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Opinion: Reflexive's Carroll On Understanding The Casual Gamer

Opinion: Reflexive's Carroll On Understanding The Casual Gamer

January 9, 2008 | By Russell Carroll

January 9, 2008 | By Russell Carroll
More: Console/PC

[Continuing a new casual game-specific monthly column, Reflexive's director of marketing Russell Carroll (Wik, Ricochet) looks at how developers can identify and meet the needs of an ever widening audience of casual gamers, asserting that the key is to understand why they play.]

On Black Friday, I headed to the local GameStop, arriving about 30 minutes before opening. I was intent on scoring the newly released Zelda version of the DS, and figured that with this store opening at the late hour of 7:00 AM, most of the early morning retail insanity of Black Friday would pass it by and I’d have a lonely wait for the store opening.

Instead, I was greeted by a long line that prompted me to quickly park and hurry over to the store. The woman directly in front of me asked if I had gotten a number. “I need a number?” I said back. “Yeah, they only have 25 Wiis, so you have to have a number.” I told her I wasn’t there for a Wii, but for the special-edition Zelda DS. She looked confused. She also didn’t look like a gamer.

Her hair was graying towards silver and I’d have guessed her age at near 60. “I’m kind of embarrassed,” she said, “but I’m not getting a Wii for my kids. It’s for my husband and me.” She went on to tell about her first time playing the Wii and then her decision to get one, and even how she’d already gotten a second joystick and Wii Play through eBay. She was ecstatic about getting a number that ensured her a Wii, and after chatting with me for a moment, pulled out her cell phone and called a friend to let them know that there were still a few Wiis left.

I remember that moment particularly well, because Mike Boeh (of Retro64 and now PopCap fame) and I had a discussion a couple of years ago about how consoles would impact the casual games space. Mike suggested that neither XBLA nor the "Revolution," as the Wii was then known, would impact the casual games market because “Grandma is not going to buy a console.”

Standing there next to Grandma, I realized in a much more personal manner than I had before how much the video game market is changing. However, as games have become more mainstream, our understanding of who is buying the games has become increasingly niche. With that in mind, I thought it would be a good time to consider what we know about a most poorly understood group, the Casual Gamer.

The Casual Gamer Stereotype

Casual gamers are typically (and readily) described as “women over 40.” That definition is sometimes expounded upon by adding “women, baby boomers and seniors.” However, while the sentiment is somewhat accurate, it doesn’t give us more than a glimpse of the picture.

Consider the following information about casual gamers.
The CGA reports that while buyers are mostly female (74 percent) and over 35 (72 percent), only slightly more than half of the players of casual games are female (51 percent) and they’re also a little younger (just 62 percent are over 35) 80 percent of those with children/grandchildren play casual games with them, and reasons for playing include educational use of leisure time, mental exercise, confidence building, stress relief, entertainment, and pain relief.

At Least One Takeaway

When I was a boy, I remember showing my Grandmother a Transformer I’d received for Christmas. As she talked about the “amazing toy” with my parents and Grandfather, she said, “and it’s educational, too.” For Grandma, that made all the difference in the world. It wasn’t just a toy, it was a beneficial use of my time.

It seems many casual gamers have a similar perspective of casual gaming. A casual gamer survey showed respondents more than twice as likely to choose “stress relief” as their reason for playing as they were to call it “entertainment.” A separate survey found 70 percent of grandparents and parents who played casual games believed the games provided “valuable educational benefits.”

Of course, stress relief and relaxation come in different forms for different people. Though I’ve grown a bit since then, in my college days I found playing the original Wolfenstein 3D to be quite relaxing. However, I can’t imagine that Id Software initially created Wolfenstein 3D with the intent of creating an experience that would relax players. Though Wolfenstein 3D probably wouldn’t be considered relaxation for most in the casual audience, there may be quite a bit of variety in what they would consider "casual relaxing."

Gaming has often been seen as just simple entertainment without any need for meaning. However, when considering the casual gamer, it’s clear that they are not satisfied with just being entertained; they may be looking for stress relief, learning, distraction, self-improvement, or simply a pleasant way to spend time with friends. Instead of looking for excitement, adventure or competition like the core gamer, casual gamers often want to feel that their time is being used beneficially.

Considerations for Game Development

The reason a player will want to play a game is something that should be carefully explored during game development. However, as casual gamers use a very different set of reasons for playing games than what we are used to in the core space, their needs are often overlooked.

Considering the reasons that casual gamers play games is really only the first step in using that information in game development. As I alluded to earlier, even if you know that casual gamers are playing to relax, that does not tell you much about what a casual gamer finds relaxing.

Some of that information can be discerned from looking at what has been successful over time in the casual game market. For example, though there have been many attempts, space shooters have never sold well to casual gamers. In fact, space themes in general have not been successful in the casual games space. Other approaches that have not proven to be successful in the casual games space include putting the player in harm’s way, requiring a joystick (or even the use of the right mouse button), and having a high learning curve.

Of course our understanding of what casual gamers find relaxing is ever changing, and often comes through trial and error. For example, famously, Betty’s Beer Bar, the first of the click-management games, was turned down by Real Arcade because it was too much like work. Since Diner Dash and a host of other click-management games have become some of the best-sellers in the industry, it’s become clear that though most of us would say that “work” doesn’t provide any stress relief, there is something about being successful in a job that most casual gamers find beneficial.

The Challenge

As more and more Grandmas flock to purchase a Wii, the gaming landscape will continue to change. With these new casual gamers coming into the fold, it’s important to consider their reasons for playing video games.

Though casual gamers have often been disparaged for purchasing what core gamers consider “short and shallow” games, the focus of casual gamers on games that are a beneficial use of their time may make them the deepest gamer group of all… and a singular challenge for the game designers who struggle to understand and make games for them.

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