Hardcore versus Casual

As both a developer and a gamer, you can’t go five minutes discussing video games without one of these two words coming into the conversation. Hardcore gamers and casual gamers. The two opposite ends of the spectrum of players. But what do these words really mean? If you ask a room full of gamers to give a definition of a hardcore gamer, you will likely get varied responses. Because your perception of what is “hardcore” and what is “casual” is dependent on a number of factors. Where you are in the spectrum? What type of gamer do you consider yourself to be? What is your feeling about each side? All of these contribute to your idea of what is hardcore and what is casual. I’ve seen people I consider to be very hardcore MMO players consider themselves casual, even when, by my own definition, they are clearly in the hardcore bracket. I’ve seen casual players who don’t consider themselves casual because they have a negative perception of the word “casual”. They associate it with young children and grandparents and anyone who owns a Wii.

And all of this is something I try to consider when developing. Who is my target audience, what type of gamer are they, and what type of gamer do they perceive themselves to be?

After several years of looking at this, I’ve come to a few conclusions. Some of them might surprise you, others probably won’t.

1) Play time has nothing to do with whether you are hardcore or casual.

It really doesn’t. This may seem like a radical concept, since most gamers I know associate hardcore gamers to mean that they play every waking minute. But I disagree. For example, my mom can play Peggle for a good 6 hours straight. My mother! Does that make her a hardcore gamer? By some definitions, yes. Which is odd, because that’s literally the only video game she plays. If you asked her what company makes Peggle, she’d have no idea. If you asked her to name another video game, she’d probably answer with Solitaire or Freecell. If you asked her if she read that article on Kotaku, she’d give you a blank stare because she doesn’t know what you are talking about.

Why?

Because she’s not a hardcore gamer. Play time alone doesn’t affect whether someone could be classified as either type.

2) The games you play don’t affect whether you are casual or hardcore.

Well, I shouldn’t say that. It is very difficult to be hardcore with certain games. Conversely it is easy to be casual with certain games. However, a game, by itself, doesn’t dictate whether you are hardcore or casual. You can play “hardcore” games in a casual manner, and conversely you can play “casual” games in a hardcore manner.

Why?

Well, to explain that, I have to finally get to my point.

3) What makes you casual or hardcore is the reason why you play games.

That’s the real difference. Hardcore gamers play games for a very specific reason, and this reason is completely counter to that of casual players.

Hardcore gamers play video games for a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment, usually as a supplement to a lack of fulfillment from their real lives (usually either their jobs or their relationships). They need to feel needed (guilds) and they need to feel like they are accomplishing something tangible (character progression). They want difficult challenges to overcome. They live for the game. They’re posting on forums (or at least reading them), they’re browsing internet game websites and blogs. They want to invest into video games, both emotionally and with their time.

Casual gamers play video games for simple entertainment. They prefer when things are easy, accessible to them, with minimal time and/or emotional investment. They don’t bother reading the forums because they don’t care enough about the game to give a damn. It’s just a game to them. Sometime to kill some time and have some fun.

And it is near impossible to develop for both types of players (and the countless gamers who fall into both groups or neither).

If the game is too easy, then hardcore gamers are not getting their sense of accomplishment and will begin to complain about being bored or that the game is too easy.

If the game is too challenging, then it becomes inaccessible to casual gamers. Except they won’t complain on a forum or threaten to unsubscribe if you don’t cave to their demands. They simply stop giving you money and silently move on to the next game.

So, as a publisher, you have to ask yourself a serious question. Do you want a very dedicated, but very small player base and make enough money to be sustainable but never really explode in popularity?

If you answer “yes”, then make a hardcore MMO. Look at the other successful MMOs compared to World of Warcraft. LOTRO, EVE, WAR, EQ2; all these games cater to very specific and relatively small markets. They are hardcore MMOs. The vast majority of their player base are hardcore MMO players. And they will never have World of Warcraft’s numbers and no hardcore MMO ever will. Why? Accessibility.

Here’s the thing about hardcore gamers. If your game is too easy, they’ll complain and they may even leave eventually – but they will, more than likely, still buy, try, and play your game (for a time). The casuals? If your game is too hard or too frustrating (bugs), they quit. Immediately. They do not give you warnings; they do not give you opportunities to change your game; they do not give you the benefit of 6 months of a buggy release to polish your game post-launch.

And the hardcore market will only give your game about 250,000 subscribers, at best. The casuals? They’re all playing World of Warcraft, all 10 million of them.

Now, I’m not saying there is no place for hardcore games or hardcore MMOs. There is a market there, a very dedicated market that is, more or less, guaranteed sales. However, it seems like MMO companies continue to make MMOs targeted specifically at hardcore gamers and then can’t figure out why they top out at 100,000 subs. It is because your game is only appealing to those players. That’s what you should expect to get. If you want bigger numbers, the game needs to be more accessible – which usually translates to “easy”. And launching with some polish wouldn’t hurt either.

Casuals stick by a simple rule. Can they play it and have fun? Yes? Sold.

So that’s my conclusion. If your target audience is the hardcore market and you are happy with simply having a sustainable MMO, then by all means continue to develop the same way we have been since Ultima Online. But if you are targeting the entire MMO market (casuals included) then you have to develop without the hardcore gamers in mind. You have to develop for the casual market, specifically. And this is harder than it sounds. Why? Because game developers make games for themselves. And we’re all hardcore gamers too.