What is the distinction between a Hardcore gamer and a Casual gamer? Are these distinctions still useful to us? Is it valuable to define a third state in between? And what, if anything, can we learn from this terminology?
For many years now, and with origins
cloaked in mystery, the crudest audience model has persisted as the one most
commonly used – namely the split of players into Hardcore gamers and Casual
gamers. It is probably the simple nature of this dichotomy that has allowed it
to spread, as humans take to ‘us and them’ distinctions rather too easily.
Marcus of Verse Studios suggests that the focus on these terms is entirely
misleading, and we should just concentrate on making games that are fun. I
admire the sentiment – as long as we remember that one person’s fun can be another
When my company began the research into the gaming audience that produced the DGD1 model, we were investigating a particular hypothesis: that those people who constituted the majority of so-called Hardcore gamers belonged to a particular psychological mindset, denoted in Myers-Briggs typology by I_TJ –Introverted, Thinking and Judging. In effect, we expected Hardcore gamers to show to be people who kept themselves to themselves, favoured pragmatism over affiliation, and who displayed obsessive-compulsive tendencies.
To conduct the research, we had to decide
how to determine if someone could be considered a Hardcore gamer, and to do
this we used to methods: firstly self-selection. Players were asked to
answer if they considered themselves a Hardcore player, a Casual player or
didn’t know. Secondly, we enquired after how much time was spent playing games,
and how many different games were purchased and played. As it happened, all of
these methods proved to be broadly equivalent: there is significant statistical
overlap between players who self-identify as Hardcore (sometimes reluctantly!),
players who spend a lot of time each week playing games, and players who buy
and play a lot of games. We shouldn’t be entirely surprised!
The hypothesis behind our research was largely disproved. Although it was validated that Hardcore players were more Introverted (in Myers-Briggs terms) than non-Hardcore players, the presumed Thinking and Judging preferences turned out to be indicative of a pattern of play independent of Hardcore status, however determined. In fact, Intuitive bias (i.e. preference for abstract thinking) turned out to be a better indicator of Hardcore status. This discovery completely changed the way I thought about the gaming audience, and lead to the development of our research into the many different play styles that exist as an entirely separate issue to Hardcore or Casual status.
(More on the subject of this research can
be found in our book 21st Century Game Design).
It is important to understand that while this research showed that Hardcore players (both in terms of self-identification, and commitment of time) were predominantly Introverted and Intuitive (in Myers-Briggs terms), neither of these factors are necessarily reliable indicators of a Hardcore player. In particular, there are people who express both traits but have no interest in videogames at all!
So what do we mean when we talk about a
“Hardcore player?” Putting aside the subtle and confusing shades that this term
has acquired, at heart we mean a player who spends a lot of time playing
videogames. I have suggested a better term for such a player is a gamer
hobbyist, someone who pursues videogames in the manner of a hobby, rather
than as a distraction and diversion. This term is more descriptive than
“Hardcore”, and comes without the baggage the old term has acquired.
Is a “Casual player” then someone who doesn’t spend much time playing videogames? Well, as it happens there are many players who do not self-identify as “Hardcore players” and who do not buy and play many games who still rack up a lot of hours playing games. They play the same games over and over again (especially games such as Tetris and Solitaire).
I therefore suggest that if we are to
rescue the crude “Hardcore versus Casual” partition and make something more
worthwhile of it, we should consider the underlying distinction to be game
literacy. By this, I mean the individual’s familiarity with the conventions
of videogames, and thus by extension their ability to pick up and play new
games with little or no instruction.
It will probably not have escaped notice that videogames evolve along quite channelled lines – that is, genres within videogames show many marked similarities. The potential deviation between one first person shooter and another is vast, yet most have a lot in common. Similarly for real time strategy or for almost any well-established genre. This is inevitable: the audience likes to buy games that are similar to the games they have enjoyed in the past (and the games industry, as an employer of gamer hobbyists, likes to make games similar to the games they enjoyed in the past). The inevitable consequence of this dependency is “genre conventions”. They may be bent, twisted and and eventually superseded, but each game genre has it’s own habitual tenets, and game literacy represents in part a player’s ability to interpret a new game in the context of their prior experience of these conventions.
The “Hardcore gamer” or gamer hobbyist
therefore represents a player with high videogame literacy. Such a player can play
any and all games they choose – they have the requisite knowledge to do so – although the actual games they enjoy will vary from person to person.
They require little or no tutorial for a game that fits into their existing
experience comfortably – perhaps just an explanation of how the conventions of
the new game differ from their expectations. A typical gamer hobbyist will have
acquired between 15 and 50 man months of experience playing games, and will
also have played 20 to 100 different games in that time. (Note that when
I say ‘man month’, I mean a month of continuous play time totalled up).
The “Casual gamer” therefore becomes the player with low or limited gamer literacy. This is an explanation for the simplicity of successful Casual games like Zuma, Bejewelled, Bookworm and Solitaire – to succeed in an audience with low gamer literacy, one must make games that do not require this domain-specific knowledge. Thus a successful Casual game draws from experiences familiar to people from outside of videogames – accuracy (for Zuma), logic puzzles (for Bejewelled), word puzzles (for Bookworm) and card games (for Solitaire). Equally, a successful Casual game requires the player to learn only two or three rules. Thus, the barrier to entry is lowered.
I prefer to term the Casual gamers as the mass
market, in keeping with the usual terms used in business. After all, that’s
what we’re talking about here: the largest group of consumers, those who lie
under the long tail of a particular industry – that’s the mass market, and
that’s what I believe we are usually talking about when we talk about Casual gamers.
But of course, what we are talking about here is a continuum: from the spike of the gamer hobbyists, the most game literate, to the tail of the mass market, the least game literate. “Hardcore”, as previously used, refers to that spike, and “Casual” refers to the tail. (See the diagram above for a visualisation of the distinction between the 'head' of the market – the gamer hobbyists – and the 'long tail' – the mass market players.)
Of course, being a continuum we can break
it up in many different ways. We could split it into three, as Jenova Chen and That
Game Company did by defining “Core” as a midpoint or intersection between the two extremes,
or we could split it into any other number of segments – say, a sevenfold
division into (say) hardcore, hobbyist, experienced, core, inexperienced,
casual, mass market – but what would be the point in doing so? We know we are
dealing with a continuum, the clearest way to denote such a phenomena is to
label the poles (hobbyist and mass market, or Hardcore and Casual) and remember
that the majority of people fall between the extremes. That said, render
whatever models help you make your games – a model is just a model, after all.
As my company gets ready to launch its new research into the gaming audience (the long delayed DGD2 survey), the issue of Hardcore versus Casual has slipped into obscurity for us. We will be exploring issues of game literacy instead – although we are still including the self-assessment question from DGD1 so that we can compare game literacy to self-assessment. But even this is a tangential element of the research we are conducting this time. The survey will go live in two weeks time, just in time for me to promote it at the Austin Game Developer’s Conference.
Thinking of the issue of “Hardcore and
Casual” games in terms of gamer literacy adds clarity to the nature of the
situation, and allows us to reason about how to proceed. Those games that used
to be the centre of the marketplace are increasingly becoming niche markets for
gamer hobbyists, while some – sometimes against all odds – have transitioned to the edge
of the mass market (World of Warcraft and GTA being only the two
most well known examples).
This gives game designers a choice in how they approach their games: they can target the gamer hobbyist side of the audience, in which case the game either needs to be developed on a prudent budget or be lucky enough to be supported by a platform licensor (Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo) as a possible driver for early adoption or brand loyalty, as the audience will primarily be a minority (albeit a minority currently responsible for a significant share of expenditure on videogames). Or, they can target the “long tail” with simple games that do not require much if any gamer literacy to play. Or they can work in the space with the greatest potential for both profit and failure – the elusive middle ground between the two extremes. There is success to be found here, but it requires careful consideration of how the games will support players with low game literacy, intelligent structuring, and more than a modicum of luck.
It's possible (even probable) that the genres beloved by hobbyists can support commercially viable niche markets, and we will see a widening of the gap between such players and the mass market. It is perhaps more likely that the mainstream videogames of the future will need to learn how to balance the needs of the game literate player against the mass market players with little prior gaming experience in order to maintain commercial viability. But the problems to solve in this journey – riddles of difficulty and related issues in game modes to name just two – ensure that the field of game design still has much to learn about how to take videogames forward into the twenty first century.