The Language of Casual Gaming
August 10, 2006
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.
Excellent consideration of the topic. Say, you wouldn't happen to have written a book on the study and consideration of gamer audience models, would you? :)
I think the notion of game literacy is it relates to all sectors of the potential game audience (basically everyone) is extraordinarily helpful in thinking about the gradations from "casual" to "hardcore."
I'm reminded of examples from my own experience. I'm the sixth of eight children, which is fun for a lot of reasons, but in this case especially because it provides me with concrete examples of gamers representing much of the whole spectrum. My four brothers gradate from very "hardcore" players to nearly casual (or what you might call "fallen away" gamers, to cheekily appropriate the language of religious conviction), while unsurprisingly my three sisters are all nearly game illiterate.
Because of this, I'm always rather curious about what might possibly catch their attention or not. A few weeks ago my eldest sister just got married, which meant that all ten of us were back together again under the same roof.
Guitar Hero was subsequently a universal hit, from the hardcore gamers (like my youngest brother, who enjoys the challenge of the game's maddeningly difficult Hard and Expert modes) to my sisters, who are on the fringe of casual gamers but nonetheless really enjoyed the game.
They were clearly drawn by Guitar Hero's invocation of the very deeply rooted cultural currency of "Rock 'N' Roll" (does anyone actually type that out anymore?), as well as the conceptual similarity to popular social activities such as karaoke. Everyone wants to pick up a guitar and "rock out", and they were no different--the cheesy but clear and instructive tutorials that the game provides also helped make them ready converts. Much like the Sims, one of the reasons that Guitar Hero is so wildly popular is that it draws upon a cultural literacy that is far more widespread than specific game literacy. But as you point out, the kind of things that help draw new players to the game (concise controls, helpful tutorials, good pacing etc.) are also highly appreciated by the hardcore, as well. Design for the casual audience done right is a benefit to everyone involved.
Aside from Guitar Hero, only a few other games have ever caught my sisters' attention, much less been acknowledged by them at all. The first is Katamari Damacy and its sequel: very few people can resist the bright, simple, and very playful world that Katamari presents.
Shadow of the Colossus has also drawn interest. Though my sisters don't want to play SotC themselves (the playing of which does draw upon significantly greater game literacy), they were immediately arrested by the powerful visual sensibility of the game, and, of course, immediately blurted out "it's like watching a movie."
The comparisons of games to movies are tired as they are endless, but it is a point to consider: games that embody the cinematic in the best sense of the word, thereby engaging the near universal film literacy that the world today seems to have, do quite well for a reason.
Case in point: for all its maddeningly outdated control scheme and operatically bad dialogue, MGS3 was also a game that piqued an older sister's interest for a short while, again because of the likeness to the spy thrillers the series is so clearly patterned after.
I'm of the mind that the MGS series is wildly overrated, but somehow I end up playing it myself and enjoying it to various degrees, so Kojima and company must be doing something right (though it isn't the dialogue or the horrifically pre-adolescent sexuality on display, I assure you).
Whew. Long-winded anecdotes aside, game literacy is clearly a very potent metaphor, right down to the implied parallels about how highly literate people enjoy certain kinds of books that less bookish types will dismiss out of hand. The hardest of the hardcore revel in relatively minor refinements or elaborations to the conventions of their favorite genre, as in shooters or flights sims particularly, while the novice player might complain about how they're all the same. Both players are right, from their own perspective--much of it is simply a matter of literacy.
Posted by: Jack Monahan | August 10, 2006 at 11:43 AM
Yes, I think we will talk of casual games in [insert a period of time], as there's a second aspect: the amount of time these players are willing/able to invest in games. The typical casual gamer is unlikely to complete Oblivion, for example, as the time investment is simply too great. They are more drawn to games where significant reward can be gained from a much smaller time investment, and frequently where that time investment can be made in small and bites with the available time unknown a priori between (say) the children wanting attention. Phone games typically offer very shallow learning curves and bite-sized challenges, and are typical of this market, I think.
Or am I talking about a different kind of casual gamer?
Posted by: Peter Crowther | August 10, 2006 at 03:37 PM
I wrote some stuff about casual/hardcore being about literacy:
I maintain that in addition to all the stuff you mention, hardcore players can also be defined by participation in the larger gaming culture. Some who plays literally nothing but PopCap games wouldn't be considered especially literate, but if that person maintained a blog about Bejewled strategies or contributed to GameFAQs (there's actually a Zuma FAQ on there), I would consider that person hardcore.
Posted by: Darius K. | August 11, 2006 at 01:17 AM
I'm going to springboard off this notion of literacy in the post I have planned, it'll be called's "Whorf's Haiwain Shirt".
Many so-called casual games have used a 1st person (the one that isn't emtpy vessel or blind captain) model of interaction, typically puzzle games, or Guitar Hero for example. I think theres huge potential in character-based Blind Captain games that use context-sensitive controls to allow vast complexity to be explored relatively smoothly. This is the UI I've ended up with for Fianna, so despite the potential complexity and intensity of the subject matter, I think its UI design could be "casual friendly". Hopefully this will translated to more sales fecundity.
I'm starting to think "casual" just means "good UI design".
Posted by: Patrick | August 11, 2006 at 02:53 AM
Jack: this comment deserves to be in the roundtable! Will you consider making small edits to the first and last paragraph and posting it as your own roundtable contribution over at your blog? It deserves to be a post in its own right!
Peter: you raise a point that I originally was going to talk about in this post, namely the relationship between audience and play session length. However, do not be decieved by applying the general to the specific... In the case studies for DGD1 we found many 'casual gamers' who racked up large number of hours on specific single games, including a mother who had played several hundred hours of 'The New Tetris', and a woman who had played the same Japanese RPG several times through in immediate succession! Neither fitted the usual image we associate for a 'hardcore player' in any manner. But you are correct to say that in targeting the casual market in general, shorter play session lengths are wise.
Darius: your position is well reasoned and I would tend to agree. Thanks for the links. I've added your blog to my list of curiousities. :)
Patrick: the UI is where much of the language of a game is concentrated, of course, so your assertion that 'casual' can be understood as 'good UI design' holds water!
Thanks for the comments everyone! Why not contibute to this roundtable yourselves if you haven't already? The roundtable loves new contributors! :)
Posted by: Chris | August 11, 2006 at 08:53 AM