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Evolving the Social Game: Finding Casual by Defining Hardcore

September 21, 2010 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

[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:

  1. Difficult controls
  2. Overwhelming options
  3. Prerequisite knowledge
  4. Abstract memorization
  5. Unclear goals
  6. Unclear solutions

Six things that do not make a game hardcore:

  1. Challenge
  2. Trial and Error
  3. Strategy
  4. Theme
  5. Repetition
  6. 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.

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John Mickey
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First, congrats, Tony, this is a great article, and really gets at the heart of what "hardcore" gamers are willing to do.

Bob, I think what Tony means isn't that casual gamers want cutscenes - they'd find that boring. What they're unwilling to do is spend an inordinate amount of time perfecting moves and commands that aren't obviously useful and fun. A hardcore gamer will spend much more time committing a movelist to memory.

Super Mario Bros. vs. Super Mario 64 is a great example. Super Mario Bros has three moves - run, jump, spit fireball. Besides that, it's all cardinal movement which is simple enough. These moves are directly usable. From there, the game builds challenge, but it does it NOT by complicating the moveset, but by exploring these moves to their ends and slowly adding environmental foils. Super Mario 64 has a vastly expansive movelist: Single/double/triple jump, long jump, cartwheel, backflip, and wall jump. It does try to incorporate these slowly, but you can see how much less accessible that is, especially when they require certain amounts of skid time and other strange factors.

Too many options, for casuals, causes paralysis. They aren't instantly comfortable with games like the hardcore are; if a game won't even let them interact simply, they'll just move on. They have no problem with challenge, but won't invest any time simply for the promise of having fun later because they don't find that initial investment fun - which is the whole purpose of games, right?

Mike Lopez
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Great, articulate response and further clarification, John. Well done.

And good article, Tony. It is nice to see some social game design articles written by designers with longer histories in games.

Christopher Totten
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I find it interesting that Super Mario 64 is being pointed out as an example of "hardcore" in the article and some of the other comments. Personally, I think it has varying levels of accessibility that appeals to both casual and hardcore players. Moves like the long jump are definitely more "hardcore" and require a greater degree of skill than other simple moves, but the game doesn't overemphasize it to the point where a casual player wouldn't be able to see the ending to the game (saving the Princess from Bowser.)

I know plenty of "casual" gamers (friends' girlfriends, parents, etc.) that LOVE Mario 64 and the other 3D Mario games. I love completing challenges and getting stars, but my Dad used to just enjoy how much freedom Mario had to move around the 3D world (making Mario run in circles with the control stick was a BIG deal) Wii Sports is the same way. My Gramma can bowl perfectly well but my friends and I have figured out nuances of where to stand and how to put certain spins on the ball. I would argue that games like these are "easy to pick up but hard to master", and that's what makes them so good - they appeal to both audiences.

I guess my point is that we shouldn't be drawing the line so clearly between the two. Casual games don't always have to be watered down and hardcore games don't always have to have players rifling through menus and menus of content.

Dan Felder
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Perhaps a strong balance lies in making games with accessible and intuitive controls, but a range of difficulty for all players. Hardcore gamers have more patience, but that doesn't mean we should necessarily test it with counter-intuitive or difficult controls. A harder challenge or 'legendary mode' should serve just as well.

Ultimately, I believe nearly all classes of gamers want the same experiences - the thrill of accomplishment and feeling themselves immersed in the world with controls they understand and can utilize. However, hardcore gamers have much more patience and are willing to endure more losses and setbacks while seeking greater rewards, while casual players want to have engaging victories that come one after another. Setbacks can, and should, still happen to casual players - but the positives (victories) and negatives (failure) should come much faster in succession. They don't have the same patience that the hardcore gamers do.

A 'casual' reader won't want to read 100 pages of backstory before getting involved in the book, while a hardcore reader might, but they still want the climactic progression that makes stories enjoyable. I believe it is the same for games. Trying to 'dumb a game down' for the casual audience probably isn't the best way to go. Think of it as a creative challenge to make your game more accessible to the players and yet deeper than ever for the hardcores who will quickly master the basics to run around and explore.

Vin St John
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I think this is a great way of looking at it. Doesn't necessarily cover every case (no analogy ever could) but definitely is a useful angle to approach "the distinction" between casual and hardcore.

Brent Ellison
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At the risk of sounding overzealous, I think that the ideas presented in this article represent the future of the games industry. When you cut through all the BS and misconceptions, the only real difference between casual and hardcore games is accessibility, which is not exclusive of depth. It's not really a rift the way it's commonly perceived - both groups will be enjoying the same games soon.

Maurício Gomes
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The article is what I believe, except I call "hardcore" in it as "bad design". and "casual" as good design.

I wrote in my blog in portuguese, that "causal gamers" don't exist, neither causal or hardcore games, what exist is games that are hard to play (not that are hard to master...), for example games with no tutorial, bad manual and that you need to figure stuff randomly (like... Lost Planet for PC, that show a XBOX controller photo to explain stuff, all moves I had to figure by pressing all the keys of the keyboard until it worked, and a keyboard has LOTS of keys...).

So, Mario World, Tetris, Peggle, Bejeweled, Breakout, some racing games, some soccer games, shmups (yes, those ridicously hard games with bazillions of bullets), all those are what I consider good design, and that some people call "casual".

Example, Ikaruga, this game is ridicously hard, yet to play it you only need to dodget bullets, press a button to shoot, and another one to change color, and that is it.

All games should be "easy to play" and "hard to master" in my opinion.

But I DO have a problem, with what companies these days consider "casual" being games that are both easy to play and easy to master... Those are stupid and dumbed down, and I place them in 'bad design' category too (along with hard to play and hard to master). Prince of Persia 2008 I am looking to you.

Jesse Tucker
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Mauricio, you hit the nail right on the head. The "hardcore" points listed are really just bad design, which excludes casual play. Those points effectively make a game "not casual."

I would say that casual games provide sufficient enjoyment at a low level of mastery, while hardcore games provide sufficient enjoyment at a high level of mastery. Chess can be both a casual and a hardcore game, depending on your and your opponent's skill levels. Tic-Tac-Toe cannot, because at a mastery level, the game offers no challenge or reward to either player.

Counter Strike can be fun for people who have a simple understanding of FPS mechanics, and can be considered casual because of enjoyment gained at a low level of mastery. It can also be considered hardcore, because of the high level of mastery required to be "good" at the game.

Todd Boyd
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"I Wanna Be The Guy" is a perfect example of a game with relatively simple controls and RIDICULOUSLY difficult obstacles to overcome. It is a hardcore game, period. However, by many definitions presented in the comments here, it would be a "casual" game. I don't think a "casual" game should reduce grown men to tears and cause its players to vent their fury with murderous rampage.

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Prerequisite knowledge

Abstract memorization

Unclear goals

Unclear solutions

I wanna be the guy is rate 4 on the 6 grade of the "Tony Ventrice hardcore metrics"

Kasper Kristensen
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I believe you are changing the definition of hardcore and casual into something it's not, as Mauricio said you are comparing "bad design" to "good design".

Going a bit far with that:

A hardcore gamer is: a person who enjoys and consumes bad designed games , and a casual gamer is: a person who enjoys and consumes good designed games .

But isn't the hardcore gamers a very real group of people, the "old" most dominant consumer group of games, and casual gamers the consumers who emerges with the release of the Wii and social gaming, the blue ocean and soccer moms?

Saying that the average FPS gamer (a presumably hardcore genre) simply enjoy his games because of a higher tolerance of bad design, and that soccer moms have a great taste in games. Just doesn't seem to do the subject justice.

Aaron Yip
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The six hardcore mannerisms that Tony listed, albeit described with a pinch of negativity in the article, are justifiably fair ones -- I think this is the primary point of controversy. Pigeonholing these traits as "bad design" may be gong a bit too far already.

I think we both agree that an obvious cultural rift exists between the hardcore and casual groups; however, their definitions are hardly black and white as an entrance date. Hardcore gaming, personally, means less attention towards the uninitiated audience while striving to please its established core players through fundamental gameplay. Since you brought up FPS, take Halo as an example through two of Tony's characteristics: Difficult Controls (which is poorly titled; I think a better term for what Tony was defining would be something like "depth of controls") and Overwhelming Options.

Halo has a relatively intuitive system for somebody experienced in the FPS genre, but plenty to take in as a newcomer -- right trigger fires, but then there's also more complicated and necessary variants like looking down the scope and strafing about. The learning curve becomes exponentially elevated with an armory of weapons and management demands (tossing 'nades, melee-ing, jumping, etc). This, however, isn't bad design -- difficulty for the inexperienced translates to flexibility for veterans. A simplified Halo wouldn't necessarily be "good design", but it would definitely alienate a majority of its fanbase.

Altug Isigan
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A while ago I wrote an article titled "The Cloven Designer". Based on a metaphor taken from Italo Calvino's novel "The Cloven Viscount" I asked game designers a simple question: Which half of you designed the game? Your evil or your virtous half?

The evil half would go for "hardcore" design; the virtous half for "casual" design.

The problem here is that both, pure evil and pure virtue are against human nature and strip life from all its colors and meaning. No matter what genre or platform you design for, you must pull your halves together and let players enjoy being players. That mean that you must treat them bad and good without becoming annoying. You can easily become too virtous while you try to make a game "casual", and thereby destroy all the joy that could have been experienced when there would have been a less "user-friendly" approcah. And the same is true when you make things too difficult while you try to create something that is "challenging" (or "hardcore").

Maybe we could describe "accesibility" as that ideal level of game difficulty that is easiest to master without making the player lose respect for the challenge that is posed upon her.

Andy Satterthwaite
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I would claim that games that place blockers based on skill conditions to progress are hardcore.

A game like tetris straddles both camps because to be world champion requires unfeasible hardcore skill - but to just beat your own score requires a minor increase. You can enjoy tetris and not have the experience blocked for you if you repeatedly crash out at level 10 ... you are not "punished" for not getting up to level 100

By contrast a racing game (where the basic controls are potentially casual; steer left/right + accelerate) becomes hardcore because progression to the rest of the game is blocked by skill conditions (you have to win the race, which requires a certain level of skill). Take out the win condition and make it a "how fast can you go" or "how far can you go without crashing" game and it becomes casual again (whether it remains fun is up for debate)

Robert Gould
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Genius, great example of Hardcore/Casual! Probably best down to earth explanation I've heard!!

Tony Ventrice
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Semantics aside, I could have just as easily titled the article: Improving Accessibility in Social Game Design. The real point is, certain design choices destroy accessibility, and these choices invariably get lumped under the broad categorization of 'hardcore'. But if you pick through 'hardcore' you'll discover that half of what you find hurts accessibility and the other half doesn't. The term is simply too broad to be useful.

You seem to be redefining 'hardcore' as 'competitive' and there is nothing explicitly wrong with focusing on this aspect of the word but the fact is it's not really very useful to the current industry discourse. Most game companies looking to expand their market aren't striving to capture the elusive non-competitive gamer, they are trying to connect with players who are otherwise blocked from playing their game by reasons other than theme and content (ie accessibility).

Alex Ou
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Surprisingly well written, Mr. Ventrice. :) I agree that accessibility is a good lens through which to evaluate ones position on the casual / core continuum. However, I would add that it is possible to violate any number of the tenets listed here and still end up on either side of the split. These, and other, unlisted principles, exist in a constant push-pull relationship with each other. The closest thing to a final arbiter on the matter will be the behavior of the population exposed to your game -- as represented by those hated metrics and much-despised a/b tests. :)

At least in this space we have some ability to react to the results in a reasonable timeframe.

Yrjö Peussa
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Mr. Ventrice, this game is a flat 0 on your scale. Nothing is hidden, and even the dead simple controls are explained at the start. First level:

Not hardcore?

Aaron Yip
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If challenge was the heaviest determinate of a genre being "hardcore," then something like Spider Solitaire could be hardcore ( simply by turning up the difficulty.

Tony Ventrice
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I would categorize the 'hardcoreness' of this game as being attributable to Overwhelming Options. Let's say the user can move in any of the 8 basic compass directions at any given moment. The decision space is not exactly all that complex, but the time allowed to make a decision is ruthlessly brief (and must be made repeatedly under constantly changing circumstances). If this is, as you say, level 1, the game is hardcore simply because it is overwhelming.

It was not my intention that games be measured on a 1-6 scale, with each bullet point counting for 1. As this game demonstrates, all it takes is one extremity to qualify a game as hardcore.

Tim Johnston
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Isnt it all relative? Someone who plays WoW 4-8 hours a week is a casual WoW player compared to someone who plays 20-30 hours a week who would be considered HARDCORE. Same argument could be made for Farmville. I don't think you can confuse the level of complexity of a game with how dedicated a player is to it.

Max Haider
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In my opinion, only one of the 6 traits matters: It all boils down to prerequisite knowledge. Hardcore gamers desire putting prerequisite knowledge to use. Casual gamers don't have it. Eventually, there will be hard-core "casual" games too, as the prerequisite knowledge the new gamers are gaining will be put to use in games that expand upon the current patterns.

Over the course of gaming, the many different kinds of hardcore players have learned skills that they want to put to use: circle-strafing, platform timing, adventure-style puzzles, RPG min-maxing, RTS micro-management, football play selection, the tank/healer/damage dynamic, etc. A hardcore game serves up a chance to use those skills. Non-hardcore games (which do not only include casual) provide zero or negative reward for the use of this knowledge.

For a person with prerequisite knowledge, the other 5 aspects do not exist: difficult controls often match or are slight changes to the controls in a previous game of the same genre. The list of overwhelming options only gets that big because it must include all of the options that the hardcore gamer expects to see, and already knows how to min/max, in order to satisfy him. (And the list gets larger and larger between games as the genre's graduated difficulty curve.) Abstract memorization is simply how a person acquires prerequisite game knowledge. Unclear goals are clear if they are standard genre goals. Unclear solutions are clear if, for example, you do know that the infinitely spawning item has meaning.

Lastly, a casual game may need graduated difficulty, but hardcore gamers ignore that, because the difficulty curve is never meant to stretch over the course of a single game. These are gamers who have been playing in their genre for a long time. Each successive game in a hardcore genre is just another level.

So, hardcore gamers might not fun of casual players for starting something like Farmville, and not being willing to abandon their meaningless in-game effort, but they have simply done the same thing on a much more massive scale.

Vin St John
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Great point, Max. Most previous statements here have assumed that a player is "looking for" either a casual or hardcore experience, depending on who they are. That may be true, to a certain degree, but you look at things from the other angle:

All hardcore players start casual (a statement Nintendo made many times over when they first starting talking up their Blue Ocean strategy). They may or may not take to things quickly, they may or may not be more willing to invest time in a learning curve or breaking down barriers to accessibility, but to some degree they all need that hand-holding and rapid reward cycle associated with "casual games."

Many hardcore games struggle with this - they don't WANT to assume their players are attuned to their genre, so they have a tutorial level that attempts to quickly escalate new players from a "casual" level of knowledge to a "hardcore" level.

Christopher Totten
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The more I think of the concepts in this article the more I am curious to explore them with real gamers playing both casual and hardcore games...

Jose Bidegain
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Extremely interesting article, this is something everyone should be more aware of to improve the accessibility of video games. I am currently busy working on a research project which explores the accessibility and usability of video games for the colorblind. In my paper I discuss many of the topics that you mention here and I agree on most of them with you.

I do disagree a bit in the fact that you relate accessible games to casual games, and non accessible games to hardcore games. I believe the reason games can become unaccessible is due to they way information is conveyed to the player and not because a game is hardcore or not.

Therefore one of the solutions I suggest is to use the knowledge in the head of the player (What you mention in your article) + the knowledge in the world (game). Using intuitive basic design principles, like natural mapping and spatial mapping can help convey the right information at the right time to the player, regardless of the game being hardcore or not.

I also believe that one of the biggest problems we encounter with unaccessible games comes from the designers him/her self. As designers we become so experts in using our own products that we forget how the intended user will interact with it and forget to provide information which is obvious for us.

I would like to show you my work (if you are interested) to get your feedback. Since you have a lot more experience in the industry than me.


Maojie Zhou
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Actually, there is another interesting article in last month about improve accessibility by play test. You can check it out :)

Maojie Zhou
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Very interesting notes!

You have clarified the common mistake when player drop-off so quick to blame game target is hardcore player, it is a excuse because accessibility is the key.

Honestly, it's hard to design a MMO to fit both hardcore and casual players, because hardcore player will kick casual player's ass because game progression will be huge diff. However, this is the place you can monetization!

Roberta Davies
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I'm particularly interested in casual vs hardcore right now because of something I'm toying with.

A book I was just reading the other day (Challenges for Game Designers) has a good chapter about what makes a casual game. The authors made some excellent points about prerequisite knowledge.

Every game requires some sort of prerequisite knowledge, but hardcore games expect the user to know about game-playing itself, and usually about playing within the particular genre. You won't get far in a hardcore game unless you're familiar with the genre-standard controls and conventions that have evolved over the years. Once the game begins, the player will also have to learn game-specific information such as weapon stats, enemy characteristics, and maybe the history of a fictitious world.

The sort of prerequisite knowledge required to play a casual game is general knowledge about the everyday world. Diner Dash is a fairly complex casual game, but all the player needs to understand is how a restaurant works -- seat the customers, take their orders, bring their food, etc. This is knowledge the player has already mastered long before picking up the game. As the game progresses it becomes more complicated, but still draws on the same intuitive knowledge about the world (e.g. customers become happier if offered free drinks). There's no information you have to learn from scratch.

Similarly, the controls of a casual game are already familiar to anyone who's already sitting in front of a computer -- pointing and clicking, mostly. The controls of a hardcore game can be a challenge in themselves to master, with multiple buttons or keyboard keys alone or in combination.

I think the word "unclear" is throwing people. Of course any game is bad if the player has absolutely no idea what to do or how to do it. But a hardcore player is more willing to spend time exploring and experimenting. Maybe the typical hardcore player just has a higher tolerance for uncertainty and frustration, and finds more enjoyment in seeking clarification for himself (or herself).

The casual gamer prefers to have the challenge spelled out more clearly. This doesn't mean the challenge itself has to be easy. Think of a casual challenge as like a puzzle in a puzzle magazine. The rules are clearly set out, and the end goal is defined. The puzzle itself might still be hard, but the solver (player) knows exactly what he or she is supposed to be doing.

Mark Venturelli
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Interesting read and discussion, but "casual gamer" and "hardcore gamer" are terms that I would use more carefully. I've posted a paper about casual game design here in Gamasutra last year, maybe it's still an interesting read for those who missed it the first time:

Roberta Davies
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It was an interesting read, thanks!

I'm also not thrilled about the terms "casual gamer" and "hardcore gamer" -- mainly because most game players are both at different times. Yes, some people (for whom games are not a major hobby) might stick strictly to casual games. But I bet every hardcore enthusiast picks up a quick-and-easy game more often than they realise, for fun relaxation or just to while away odd minutes.

If I've just finished an epic RPG or a brain-grinding adventure, I might prefer to spend a while kicking back with something bright and breezy for a change. During that time I'm a "casual gamer" because I'm playing a casual game, but my overall psychology hasn't changed, nor has my familiarity with game playing in general.

Christopher Aaby
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This relates back to the discussion surrounding Bartles old article about MUD players:

He describes four "player types", which many subsequently confused with "people types". They should be seen as ways of playing a game, not mindsets of people. In other words, anyone can play a game in a casual way, or in a hardcore way, and some games afford one kind of gaming more than the other.

An example might be:

You can play a Farmville clone casually, by just playing the game for the fun of it. But when you start competing against others, you set some win-criteria for yourself, and you are moving into a more hardcore mode of play.

Similarly, I think many consider WoW to be a casual game, and just as many consider it to be a super hardcore game - it depends on whether you are playing because simply running around the world is fun, or because you are trying to beat opponents. The former has no win criteria, the latter does.

Interestingly, the lack of a win criteria actually disqualifies the activity as "gaming". It would be more precise to call it "playing". This relates to what I wrote just below this :)

Christopher Aaby
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The article assumes that casual games want to be "traditional" games, ie. have mechanics that are challenging in a fun way to repeat and perfect, again and again. I disagree that this is necessarily what makes a game fun - it may be something that games are particularly good at (challenge), but casual games seem to focus more on something else that games are very good at: rewarding.

You mention "depth", and that casual games are actually expected to hit the bottom of the well at some point, ceasing to be fun to play. To my mind, this is a consequence of casual games having only very shallow mechanics (not deep controls to master, not an overwhelming amount of options, ...). In other words, the player learns the game quickly, and it's actually possible to achieve a "perfect game" - which is next to impossible in a game like Starcraft or Tekken.

How come people play the game beyond this point, when there is no challenge left then? The answer is reward.

Consider Starcraft - if you win every game effortlessly, there would be no point in playing. The challenge and the uncertain outcome are the rewards. When a game is over, you just get a screen telling you that you won.

But in a casual game, there often *is* no win criteria. You just keep playing and get rewarded for that. Rewards may come in abstract ways like levelling up, gaining money etc... or it may come as new content (a new fancy table which works exactly as your old non-fancy table) and new features.

Boiled down, we can call this vertical and horizontal achievement.

Casual games favor horizontal achievement - forward is the only interesting direction. Seeing all the stuff in the game, unlocking everything. That is the casual mode. Starting a casual game over would be boring.

Hardcore games favor vertical achievement - a game is still fun after having completed it many times, because it's all about getting better at the game, not getting further. You can always improve your run of even the first level.

The other side of reward is punishment. I'm surprised you didn't mention this either. It seems obvious that a game which makes you start over from the beginning when "dying" is more hardcore than a game which simply lets you try again at the same spot, yet this does not fall into any of the categories you mention. If anything, this would fall under repetition, which would indicate that the start-over mechanic is actually more casual, since it favors repetition. That seems counter-intuitive.

I don't mean to say that vertical challenge makes a casual game worse, but it does make it less casual.

David Serrano
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In 2006 Matthew Sakey wrote an article for the IGDA about the casual game market. This article contains the most accurate and unbiased description of the differences between casual gamers and hardcore gamers I've seen to date. Matthew wrote: "The real difference between gamer types is how they view pastime. Serious gamers see it as their chief source of entertainment; casual gamers do not".

The IGDA also published a fairly comprehensive white paper on casual gaming in 2008 - 2009 which included an overview of general casual game design principles: