Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

10 January, 2008

Misconceptions about casual gamers
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 10:50 PM

I had dinner recently with someone that is doing a startup that wants to do smaller-scale games. He did an AJAX implementation of a social space, but that project had it’s own special challenges. His most recent foray is to make some games for the Facebook platform. His company built two games: one a more casual game that deals with throwing parties, and a hard-core game that has a men-in-tights theme and zero-sum PvP type mechanics. Guess which one did better.

If you said, “Obviously the hardcore one!” you have learned to anticipate my sense of irony. Well, that and it’d be a boring post if I just validated most people’s assumptions. :)

So, why does the hard-core game beat out the casual game on a pretty broad platform like Facebook?

I think people are a bit too quick to worship at the alter of casual games. They look at the games that require a lot of time commitment, especially online games, and conclude that people would be happier if they could spend less time in the game. They look to casual games as something that can easily be picked up and set aside as the template to work from. So, building more “casual” elements means that the game will be better?

When WoW first came out, most people thought it was a huge success because it’s so “casual friendly”. However, if you read up on WoW combat and how to optimize, you quickly find out that you can easily get into hardcore territory as you read through combat theorycrafting. (And that’s ignoring if you want to get into highly specialized mechanics like how to optimize your Feral Druid.) Now, sure, you can go along and ignore most of this information in WoW, but how many people really do that? Even the biggest huntard knows, “I should get more Agility!” Ignoring even the most basic combat information in WoW is like saying you’re playing Monopoly by scooting the little racecar around the board without rolling dice.

Really, “casual” or “hardcore” is more a state of mind than a definition of a game. My GF was so obsessed with Bejeweled that it made some of my game obsessions look pretty tame. (Of course, I got to top level in Puzzle Quest before she did! Mmm, RPG flavor makes everything better!) The game itself doesn’t determine what is casual so much as what someone is willing to dedicate to the game. As someone with a busier schedule these days, I play many games much more casually than I did when I was a kid. I still want deep, engaging gameplay, but I want it in more manageable chunks.

I wrote about hardcore people wanting less time commitment before in the post about Defining the middlecore. I defined the “middlecore” as the hardcore people that didn’t have a whole lot of time. I think this captures what Tuebit at WorldIV really wants: something that he can dig into without the 20-hour-per-week commitment.

However, as I commented over there, this is a tall order to fill. The big problem is:

If you have 5 hours per week and I have 5 hours per day to play, how are you going to make a contribution to the world that’s as meaningful as what I can do with my greatly increased amount of time to play? We’re looping back into the same issues we’ve complained about since EQ1 raiding required your whole life and soul to keep up. You either have to boost up the person falling behind or hold back the person charging ahead, and both options tend to upset someone. (Unfortunately, it’s usually the person with all that time on their hands that now spends it calling your CSRs and screaming ugly names at them.)

The real issue here is how do you make the contribution of the time-starved person equal to the person with too much time on their hands? Not an easy task. As I said above, the “hardcore” aspect is a question of what people want to pour into the game. Some people will always have more time and more willingness to pour it into a game than someone else. Even if we’re not talking directly about hours logged into the game, we can also talk about the time the theorycrafters spend trying to figure out the most optimum arrangement in the game. Trying to make everyone equal usually ends up just feeling rather unsatisfying for some people.

So, going back to my question above: why was the “hardcore” game (which also had a good number of women playing, assuming their Facebook profiles were correct) beat out the casual game? I suspect the reason is because people still enjoy a good game, even if it has “hardcore” aspects like direct, zero-sum competition. Even though the party game was less confrontational, it probably didn’t include as many engaging elements as the first game. So, more people played and stuck with the game.

What do you think? Are casual games overrated? Or, are the hardcore just a segment that should be ignored in favor of bluer oceans?







14 Comments »

  1. My guesses about the “hardcore” game:
    Required little explanation (swords and bows and fighting)
    Was simple to control (guessed from it’s success)
    Your achievements, while diffcult to attain (zero sum PvP is a harsh but fair mistress),
    were easy to understand (same as a sports league or a squash ladder).

    These points make it a casual game, not a hardcore one. Bejewelled, Tetris are basically the same, they are not easy, but they are casual. WoW does pretty well here too, especially if you don’t think you have to become an uB3r R41d3r, which most don’t when they start.

    So, I don’t think casual games are overrated, they are where the action is.

    Hardcore is Hearts of Iron, WW2Online, Civillisation, Online FPS, C&C/AoE/SC type RTS, MS FSim. There are lots of people who like these kinds of games too, but games where you have to spend hours just learning how to play or survive for more than 2 secs are naturally going to have an audience with more game time, taken in larger chunks. That is probably a smaller market when most of these games require big financial investment.

    I call games like My Party (or whatever), fluff games. They aren’t really games that people can get their teeth into and play. Quite often they don’t have clear objectives, the controls are too simple for what is needed and there is little to achieve and so no depth. I think the is even less audience for these games and very little repeat custom. They are not casual games that you play, they are a five minute distraction.

    Comment by Dominic Fitzpatrick — 11 January, 2008 @ 1:34 AM

  2. I’m almost always a casual player in MMO’s, for two reasons: time, and I don’t generally form online friendships. As a casual player, I definitely don’t expect to make an equal contribution to the world as someone who invests more time/thought/emotion in the game. I just want a way to play that doesn’t make me feel like a total schlub. The Burning Crusade expansion for WoW, for instance, was very satisfying in that regard. It game me lots to do without needing get heavy.

    I suspect that there’s going to be a sample-selection problem in looking at the relative success of hardcore vs. casual games. People who are more hardcore about gaming are MUCH more likely to experiment with a new game. Casual gamers tend to stick to a small portfolio of proven games, maybe adding or dropping one from time to time. (OK, I have absolutely no evidence to back up these assertions, but they sure sound good, don’t they?)

    Here’s another thought and question. For me, the social aspect of any game is a major barrier. It may just be that I’m a geek and socializing is hard; I don’t know if this carries over to others. But if I’m looking for a *truly* casual game, for me that necessarily means a single-player game.

    Second most casual would be a zero-sum competitive game, because the only socializing it requires is being polite to an opponent. Cooperative games require coordinating with others, which works better if you know them well, which gets away from “casual”.

    So, I don’t know if it’s just me, but that would be my feeling about a “casual gamer”. They would mostly play single-player games, secondarily play zero-sum competitive games, and rarely play cooperative games. Does that jibe with what more knowledgeable folks see?

    Comment by Timothy Dang — 11 January, 2008 @ 6:49 AM

  3. Casual MMORPG

    [...] brings up a good point about time contribution. Playing 5 hours/week will contribute less than playing 25 hours/week. This [...]

    Pingback by Sierra Kilo — 11 January, 2008 @ 8:33 AM

  4. Casual Games on Facebook

    [...] read a post this morning by Brian Green talking about casual vs. hardcore games on Facebook. I suppose this could have been a comment on [...]

    Pingback by The Forge — 11 January, 2008 @ 10:27 AM

  5. Hardcore and casual as descriptions for games are problematic, if you ask me. Does it refer to hours required to play? Rule difficulty? Learning curve? All of the above? Scrabble … is that casual or hardcore. It depends on what league you play in, I’d say.

    So … to echo what Psychochild said: “the ‘hardcore’ aspect is a question of what people want to pour into the game. ”

    With regards to what I’m looking for, though … it’s not exactly “something that he can dig into without the 20-hour-per-week commitment” … as you pointed out in your reply to the article, one can usually pop in and do a few solo missions as a solo-friendly class.

    It’s the ‘solo’ part I’ve got the largest concern with. When you fall behind, when you have limited play time, when you can only play for short sessions … all these walls pop up to participating with your friends.

    - By the time the group forms, you’ve run out of time to actually play.
    - Quests come in chunks that are too large for short play periods and you have to abandon mid-quest.
    - Lower level character cannot contribute anything useful to the guild or community.
    - Level differences prevent grouping

    I do think there are solutions to each of these. I think that existing games have separately implemented solutions to these problems.

    I don’t think the solutions necessarily mean dumbing down the content for everyone else. I don’t think the solutions are necessarily dirt simple or would work in every game.

    I do think that MMO development studios have put some serious thought into making MMO’s “playable” for time constrained explorers and achievers.

    I don’t think they’ve put the same degree of thought in making MMO’s “playable” for time constrained socializers.

    Comment by Tuebit — 11 January, 2008 @ 10:55 AM

  6. Games contain so many ridiculous timesinks; it is only natural that a pecking order has evolved where time spent is a unit of social currency.

    Things like travel, combat, crafting, and even communication should be set up to be as conceptual and asynchronous as possible (in other words, instead of two combatants engaging in a real-time clickfest, give them both a puzzle and 24 hours to complete it. The combatant with the highest ‘score’ wins the fight, and you can have as many fights as you like ongoing at once).

    Facebook is an excellent gaming delivery vector because it consists of an asynchronous communication system that everyone already knows how to use.

    Any chance we could know what these games are called? Are they live yet?

    Comment by Bret — 11 January, 2008 @ 10:32 PM

  7. Tuebit wrote:
    Hardcore and casual as descriptions for games are problematic, if you ask me.

    I agree. I usually define these terms in terms of how much time is invested. A person that invests a lot of time into games (or even a specific game) is “hardcore”; a game that requires a lot of time investment is “hardcore”. Note that sometimes this time requirement isn’t direct. A game that requires grouping can still be considered “hardcore” because of the overhead in finding a group, adventuring together, not wanting to break the group up, etc., as you point out. So, the game is hardcore even if the game itself was divided into 5 minute quests.

    But, I think part of the issue is that a truly engaging game will still encourage people to behave as “hardcore”. I don’t need to level a second character up to 70 in WoW, but I’m enjoying it enough that I choose to spend my time doing so. Those 10 days /played still represent a significant amount of time. So, even if the game has casual aspects, I’m still acting as a “hardcore” player.

    So, I think this is the root of your problem: you aren’t hardcore anymore since you can’t spend time in games, yet your friends are so they race ahead of you. You still want a game that is still engaging and interesting, but almost every game like that will encourage your more hardcore friends to keep playing it obsessively even if you can’t. If the game isn’t worth playing obsessively, then the game probably isn’t engaging enough to keep you interested. Even mechanics like sidekicking or mentoring don’t work in truly deep games because it takes a character out of context; you get confused by having to run to an advanced area, or your friends have to go slum around an area they’ve already been through (and depending on how many friends start after them, perhaps through SEVERAL times).

    Again, still an interesting challenge. I’m trying to point out why nobody has picked up what might seem to others to be a simple issue.

    Comment by Psychochild — 12 January, 2008 @ 4:33 AM

  8. Bret wrote:
    Things like travel, combat, crafting, and even communication should be set up to be as conceptual and asynchronous as possible[....]

    What’s interesting is that this sounds like the old turn-based PBeM (or BBS if you’re real oldskool) games we used to play. I just had someone send me a proposal for this type of game. It’d probably do well on Facebook.

    Any chance we could know what these games are called? Are they live yet?

    Just a caveat: I haven’t really played the games; I just used the description that the designer used to describe the games. Note: specific criticisms about these games will not be considered on-topic in this thread.

    http://apps.facebook.com/party-time/
    http://apps.facebook.com/knighthood/

    The Knighthood game was heavily inspired by Travian. The asynchronous nature of these games mean that you don’t have to commit much time to them, although they do tend to reward people who are a bit more obsessive. ;)

    Some figures from the designer about genders for Knighthood players based on Facebook personal data:
    Male: 45.5%
    Female: 38.3%
    Not stated: 16.2%

    Rather interesting.

    Comment by Psychochild — 12 January, 2008 @ 4:43 AM

  9. The problem isn’t 5 hours a day versus 5 hours per week.
    The problem is 25 hours in one sitting is vastly more beneficial that 25 hours played over a weeks time.

    Casual and hardcore are not relative terms for games that are time based in limitation.

    Comment by D-0ne — 13 January, 2008 @ 6:57 PM

  10. What games work best on Facebook?

    [...] Brian Green talks to a developer with two games, one casual and one hardcore, and based on that concludes that hardcore games do better: I suspect the reason is because people still enjoy a good game, even if it has “hardcore” aspects like direct, zero-sum competition. Even though the party game was less confrontational, it probably didn’t include as many engaging elements as the first game. So, more people played and stuck with the game. [...]

    Pingback by Lightspeed Venture Partners Blog — 14 January, 2008 @ 4:16 PM

  11. The advantages of social networks as a games platform…

    [...] lot has been written lately on blogs regarding games on facebook – see the posts by Matt Mihaly and Brian Green in particular – and about the next big thing for games – see Raph Koster’s excellent GDC [...]

    Pingback by Life at Playfish — 16 January, 2008 @ 10:32 AM

  12. Thanks for the interesting post. I think the games you classify as more hard core are perhaps just better designed and therefore attract more users. Casual games are perhaps harder to get right. Designing game play that allows for complex strategies and enjoyable learning over time is harder to do if you constrain yourself to a simple, easy to pick up controls and rules rather than go to town on more complex “hard core” features. See Raph Koster’s musings in this area at http://www.theoryoffun.com

    I think the question should be turned around. Given that you can get so many primarily non-core gamers to play your game in Facebook and that you have access to all the data and a bunch of vocal users, surely it should be the ultimate platform for getting game design right for casual titles – even standalone ones? We released our first game on facebook “Who Has The Biggest Brain?” before the holidays and the amount of data and thoughtful feedback it generates is an amazing resource for learning about gameplay… so perhaps the term casual games is overrated and perhaps they don’t dominate the top-10, but if any platform should provide a fertile ground for creating the best casual games in the world, it should be social networks. Will be interesting to see how the future will pan out in this area. More at http://blog.playfish.com

    http://apps.facebook.com/biggestbrain/

    Comment by kristian segerstrale — 16 January, 2008 @ 11:42 AM

  13. Since this became mostly about Facebook as a medium for games, figured people might find this article interesting:

    ‘Facebook fatigue’ kicks in as people tire of social networks

    On one hand, this follows the pattern of a lot of other social networks, where people eventually stop using the service for whatever reason: too many “friends”, the novelty has worn off, whatever. However, I don’t think things are quite as dire as that article points out. We’ll have to see how things work out once the dust settles.

    Comment by Psychochild — 1 February, 2008 @ 3:09 AM

  14. What games work best on Facebook?

    [...] Brian Green talks to a developer with two games, one casual and one hardcore, and based on that concludes that hardcore games do better: [...]

    Pingback by Softolio — 6 August, 2008 @ 11:14 PM

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