back to the arcade machines and throw many into them, they never wanted the player feel like that he has finished the game and doesn't want to play it anymore, they wanted them to play over and over again.

Joel McDonald
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I think you're missing a crucial fourth element to your definition of a casual game:



4) Familiarity - easy to learn, requiring relatively little knowledge of other video game tropes/mechanics/interfaces.



Without it, you could call the games I play on a regular basis (e.g. - Quake 3, QuakeLive, Left 4 Dead Survival) "casual" but I think that'd be pretty heavily diluting the term. Quake 3 is just about the polar opposite of casual.



Regarding Braid, I think it's a perfect example of the ideal of a casual game. Braid uses a single button besides movement--rewind time. How many modern day games can boast this? Usually games are literally running out of room on the controllers. Furthermore, Braid doles out its challenge in an equal opportunity fashion. Twitch movement skills, or knowledge of other games does you no good in Braid. All you have to have is a basic understanding of Mario and you can play Braid at the same level as your average hardcore COD4 player.

Ted Brown
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Ack! Can we get a definitive lexicon of game industry terms? Please? All of this hashing over the meaning of words helps no one...

James Portnow
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Great! Glad to see I could stir up some thinking. I certainly agree with the "accessible" commentary, oversight on my part.

Daniel Lam
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As M. Smith says, the barrier here doesn't seem to exist. The gap isn't there.



I think the definition of "casual games for the hardcore" would be twitch games like Geometry Wars, and Rock Band, and DDR. Games that get exceedingly difficult over time as the player gets better at it. (hence the definition of "hardcore")



The "accessibility" of it, is basically just a sleep mode, so the player can put it away at anytime, and play 10 minutes at a time.



I've been a hardcore gamer for a long time, playing difficult games, and really long games. But since I've got other priorities now, my taste in gaming has changed. I still play hardcore games, but my need for accessibility is factored into the games I play now. If there's no save anytime feature, or requires more than an hour sitting, then I usually have to skip that game.



True "casual games" as you had categorized, would be things like bejewelled and cooking mama. These games attribute simple game concepts that are easy to understand, fun to play for 10 minutes at a time, but never really increase in difficulty all that much. (at least not to the state of it being "hardcore").



In that regards, I would still categorize casual games as "games your mom/grandma would play" (when she's not watching her soaps, or doing housework).

Daniel Lam
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... in addition to that, my own wife fits into the "causal gamer" pot, playing online flash games like bejewelled, word scramble etc. However, she can put upwards to 3 hours of gaming a day into that. Now, is that really casual gaming? Or has that become hardcore? O_O

Josh Chan
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Any game that is/can be hardcore just has a method of playing on a skill level that is beyond many people's capacities. Hardcore gamers, who tend to seek an outlet for such skill, can espouse an attitude of hating "casual" games, but from a a more objective viewpoint, one can argue that anyone with this attitude just doesn't see such possibilities in the games they find inferior.



Perception is a factor; the game itself can't fulfill the definition. Lots of people figured fighting games like Street Fighter, were casual party games until they saw a video of professionals (the exception are people old enough to have played these games at 7-11). Then they realize it is/can be a hardcore game. Is it impossible to imagine a Cooking Mama competition where participants have to cook based on speed and quality? Cooking Mama: Hell's Kitchen Edition?



It might be more productive to point out what ISN'T casual, rather than try to set parameters for something so ubiquitous.

Stephen Chin
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It seems to me that there are a number of different things that are referred to when using the word casual. Not all of them are necessarily co-dependent and not all of them are the polar opposite of hardcore. One can have casual players and playstyles and casual games.



Mr. Portnow is suggesting, to me, that casual games and casual games are essentially games and systems within games that allow a player to easily pick up and play a bite-sized chunk of gameplay and then quit with the expectation that that bite-sized chunk can be repeated infinitely for entertainment. A casual game targeted at a hardcore audience (or a casual game overlaid a hardcore depth) would seem to be a game that experienced gamers could pick up and play but contain serious depth if they wish to explore but lacking a long prep time to do so.



I think too that while we may get to a general agreement as to what casual is and isn't as far as hardcore and casual gamers go, I can see a potential issue in trying to apply a catch-all casual idea to every sort of game. What may be casual to one set of games may not be so for another set. Tactical shooters for instance will approach cover ie the environment in different ways than action shooters which in turn will be different than cinematic shooters. To try to say that a cover system isn't or is casual in and of itself wouldn't work.



An example, I think would be raiding in an MMO. Raiding is not just a six hour task but also requiring many days of time and energy before hand for many requirements. One can't simply decide to try a raid one day and expect to do so. This would not be a casual game by any means.



Rune Factory: Ignoring the superficial appearance, I think this game is actually pretty hardcore while retaining a casual playstyle. On the surface, there are simple systems involved - the basic tasks of tending to a garden, fighting monsters, and collect ingredients to craft. These things as well as the game in general can easily be performed in a short amount of time (1 hour in-game is 1 minute real so days go by quickly). Doing this requires very little investment as most common things are easily found or brought. However, exploring the systems that underlie them are very time consuming and require a sort of devotion normally reserved for hardcore games (and, to an extent, the sort of repetition of elements I usually see in Korean MMOs). There are skill levels to grind out, item levels to grind out, and so forth, which in turn may require extreme dedication in raising certain plants and animals. It's not possible, for instance, to acquire the maximum level of a particular plant (which is used in in high level items) in less than 2.5 in game years and that's assuming taking advantage of various in-game methods of accelerated growth (which in turn require massive amounts of in-game money and thus infrastructure).

Kumar Daryanani
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I've written a rather long-winded blog post on this: http://destral.wordpress.com/2009/04/29/casual-or-core-a-matter-o
f-investment/



The TL:DR version: Casual, Core and Hardcore are defined by investment. Investment of time playing the game is an important factor, but we should also take into account how much time someone spends thinking about the game while not playing it, reading about it on the internet, discussing aspects of the game with other people, online and off.



Casual, Core, and Hardcore applies to the games themselves as well as the people that play them. A casual game requires very little investment, of time, of focus, of acquired skill. A hardcore game, to be played successfully, necessitates that the player get into the game, play it, learn the nuances, get better, determine dominant strategies (or which dominant strategies apply in which situations, etc). A core game is a happy medium. Core games tend to be finite, thus putting a limit on the amount of investment the player will make on them, naturally. Casual games can be picked up at a moment's notice. Hardcore games will tend to include multiplayer aspects as engrossing, if not more, than their single player modes.



Thus, by having casual, core, and hardcore games, and casual, core, and hardcore gamers, we can draw a graph that shows the ideal experience for each player. Casuals will enjoy casual games the most, because the amount of investment required fits the amount of investment they are willing to make. As the games required investment grows, casual gamers will be less likely to keep playing, or even try the game, because of the demands the game makes to be fully enjoyed. Similarly, core and hardcore players can play casual games, but will generally figure out how the game works, its nuances and its dominant strategies, and eventually 'beat' or grow bored of the game, and will move on to something else.



Also, to add that a player's position on the scale isn't fixed. A casual player might try a core or hardcore game that they enjoy, and move away from the casual area of the scale as they make room in their life to make the investment necessary to enjoy the game. Similarly, a hardcore gamer might suddenly find themselves burnt out or with new responsibilities in real life and 'cut back', investing less time in the games they used to play.



I apologise for the length of even the abbreviated version, it _is_ kinda late.

Bart Stewart
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Hmm. I have trouble thinking of Galaga, Missile Command and Robotron as "casual" games.



Apparently my definition of casual also factors in "pacing," as in, "how many things are happening on-screen at once, and how much time do I have to address those things effectively?" A faster pace = more hardcore = less casual.



By that standard, Galaga, Missile Command and Robotron are all hardcore, even if they can be played in short sessions and lack a narrative "endgame."



So should pacing be considered another useful dial to adjust when designing casual games for hardcore gamers? Or am I off on my own on this one?

Thomas OConnor
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Let's just stop using the word Casual.

Greg Damiano
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I agree with the OP that 'casual' is a play style and it indicates short-term sessions, that's one half of it.



IMHO Bart Stewart is onto the other half, which is complexity. A round of Street Fighter only lasts 99 seconds or whatever, but it has complex controls and very deep systems like combo paths. Simple games like Diner Dash remove a lot of complexity, they streamline situations so that they are more accessible. Twitch gaming is a very delicate element here, because twitch can quickly increase the amount of skill needed to succeed and keep a good steady pace.



You can also get 'hardcore into' any game if you play it a lot, get into the long-term meta, etc. Like I can play a level of Bejeweled but look forward to finishing all 50. Or I don't have to. If I played A LEVEL of God of War and never intended to see the story through or finish the game, you'd probably say I was playing it casually too.



Thing is, God of War is meant to be played to completion, each level is a segment of a story that is attempting to pull you in for the next level. Street Fighter is meant to be repeated until you have a nice rating or can master a favorite character. Casually playing these games is almost a disadvantage.



So I see it these days as, a casual game is a game that has low, soft commitment factor and low complexity factor. Accessibility is usually the goal over mastery. Sure players who put hardcore time into games enjoy them too, but some casual game dynamics are better suited to casual gamers than some hardcore game dynamics, like hiding a 12-level story behind twitch-based skill mastery challenges.



Whew sorry if this got long like longcat.


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