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Casual Versus Core

August 1, 2000 Article Start Page 1 of 2 Next

I've been playing computer games for almost as long as they have existed. From Pong to the present day, I've played games just about every day of my life. You might think that that makes me a hard-core gamer, but actually, I'm not. I'm a casual gamer. If that sounds like a damning admission from a professional game designer, think again; there are a lot more casual gamers out there than core gamers, and it behooves us to understand what they want from a game.

The core game market is saturated. There are too many products competing for the core gamer's attention, and it's no wonder a lot of game companies that once seemed like sure things are now in trouble. The publishers are starting to looking beyond their traditional audiences to new ones: casual gamers. So what's a casual gamer?

Before we get into it, I'm going to apologize for even bringing the subject up. A great deal of the trouble in the world today is caused by an insistence on finding simple answers to complex problems, or on seeing complex mechanisms as simple ones. You can divide any conceptual space into two by choosing some binary distinction and saying everything on the left is of type A, while everything on the right is of type B. That doesn't guarantee that the distinction is meaningful or serves to solve a problem. As often as not, dividing things into two and labeling them does nothing but obscure a more important underlying truth.

So by dividing gamers into "core" and "casual," I know I'm creating a phony dichotomy. In reality, there are as many types of gamer as there are gamers. But I'm going to talk about it anyway, not because I think it's accurate, but because it has become part of the publisher's mental model of the market during the past year or so. I have sat in on any number of design discussions where ideas were dismissed as being "too core" or "too casual." This distinction is now firmly fixed in the marketing mind, so as designers, we're stuck with it. If we're going to use it, we'd better think about what we mean.

To start with, let's look at core gamers. What characterizes a core gamer? Well, they play games a lot. A lot. For core gamers, game software is their favorite entertainment medium, surpassing television and the movies. Core gamers spend a great deal of their leisure time playing games, and if they're not playing, they're reading magazines about games, surfing the web for information on games, or hanging around the game store. They write walkthroughs and build websites devoted to their favorite games. They discuss them on bulletin boards. It goes on and on.

For core gamers, playing games is more than light entertainment. It's a hobby, and it requires dedication. A good analogy from the non-game world is building and flying model airplanes. In addition to the time you spend actually flying the airplanes, there's a lot of time spent on building them, obtaining plans and parts for them, and getting together with other modeling buffs. Core gamers and airplane modelers also spend a lot of money on their hobbies - much more than people spend on the occasional trip to the movies or the video store. They're not only spending their leisure time, they're also spending a lot of their leisure dollars.

The casual gamer is not prepared to spend that much time or money on it. The casual gamer wants to play games the same way she watches TV or reads a book: sit down, do it for a while, then stop and do something else. She doesn't want games to consume her life, she wants them to entertain her for a while.

This distinction is not new. Everyone knows casual gamers spend less time on games than core gamers do. But there's a more important difference, and it has to do with why we play, and what we want to get out of the experience. It has signficant implications for game design.

The core gamer plays for the exhilaration of defeating the game. The core gamer is much more tolerant of frustration, because what the core gamer wants is a sense of having achieved something, having overcome an obstacle. The greater the obstacle, the greater the sense of achievement. The core gamer is engaged in a competition - with himself, with the game, with other gamers. A core gamer wants a sense of reward and "bragging rights" from having beaten the game. In this respect he has a lot in common with athletes, particularly of the track and field variety. Most athletes won't tell you that what they do is "fun." It's not. It's grueling, exhausting, often painful. It's also very repetitive. The joy comes from winning.

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