[Veteran mobile and casual game developer Tony Ventrice, currently at social game firm Playdom, examines the difference between hardcore and casual play mechanics -- and dispels commonly-held myths about which are which.]
What qualifies a game as casual or hardcore? It's a question essential to anyone designing for a broader audience and, with games on Facebook and other social networks making headlines, one might expect social game developers to be leading industry discourse on the topic.
Yet, surprisingly, the question of what defines hardcore is rarely discussed in the social space. Instead of approaching design by adapting tried-and-true principles to the new format, social games have grown up dedicated to a new religion of A/B tests, metrics analysis and Skinner Box psychology. In many cases, the expertise of professional game designers has been deferred in favor of simple trial and error.
But things change and, 14 months after the start of the boom, the old games are withering, like so much untended virtual wheat. Investment money may be plentiful but an ultimatum is nearing.
The fact is, social games are games and games need game designers. A/B tests and psychological conditioning can only go so far.
Good old fashioned design talent combined with an honest understanding of why certain games work and others don't will ultimately mean the difference between a bursting bubble and an emergent industry.
For social games to succeed, their designers must make a conscious effort to adopt and "make casual" the preceding 30 years of industry design knowledge.
So, to return to the question, what makes a game casual?
At first, it may seem trivial to answer: if a game is easy to play, it's casual; if it's not, it's hardcore. Yet "difficult" is a broadly subjective term that describes many different things. Pac-Man is difficult, but is it hardcore? And what about Tetris? Surely Tetris is casual, yet how can a game that always ends in failure not be considered difficult?
The distinction is accessibility. A game that starts easy is accessible, even if it ends hard. But knowing this doesn't exactly give us any revolutionary insight. To truly understand casual, we must first dig deep into specifically what makes a game inaccessible -- what makes it hardcore.
Six things that make a game hardcore:
- Difficult controls
- Overwhelming options
- Prerequisite knowledge
- Abstract memorization
- Unclear goals
- Unclear solutions
Six things that do not make a game hardcore:
- Trial and Error
- Depth / Graduated objectives
What Hardcore Is
Difficult Controls. In the early days of games like Pac-Man and Frogger, control was usually a stick -- there was up, down, left and right and that was basically it. As soon as game controls became more complicated, games were on a route towards becoming hardcore.
Mario 64 is a popular example that illustrates how far controls have gone. Mario's long jump requires two buttons and the directional stick. The move is unintuitive and must be taught to the user. To make matters worse, there is inexplicit timing involved: the user must first run in the desired direction for x seconds, then press and hold the Z button for y seconds before following it up with the A button.
Get it wrong, or out of sequence and Mario skids to a halt or, even worse, stops in mid-air and does a ground pound. x and y are inexplicit; they must be discovered and then memorized. This is hardcore.
Limiting input to a mouse goes a long way towards keeping controls casual, but the lessons of timing, precision and discoverability apply in any context. A casual user has no patience for learning or perfecting interface.
Overwhelming Options. At the simplest level, overwhelming options can be thought of as the number of buttons available to being pressed at any given moment. At a deeper level, it pertains to all of the options available to be weighed when deciding what to do next. The casual user wants to make meaningful decisions, but if the full scope of the decision is overwhelming or under-communicated, it goes from meaningful to frustrating.
For example, even if a casual player understands the functionality and unique utility of eight different but equally balanced guns, deciding which one to use on the spur of the moment can still be overwhelming.
One could argue that the trial and error of finding the right option is simply part of the learning process but this would overlook the fact that casual users lack gaming experience. For a trial to be meaningful, the user must be able to reduce the decision space to a single dimension of doubt, (meaning at most there is only one unknown). When multiple unknowns exist, the combinational size of the trial-space quickly becomes overwhelming. Choices must be gradually layered into the gaming experience.
Prerequisite Gaming Knowledge. If your game assumes the player has played other games, it requires prior knowledge. Even "common sense" gaming standards like picking up a new item will put the old one in inventory, or anything being endlessly respawned is probably required to solve the next puzzle are not obvious unless you are an experienced gamer.
Assuming your casual audience knows nothing of video games seems an obvious thing to do, but in practice is actually very difficult; years of video game immersion can be a hard thing to set aside. Usability testing can be an invaluable asset for spot-checking a design, but the details are often tiny and overlooked. An effective casual designer must learn to live and breathe 'casual' and make the knowledge base second nature.