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Develop 2009: Denki Urges Ban On 'Casual' Label
Develop 2009: Denki Urges Ban On 'Casual' Label Exclusive
July 14, 2009 | By Simon Parkin

July 14, 2009 | By Simon Parkin
More: Console/PC, Exclusive

The terms “Casual” and “Hardcore” are ill-defined, non-descriptive labels created by elitists to cause divisions in the gaming industry. So said Dave Thomson of Scottish games developer Denki (Quarrel, Denki Blocks) in a session provocatively titled "A Game is a Game is a Game" at the Develop Conference in Brighton, UK today.

In an impassioned talk, Thomson -- who joined Denki in September 2008 to manage the developer’s awareness strategy -- debunked the myths that "casual" games are killing the market for "real" games, dumbing down players, diverting money away from well-loved franchises and cluttering up the release schedules of publishers who should know better.

But rather than suggesting that casual games are instead a positive force, Thomson argued we should outright ban the use of the term, stating that we would be better off simply referring to games in terms of their quality or genre, in a similar way to how consumers and critics refer to films.

"We may not find a particular type of game amusing or appealing," he said. "But that doesn’t stop them from being a game of equal worth to those titles that we do."

"Casual" is often used as a derisive term, he argued, one whose implications are often inapplicable to the games its used to describe.

For example, the word "casual" has undertones that mean one is unconcerned or somehow showing insufficient care or forethought, he said. "These are criticisms that nobody would level at the output of a supposedly ‘casual’ game developer such as PopCap," he said.

Thomson said that valuable time has been wasted at developer conferences in the past few years trying to define the term. The conclusion of these sessions was usually that a casual game is one that can be played for five minutes or more, are easy to pick up and play and which are enjoyed by women over the age of thirty.

"To my mind, we’ve just described Project Gotham Racing 4, a game which my girlfriend enjoys regularly in short bursts or more extended play sessions, hardly the sort of game that comes to mind when we mention the casual label," he said.

Thomson and his colleagues at developer Denki find it frustrating being referred to as a casual game developer, a term he believes implies they are somehow unprofessional, exhibit a throwaway attitude to work, or are restricted to a certain type of game or platform.

"In truth," he said, "our design approach hasn’t shifted between traditional consoles and the work we do on set-top boxes and the digital download services. We make the games we want to play, and that we find fun and enjoyable."

Paraphrasing David Simon, creator and writer on HBO’s critically-acclaimed television series The Wire, Thomson said, “What’s arrogant is putting out games that aren’t fun... [that] developers don’t hold your time [as] precious.”

Pleaded Thomson, “We shouldn’t be second-guessing the market in any way, or making the games we think people want to play. Rather, we should be making the games we would pay money to play.”

You can’t make a game for everyone, he said, but must be your own focus group. If you have no passion for your game and don't want to talk about it, then how will you convince anyone else to do the same?

“Make the game you love and people who enjoy the things you enjoy will be the audience,” he said in conclusion. “If a game is fun people will buy it whatever the label.”

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Carl Chavez
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The fewer ways an "us vs. them" conflict can be created (aren't system wars and "kiddie vs. mature" already too much?), the better.

So many people play casual games hardcore-style, and so many hardcore games are played so casually, there really is no difference in the end. Whenever people talk to me about casual vs. hardcore, I challenge them to tell me how Diner Dash's core gameplay is casual compared to Diablo II. Both are games featuring lots of clicking and decision-making based on color states (creatures' resistances in Diablo II) and mob management. The only major gameplay difference between the two is the looting in Diablo II, and that mainly exists to adjust to the difficulty scaling. One could even argue that Diner Dash is more hardcore because it doesn't have the crutch of loot... but really, what's the point? Casual vs. hardcore arguments are so pointless.

Maurício Gomes
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Whooo, awesome!

I even made a post on that on my blog, too bad that it is in portuguese...

I firmly believe that this "casual" stuff results in for example the extremely boring recent Prince of Persia, or a further divide between two audiences (divide that in fact just is patient people and non-patient people) and more bad games...

Seriously, the "casual" games are usually bad designed overall, or games that attempt to reach that market has the same issue, usually they are extremely dumbed down...

And the "hardcore" games are games that were bad designed in a way that its interface (mind you, interface mean communication BOTH ways between human and machine) is hard to use, and offer none or poorly made tuturial/balancing/manual. Want to make a "hardcore" game cater to a wider audience? Write a proper manual, make a optional tutorial level (optional because stuff like Assassins Creed tutorial is a big no-no), and make really well made controls and give clear feedback to the player, and even with all that the game is still too hard, don't dumb it down, just offer the newest invention: difficulty levels! Yes! I wonder why companies stopped offering that feature... Yes, it has some flaws, sometimes the player has no idea of what difficulty level he wants, sometimes changing it mid-game suck, but anyway, why don't offer it? Even with its flaws, LOTS of people actually really appreciate it, even for its usefullness and sometimes only for amusement, like seeing how long you last in Doom Nightmare mode, or how far you can go on God of War on easy while using a single buttom without any combo or magic...

John Petersen
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Games can be casual and hardcore and things in between. But you're right, to many of the same types of games over and over again.

I can totally understand making fun shooters, and I can understand making that shooter appeal to a wide audiennce on purpose. I can understand wanting to make as much money as possible on the investment.

God I wish I could make video games, I'd make some different ones. It's time.

brandon sheffield
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hmm, that would also mean I should stop using the word blockbuster for big-budget movies, which can also be a derisive term, depending on your perspective. Casual may not be the right word for the job, but as long as people need descriptors (which is always), they'll need words to describe those games that are outside the madden and halo-oriented core.

Kouga Saejima
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In my opinion we need to differentiate games in as many ways as possible to make their marketing easier.

Casual and hardcore are just broad terms to understand the different kind of gamers hence possible customers. The main problem is that the gaming media uses it too nonchalantly and therefore creating a misconception among gamers and critics. Gamasutra had a nice article expanding those terms... but I can't find it anymore.

Alex Weldon
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Thomson's arguments contain many flaws... foremost among them, the idea that "casual" is meant to refer to the attitude of the developers, and somehow implies a lesser degree of polish or professionalism. Far from it - indie casual games tend to be much more polished than hardcore indie games, although of course, most AAA games are intended for a hardcore market.

It's also ridiculous to assert that Project Gotham Racing fits the definition of "casual" on the basis that his girlfriend plays it. If you're going to classify games by the demographics of their audience, you need to put the word "predominantly" in there, since it's always possible to find a few people from any demographic who like any given product.

Now, I personally dislike dichotomies, so I'm opposed to the idea that a game is either hardcore or casual, with no grey area in between... but that doesn't mean that the terms are useless as descriptors. I can imagine a valid argument being made to move to other, less loaded terms, but if Mr. Thomson wants to make that argument, I'd ask that he understand the terms first.

Teri Thom
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Banning the label is beyond silly. Let the developer label the game, rather than the publisher, magazine, blogger or whoever.

Cheers to "We make the games we want to play, and that we find fun and enjoyable." .. as do we.

We are hardcore indie. Period.

Mark Raymond
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I think the words "hardcore" and "casual" are just words that markeeters tend to use when trying to pitch a game to a certain audience. Beyond that, they don't have much use as a classification for games, because they are such broad terms. Mitch Krpata wrote a fantastic series of articles detailing how we might further redefine types of gamers beyond the usual "hardcore"/"casual" definitions, here:

But it's not like the "hardcore"/"casual" label problem is unique to the video games industry. My brother, who's a budding music journalist, tells me that genre labels don't hold a great deal of substance there, either. Let's just accept the fact that labels are, in their usage, fickle, transient things and move on from this topic like Simon Parkin actually suggests... in his talk about labels. Paradoxical?

Amir Sharar
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The term casual had a very different meaning 10 years ago but I feel the usage of the word at that time made a lot of sense. It referred to console owners who didn't play as many hours or buy as many games as hardcore gamers.

It referred to people partaking in the hobby, but not to the extent that some diehard fans did. Casuals did not subscribe to gaming mags, did not keep up to date on gaming news, and had limited awareness of new gaming products.

Today it has been used to describe the sort of people that play simple PC web games and Nintendo's Wii. I would argue that while in some ways the old term can be applied to these people and doesn't fully describe why simple PC web games and the Wii are popular. The term "Accessible games" makes more sense than "Casual games". Simple PC web games and the Wii are very accessible to people of all backgrounds.

So rather than banning the phrase "casual games" and leaving it at that, I would replace it with the more descriptive "accessible games". Sure, in many cases games are made more accessible by "dumbing them down", ie. simplifying them. But when you start labeling them "accessible" rather than "casual", you start to understand more WHY you are simplifying the controls.

Labeling a game like Guitar Hero as a "casual game" is odd because the game can get very complex at harder difficulties, and many gamers play it for long sessions. Once you start labeling it as an "accessible game" you start to understand why it is so popular, even among people who don't normally play videogames.

So I agree with Thompson...the term "casual" shouldn't be used to describe games themselves, but rather revert to its older definition when it described a gaming demographic. But games do need labels to help developers understand their goal and nature of their product. A developer focused on making an "accessible game" knows exactly what they need to do.

John Mason
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You know, I've been trying to peg when this "hardcore vs. casual" bullcrap originated from, and though the obvious answer would be the Wii, I think the seeds for it all were being sown back in the mid-day PS2/Gamecube/Xbox days. Why do I say that?!? B/c most of what's considered "hardcore" these days, are first-person shooters. FPSs' didn't start becoming prolific in the industry until the Xbox, as before then they were mainly confined to the PC. Once the Xbox started making them more popular, many people who game'd mainly on the PC began migrating to consoles (particularly Xbox) b/c that's where many of the FPSers were going (at least in terms of initial release); many of them did not play on consoles before then for various reasons, and I'm sure there were some that looked at many of the GC and PS2's library and scoffed at it, again for various reasons. But as FPSers have now become the dominant genre of the industry at the moment, that segment of players are viewed as the ones that define what's "hardcore" or not, and I think we can see how they managed to get there. I'm not outright laying the blame of the current "casual vs. hardcore" debate on current FPS heads that got started on Xbox having migrated from the PC scene, but I think it's something interesting to take into account, and that group's influence (and the FPS influence) over 'hardcore' players on Nintendo and Sony's ends would wrap them to that same bit of mentality, directly and indirectly. I'm just laying it out on front street.

Now, as for the actual debate itself, like the author of the article and many of the comments before me have said, it's useless. Inaccurate. Misguided. Unneccessary. I've said before that whether or not you're "casual" or "hardcore" (as if a real gamer needs to define themselves by a label) isn't defined by what games you play, but how much *effort* you're putting into them. I say effort and not time b/c there are plenty of people that can get very good at something in very little time; they just concentrate their focus more concretely within that smaller space of time. If you're willing to invest time in a game to go beyond merely understanding it's mechanics, and actually master them, then congrats; you'll understand it that much better. If you're just wanting to understand the mechanics, then congrats again; you know what's going on and how it works. And if you're just wanting to have a fun experience, then congrats one last time; fun *should* be the very first feeling you get when playing a game (or investing in any sort of entertainment) and you're having a great time in any case. Going either of those three routes doesn't make you a better or worst gamer (maybe I should say 'person' or "someone who plays video games" hehe) than the other person; you just show different levels of interest.

Now, having said all that, I won't deny there are terrible games out there that want to make a buck and nothing else, but the thing is (like Helder said), that's coming from both ends, not just one. What is said is that it's usually those that make what the media defines as "casual" experiences that get the brunt of criticism *every* time, even those that just happen to make great games and those games just happen to not feature naked women, bullets, and ripped entrails. It's even more sad that-when I take a bit of reflecting back-there's quite a lot more "casual/indie" games I've enjoyed far more these past few years than the commerial big-boys, and one of the reasons is because those games actually remember they're GAMES, not movies. They understand that, while a nice plot and character development can be neat and all, the game has to function and be outright addictive to play (or atleast very fun to play and addictive if you want it to be); too many of today's big release are forgetting that and I feel *that's* what could end the self-proclaimed "hardcore" scene, not the vast # of 'casual' games out on systems like the Wii atm. Good luck try to convince them of that though xD.

Simon Allardice
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David Thomson
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Whoa. I didn't expect my talk to be picked up on in the press (thanks Simon!), and I certainly wasn't expecting so many comments, though I'm glad to see so many people agreeing with me, even if they don't think they are. ;-) I'm just going to reply to a few points here, but suffice to say that I actually said in the talk that the 'hard core' label was a good use for fans - it's not a genre of game, however. Nor is casual, and nor is 'games for girls'

@Carl Chavez: Funnily enough, I used the comparison of Diner Dash and Diablo in the talk. :-)

@John Peterson: You're absolutely right - you should find a way to get them made.

@Alex Weldon: I'm going to take each of your paragraphs in turn, since it demonstrates how reports of talks can be misinterpreted from being in the room and I'm not sure which terms you think I've misunderstood:

- I actually used 5 definitions of the word 'casual' to demonstrate how all of them were flawed, and you're right: companies like PopCap and Gamelab put in just as much effort to their game as anyone else does. I said that in my talk (definition two).

- The PGR4 point is exactly what I said: you can't define a genre by its demographic, which is one way that people are using the term 'casual'.

- Again, that was exactly my point. It's not the game that should be casual or hardcore: games should be labelled first and foremost by their genre: puzzle, fighter, shooter, etc.

Incidentally, I'll be making my slides available on the Denki site over the weekend (with speaker notes) for anyone who wants to take a look.

Thanks again for all your comments.