The Gaming Identity Crisis: Casual Vs. Hardcore

In the gaming culture, there are two camps of gamers that make up the bulk of the purchasing power: Hardcore gamers, and Casual gamers.

To make sure we’re all on the same page here, hardcore gamers can be defined as a gamer who generally completes games, often multiple times, prefers games with missions, stories, unlockable items, and/or objectives (think RPGs, Racers, Action/Adventure, Sports, etc), and often masters a game’s gameplay rules (though this doesn’t necessarily mean they play more than a casual gamer on a certain game).  Hardcore gamers prefer games that require physical skill with a game’s control (or at least are better than their casual counterparts at developing said skills),. Hardcore gamers often spend a good chunk of their time gaming, and are identifiable by being considered by others, and themselves,  as good at games.

Casual gamers are often associated by the kinds of games they play, which tend to be more “single rule” driven (think puzzle games, casino games, simplified sports games [a la Wii Sports], Slingo games, etc).  Casual gamers do not necessarily spend less time playing  games: to the contrary a casual gamer could spend hours playing a single game, but a casual gamer won’t attain the same level of mastery a hardcore gamer will (though to be fair, this often is based on game choice, where casual games can be games of pure luck and numbers vs. skill with controls).  Casual gamers will rarely identify themselves as a gamer, and others would likely not associate them with gaming.

Now that we understand the two types of gamers, let’s get one thing straight: As sales of the Wii have proven, casual gamers do spend money, and a lot of it.  And in case you missed the last E3, the gaming companies have noticed, because all 3 of the major players are now releasing their own onslaught of games targeting the  casual gamer, and introducing their own version of motion controller that has apparently been deemed as the preferred method for casual gamer control.  This isn’t being done because Hardcore gamers aren’t spending money (as sales of Red Dead Redemption, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 and others have shown), but rather that the Casual gamer is a new and largely untapped market.

So as we move forward, how do gaming companies address the two camps? Do we keep Casual and Hardcore gamers segregated from each other? So far, that’s been the solution; the problem is that while Hardcore gamers may dally into casual games, the opposite is rarely true.  Casual gamers can’t get past the skill requirements needed for most hardcore games, and thus remain in their casual game bubble.  A article talks about the need for gaming companies as a whole to begin embracing what Nintendo dubbed “bridge games,” games that allow for casual gamers to take what they love about casual games, and integrate hardcore game elements without being intimidating.

While the concept of bridge games seems logical to a Hardcore gamer as a way for Casual gamers to become more hardcore, I think we’re forgetting a basic rule of casual gamer: they usually don’t identify themselves as gamers.  As such, they might not have an interest in becoming more involved with hardcore games (after all, if they did want to, there are plenty of hardcore games to choose from).  Of course there will be some converts, and thus some money to be made from those, but by the numbers, I think casual games will see their best success by serving up to those people who like to kill a few hours playing games without having to get bogged down by stories, maps, controls, or skillful execution.

The other potential danger of bridge games comes from Hardcore gamers crowding out Casual gamers.  This is more of a multi-player issue, so single player bridge games may not suffer the same fate, but if a game appeals to both Hardcore and Casual gamers, Hardcore gamers will excel by their nature of mastering games, and ultimately push away Casual gamers who may get frustrated over the difficulties in engaging Hardcore gamers.  Don’t forget, the other thing coming out of E3 besides Casual gaming is the online, multi-player experience, so this situation is an eventual reality.  Without excellent filtering to keep Hardcore and Casual gamers from playing the same game, Casual gamers will be pushed back into their casual games, which defeats the purpose of bridge games entirely.

As it is, Hardcore gamers will continue to cross-pollinate between the two, but by keeping casual games casual, Hardcore gamers will tend to keep to the more complex hardcore games, which will ensure that the casual games and their gamers will not be overrun by Hardcore gaming experts.

I think the best way for casual games to bridge the gap between Casual and Hardcore gamers is to let Casual gamers play casual games. The mindset of a gamer, more than skill, dictate who they are, and by trying to create games that integrate the two parties, gaming companies might end up reinforcing the stereotypes that Casual gamers are not gamers, and thus shouldn’t be playing, and that Hardcore gamers own the market.  Only by getting Casual gamers to think of themselves as gamers can you then begin to move those gamers into more Hardcore territory.  So let Casual gamers keep playing until they realize they like games, and want to explore more options.

In the end, games are about being fun for their audience.  There’s nothing wrong with having to cater to multiple audiences through different games.  The key to it all is providing the options for anyone to be able to play your system, and having the games to appeal to all crowds.  Microsoft and Sony are following in Nintendo’s footsteps in providing motion controls in an effort to allow Casual gamers a way to interact with their systems and games, just like they have been with Nintendo.  Rather than focus on how to make them Hardcore, let’s just enjoy the fact that more people are enjoying games, even if they don’t think of themselves as gamers.

At least not yet.

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