All genre categories are something of a muddle, but when we talk of “casual games” we can get especially confused. The idea has emerged out of the concept of a casual audience; presumably this audience plays certain games, and therefore there is something that can be considered “casual games” – after all, what does PopCap make if not “casual games”? This logic is sound, but we must always remember that when we say “casual games” we mean “games played by a casual audience.” And it is the audience we should be paying attention to, and not the games, because to target the causal audience is to attempt to speak a language they will understand.
What on Earth am I talking about?
When we talk about casual and hardcore players, we make a division in the audience for games. One way of understanding what the adjectives ‘casual’ and ‘hardcore’ refer to picture the cluster of all games players as a Gaussian distribution with the hardcore players – those who spend the most time and money on games – in the centre, and the casual players on the edges (making a long tail that stretches out from the central spike). The hardcore audience comprises of many distinctly different niche markets where a large amount of money is spent by a relatively small number of players, while the casual audience compensates for each player spending less money by the “long tail” effect, that is, there are orders of magnitude more people hiding in the corners of this cluster.
(As an aside, it is certainly possible to
have more than two adjectives to describe this spread. In fact, EA’s audience
model does precisely this, calling the middle area “the Cool gamers”. Whilst
it’s good to remember that there is a distribution, and not simply two boxes,
it’s not necessarily the most illuminating approach to the issue.)
Now I put it to you that we can also understand this spread of players in a non-economic manner. Hardcore players certainly have spent more time and money playing videogames, and this has given them greater game literacy. This game literacy allows them to play and enjoy many more games. The hardcore players speak the language of videogames, if you will.
The casual player lacks this game literacy.
I contend that it is this property – a lack of game literacy – which is most
useful in understanding the casual audience as a whole. “Casual games” (games
which target a casual audience) are accessible to more players because the game
literacy required to play them is very low (this is closely related to Josh’s
point on the matter). Or to put this another way, the time required to learn
how to play is very low.
Ironically, being able to learn how to play quickly transpires to be a benefit in all the game markets. Believe it or not, even the hardcore players are not especially keen to learn from scratch with every game, as learning a new language is hard work – thus the games being made share conventions (elements of a common language, if you will), and games that buck these conventions can be pilloried for “not doing it right”. The recent success of FPS games rests in part in the fact that a large audience – including a decent chunk of otherwise casual players – has learned how the controls of these games work (and these controls are substantially more complex than is usually imagined!) Because a relatively large audience can speak the language of these games, FPS’s can rack up pretty reasonable sales, but not necessarily to the same scale as games with simpler requirements to learn.
This issue of game literacy is not
constrained to videogames, though. Tabletop RPG games have their own game
language, as do wargames, sports, reality TV gameshows, sudoku and crossword
puzzles, amongst other things.
The crossword puzzle is an interesting case
as crossword literacy is actually a harder skill to acquire than general
videogame literacy. The puzzles are written in a special language, where
certain words have certain implications. For example, in the crossword clue
“Mark went astray with a Buddhist conception (5)”, the key words ‘went astray’
denote an anagram. This clue splits into two halves, one of which is a riddle,
the other is the definition of the answer. The definition is carried by
‘Buddhist conception’ and the riddle is ‘Mark went astray with a’. Now we know
this is an anagram from ‘astray with’, so the anagram letters come from ‘Mark
with a’ or ‘Marka’. The answer to this clue is ‘Karma’. And this is just one of
dozens (or in
Crossword literacy is harder to acquire
that many forms of videogame literacy, yet it is more widespread. Why? Because
crosswords have been around for sixty years longer than videogames and have
therefore had more time for their language to become distributed in the
population at large.
This idea holds part of the key to The Sims success. It’s language is about as hard to learn as some of the lighter strategy games, but the barrier to access is reduced both by the fact it uses an interface similar to productivity software (the language of which is becoming widespread) and because the tasks it asks of the player are derivable from life experience the players already have. In short, the language of this game was easy to learn. Coupled with the fact that is also delivered a play style previously ignored, the game managed to rocket to astronomical success.
As computer literacy increases in the
population in general thanks to the ubiquity of computers in the home and
workplace, not to mention the massive popularity of mobile phones, so the
audience for videogames grows because the learning barrier to videogames
reduces. The world is gradually learning the language of videogames.
Eventually, everyone will have acquired a general game literacy, and devices
with capabilities akin to games consoles will be in almost every home. When
this happens there will be no casual and hardcore players, per se, only
different play styles, but this point lies a long way off, and perhaps even out
of my own lifetime.
There is an important lesson here for the design of games that do not target casual players. Although it may seem at first glance that designing a new, easier to learn ‘game language’ for a game targeting a more hardcore audience will be a good idea, in point of fact a new, simpler conception may require more learning than use of the existing language of videogames. Much of your audience already speaks this language – if you make them learn something new, you had better be absolutely sure you are delivering something new and desirable to your audience in the play of your game. If not, you would do just as well if not better to use the existing conventions.
I contend that game literacy is the key
factor distinguishing hardcore and casual audiences from each other, and that
thinking in these terms is more helpful than attempting to identify common
factors of “a casual game”. These common factors will change (and probably
diversify) as computer and videogame literacy increases in the population, and
as new interface devices reduce the challenge of acquiring that literacy.
The language of casual gaming is a pidgin language, bridging between the “hardcore” videogame languages, and the languages of productivity software, internet browsers and mobile phones. But pidgin languages don’t last long. They become creole languages, or die out and become obsolete, like the language of 2D coin-ops or text-based strategy games. Will we talk of “casual games” in a century’s time? I question whether we will in twenty years time. But as with all such things, we will have to wait and see.