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Opinion: Redefining Casual For The Hardcore

Opinion: Redefining Casual For The Hardcore Exclusive

April 28, 2009 | By James Portnow

[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 [email protected] for comments on this article.]

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