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Redefining Hardcore & Casual

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.

Game Literacy 

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!


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dj i/o here..

Punishers/Forgivers ... I don't like it. Since the players are the receipt of the punishment/forgiveness, not the ones dishing it out. I propose: Masochists vs. Amiables


I second dj i/o - the players are those acted upon here, and punishers/forgivers doesn't really work. Not sure I agree with the choice of terms, but for now I'll sign myself:

- Peter the Amiable

Nice new axis to distinguish. I agree that Punishers is not right (or not right-sounding at least)...

Fighters and forgivers, or
Floggers and forgivers, or
Flagellate vs forgive, or
Discipline vs Funster, or
Punitive vs acquital

Hmm, or other thesaurus-led offerings.

Another proposed distinction I've seen has been those who prefer "art games" (or "story games") versus those who prefer "skill games". While I'd say that many art games are forgiving while many skill games are challenging, this isn't always the case, and the converse isn't really true at all. What do you think? I'm guessing that your opinion would sort of depend on whether you consider interactive stories to be "games".

And of course you can't put everyone in one of these two boxes; I see it as more of a scale. Also sometimes I like forgiving games and sometimes I like punishing games. It all depends on the type of game, the game itself, how steep the learning curve is. If the objective seems obtainable to me, I tend to keep trying longer to attain it, no matter how much I am punished for small mistakes I make. But if I can't see a way to get past an obstacle, or I can't figure out how to play the game, I tend to stop playing immediately.

dj i/o: I completely agree that punishers/forgivers is grammatically incorrect, but any terms that would fly would have to be simple enough to catch on - your suggested substitutes replace the grammatical problem with a PR problem - much more troublesome! :)

I deleted another handful of suggested terms before posting because they solved the grammar problem at the cost of being lacklustre. I'd rather fudge grammar than be boring. :D

Ultimately, it is perhaps not necessary to find a grammatical form that applies to this, though - one could always say "player who enjoys punishing games" after all.

But I welcome good suggestions - while being quite sceptical that there are any! :)

Deirdra: This is presumably a split made by people who enjoy interactive fiction... It would be a terrible axis to apply to play as a whole, at least at this time, since you'd be using a distinction between 99% of players and about 1% of players (might be more like 5-10%, I suppose - haven't checked).

On the basis of what I'm currently seeing, the art games/story games have very poor popularity, except as a refreshing supplement to "skill games". Plus, "skill games" is a crude box, since there are many quite different kinds of skill being employed. (This is not to say they *couldn't* become popular, but I believe we'd have to get a long way from where we are to achieve this).

This split might make more sense if it was a set of responses covering the various different skills, versus pure story play.

But I do consider interactive fiction (== adventure games :> ) to qualify as games. But I am notorious for throwing this net as wide as is humanly possible!

Katherine: I agree you have to see this as a scale, and would further suggest that one might have to consider these terms solely at a statistical level for them to be well grounded. Mind you, most people can divide themselves between Hardcore and Casual, so perhaps with a sufficiently well defined axis people could divide themselves between liking punishing or forgiving games. I think I can also get at this data another way, but more on this later... :)

"If the objective seems obtainable to me, I tend to keep trying longer to attain it, no matter how much I am punished for small mistakes I make. But if I can't see a way to get past an obstacle, or I can't figure out how to play the game, I tend to stop playing immediately."

This is a description of play that I suspect most gamer hobbyists would recognise. I feel this represents the midpoint of the punishing-forgiving scale - you are willing to tolerate punishment (so you are far from the forgiving pole) but you also have your limits in this regard (so you are not at the punishing pole either). This position perhaps deserves its own label. :)

Thanks for the description of your play! I will be setting up a new survey to explore issues around this point somewhen in the near future, so any and all discussions of how people relate to these terms will be helpful a short way down the road.

Thanks for the thoughts everyone!

dj i/o here...

Katherine, I feel similarly about being punished... I'll try hundreds of times if the goal is clear, but if it becomes obfuscated, I find it much more frustrating and less rewarding to continue playing.

On a slightly off topic note.. I needed a place to notify you (Chris) about this article I think you will find interesting -- "How video games blind us with science"

How about 'fiero-seekers' and 'experience-seekers'? Those terms also describe what they mean, at the cost of being 2 or 3 more syllables and so less marketable.

Would it be fair to say that fiero-seekers are clubs/diamonds whilst experience-seekers are hearts/spades?

I've thought for a while that Bartle's model could be used for more than it is.

Though I appreciate advantages of having many models.

P.S. I thought it may be worth sharing my backstory and thoughts on why I rated 'casual' - as I did. It became too long to seem suitable as a post here, so I posted it elsewhere.

However, to summarise,

"I want simplicity, brevity and focused intent.

Lack of difficulty or a forgiving nature aren't strictly necessary - if I'm playing with novel mechanics and realise why I failed - with success remaining a definite possibility - I'm happy to fail 20 or more times before success. Cirplosion's final challenge and Unirally's Gold-medal stunt tracks are testament to that."

No time to read all the supplemental material - I'll try and catch up next week. But the Wired piece is Clive Thompson's, so I read that on his blog (Collision Detection). ;)

Just one quick thought:
"Fiero-seekers" is no good because most people have no idea what 'fiero' means. ;)

Thanks for the comments!

For me personally, my gaming habits are more a result of time constraints than anything else. In the past I would have identified myself as a hardcore or serious gamer, but now, with two small children at home I don't have the time to get involved in a big full version game so I play a lot more casual games. I can play a round or two of a casual game while dinner's cooking or while the kids are occupied but there's no way I can get involved in a more serious game, and even when I can, often the content isn't suitable for the kids.
I think there are several major consequences of designing a game so that it is playable in small fragmented chunks of time: less immersion, lower difficulty tolerance, and (in most cases) less complexity. Many casual games have very engaging gameplay but real immersion is very difficult when play is divided up into segments lasting only a few minutes. If I'm involved in a game and have lots of time to play, I don't mind being stuck on a difficult spot and trying to work out how to succeed, but if I'm only playing for a short bit at a time I won't enjoy playing if I feel like I'm not getting anywhere. Similarly, a complex game with a steep learning curve isn't going to fly with someone who's just stealing a few minutes at the computer between chores.
Perhaps I'm not the usual casual game player, really I'd rather have an Unreal Tournament all-nighter than play any casual game. Oh well. Maybe when the kids are older.

"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."

That's not really accurate. Call of Duty 4 has sold over 10 million, and Halo 3 had sold 8.5 million back in January (meaning it's likely over 10 million by now). Both of these are punishing shooters, resulting in lost progress in the case of failure.

Geoff: you are far from alone! A recent Parks report showed that there were a lot of gamers who used to enjoy typical Hardcore-style games, but no longer had the time to do so. I appreciate your description of your play here - and can completely understand why you have to play casual games, even though you would rather be playing something more substantial!

Brent: you are correct - I also excluded Goldeneye, Halo: Combat Evolved and Half-Life (8 million each) in consideration here, which was sloppy. I suppose I missed out the qualifying phrase that would restore this sentence to its intended meaning (e.g. "a *typical* FPS can even hope to attract") but in truth I should not have been making this assertion at all, and should have made the more accurate point that competition for the top spots in FPS is vicious, while competition in the forgiving marketplace is very low. Thanks for calling me on this.

And thanks also for letting me know that Call of Duty 4 cleared 10 million - this is significant, as I believe this makes it the most successful FPS game of all time.

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