The persistence of the terms “Hardcore” and
“Casual” can perhaps be credited to the simplicity of the audience model
implied: people find it easier to grasp an idea that divides people into two
boxes than to comprehend what is implied by a more complete audience model.
Furthermore, many people working in videogame design are resistant to audience modelling as a driver for the game design process. Usually this is because the game designer in question wants to trust their instincts as to what is fun rather than a model; there’s merit to this approach, but surely one’s instincts can be better refined by learning the available models? Earlier this year, football game expert Dino Dini contended to me that game design could be driven by intuition rather than theory; I agreed with him – it is certainly possible to design this way, and I often do rely upon my intuition – but also pointed out that whether you used theory or intuition to guide the design process, you didn’t really know what you have until you try it with players who have never seen it before. Whatever assumptions you’re making, the players are the ultimate test.
If transitioning to the widespread use of
more detailed audience models (Lazzaro’s Four Keys, Bartle Types, DGD1 etc.) is
hindered by a barrier caused by the relative complexity of such models, perhaps
we can at least improve upon what we mean by the paper-thin model we do have in
common use – the Hardcore/Casual split.
In August last year, I submitted a post to the Round Table which attempted to look at Hardcore and Casual from the point of view of how much experience of games the player had – in terms of game literacy. There is a lot of merit in what was proposed here, and I believe the key points still stand: the market for videogames does indeed consist of a “head” of game literate players – which I refer to as gamer hobbyists – who buy the most number of videogames, and rack up the greatest number of hours playing. And it also consists of a “tail” of less game literate players – the mass market – who are gradually in the process of replacing the gamer hobbyists as the primary source of cash flow in the games space. Nintendo’s ongoing success with their mass market friendly Wii and DS platforms emphasises this shift in the marketplace.
Despite the saliency of this viewpoint,
there are flaws to the substitution of Hardcore for gamer hobbyist, and Casual
for mass market. We are coming to the end of our analysis of the DGD2 survey
data of 1,040 gamers (both Hardcore and Casual): as with DGD1 one way we
divided players was according to whether they self-assessed as Hardcore gamers,
Casual gamers, or didn’t know. This allowed us to examine the differences
between the two (strictly, three) groupings.
Most of the findings in this regard are trivial. Hardcore gamers rated themselves higher for the importance of all the emotions we inquired about (and all these findings were highly statistically significant) – which is to say, Hardcore gamers were more emotionally invested in their play, or at least more likely to rate the importance of any emotional factor in their play higher. Hardcore gamers also rated themselves higher on every aspect of game literacy or player skills in the survey (and these results were even more statistically significant). Finally, Hardcore gamers were more interested in games of challenge, structured play (Caillois’ ludus) and games of escapism (acting out in a virtual world) – all of which broadly validated the findings from the earlier DGD1 survey.
But these results obscure something
interesting about the players who self-identified as Casual. Firstly, Casual
players still play games very often. 81% of those who self-identified as
Hardcore said they played videogames everyday, but 49% of Casual players also
said they played everyday. Hardcore players gave themselves high marks in game
literacy (more than 95% of Hardcore respondents claiming the top two marks, and
about three quarters the very top mark), but Casual players didn’t exactly rate
themselves low on this (around 85% of Casual respondents claimed the top two
marks, and roughly half the very top mark). So while some of these Casual
players might be mass market players, many of them are highly game literate
players who play videogames every day. (Incidentally, those who were unable to
choose between Hardcore and Casual looked remarkably similar to those who
self-identified as Casual).
What other factors might be in play?
Punishing versus Forgiving
In January of this year, Corvus (our inimitable host for the Round Table discussions) shared his thoughts about what characterised Casual games (as opposed to Casual players). He characterised these games as forgiving, as shown in this extract:
Casual games are typically very forgiving
games. They don’t harshly penalize failure, they have gradual increases in
difficulty, they don’t demand you spend large blocks of time in one sitting.
They don’t have complicated control schemes or complex mechanics. Typically,
you don’t even have to read to be able to play (excepting Bookworm and
its ilk, obviously).
Corvus’ formulation of Casual games as forgiving is, I believe, a major step forward in understanding Casual players. Because without a doubt, on the basis of case studies at the very least, Casual players are looking for games that are more forgiving – and along the same lines, more welcoming. They don’t necessarily want a big time commitment (but may still spend a lot of time playing a particular game), and they certainly don’t want to be punished for their failures – they want failure to be forgiven.
This was part of the genius behind the design of PopCap’s evergreen favourite Bejewelled. It not only allowed you to excuse yourself from additional stress (by opting out of a timer – a major source of excitement in play, but also a source of unpleasant panic for certain players), but it doesn’t penalise you for making a mistake. Swap two jewels that don’t make a line and you’ll just be warned that you made a mistake – no score penalty, no penalty of any kind. This was a break from a tradition of punishment that runs throughout the history of videogames, and it found an eager audience waiting for it.
Conversely, the gamer hobbyists contain a
great many players for whom the “old school” sensibilities of the arcade game
and the early home videogame are more desired – games in which you are up
against impossible odds, where you will fail often, and be punished for the
slightest misstep. Why are these games enjoyed? Presumably because punishing
for failure makes success all the more vital to strive towards and so the
threat of punishment adds not only excitement to the play of the game, but it
intensifies the reward in fiero (the emotion of triumph over adversity)
that is received when success if finally attained.
This, then, is the other side of the Hardcore/Casual split – not the division of the market based upon game literacy, but the division of the players according to whether they are looking for a forgiving game (one that will welcome them, and behave in a civil and friendly manner) or a punishing game (one that will raise the degree of challenge and dare the player to rise to the level of difficulty that it demands, in order to earn the maximal payout of fiero when victory is eventually attained).
There will probably be a gender influence
at work here, in that the majority of female players would probably prefer a
forgiving game, but it is a gross simplification to assume that this is an
adequate and complete explanation. There are female players looking for
punishing games, and there are plenty of male players who want a forgiving game
– Animal Crossing is a quintessentially forgiving game, and its audience
appears to show no obvious gender bias. The DS version has sold more than 9.5
million units, almost twice the audience that a punishing first person shooter
can even hope to attract.
The Hardcore/Casual split doesn’t work any more. It’s an incomplete description because as games have pushed deeper and wider into the demographic landscape the old assumptions don’t work any more. Hardcore might mean game literate, and it might mean seeking punishing games, but there are players who self-identify as Hardcore and yet detest any game that will make them feel angry (a feeling that enhances fiero, and can be associated with punishing games). We have no way of distinguishing between those two state of affairs in our current language.
Similarly, Casual might mean less game
literate, but there are a great many players who self-identify as Casual but
who are clearly well versed in the language of gameplay. And Casual might mean
desiring more forgiving games, but about one in five players who self-identify
as Casual still say they looking for (or willing to tolerate) anger in their
play – roughly the same proportion as in Hardcore players. Once again, the term
describes multiple different kinds of players, between which we cannot
distinguish in our current language.
If we want to better understand the marketplace for games, perhaps we should start thinking in terms of two very different splits. The split between game literate gamer hobbyists, and less experienced mass market players on the one hand, and players seeking punishing play (challenge-oriented, fiero-seeking players – perhaps we might call them punishers, or punishing players, that is, players seeking punishing games) and players seeking forgiving play (forgivers, or forgiving players, that is, players seeking forgiving games) on the other. Hardcore and Casual is a compromised terminology – it means too many different things, and it no longer reflects the state of the marketplace. The time has come to move forward into a new language for describing the basic splits in the audience for videogames.
Can we redefine the way we talk about the basic splits in the audience for games? Or will we be stuck with Hardcore and Casual as our only widespread terms for decades to come? Share your thoughts in the comments!