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.


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.


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.

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  1. all very valid points.

    i only have one small difference of opinion… i think it’s possible to have a game that caters both to hardcore and casual players… but the key is in the learning curve, difficulty levels, and turning casual players into hardcore players.

    if you start your game relatively simple, and slowly add more and more complexities, even casual players can keep up and learn along the way how to be better and better players… the casuals usually quit when they hit a roadblock where they don’t understand what they need to do in order to progress further… if you make sure you teach the players the necessary skills along the way, then they won’t hit any roadblocks that they can’t overcome.

    secondly, i think having different, user selected, difficulty levels can make a big difference.. the casuals can play on an easier setting, while the hardcore play on a harder setting… i know difficulty sliders are not an easy thing to implement in an MMO, but if done right, i think it could make a very big difference in getting the casual players into the game.

    thirdly, i think the interaction between hardcore gamers and casual gamers tends to cause more casual gamers to become hardcore than the other way around… i can’t tell you how many people i’ve met in WoW that were completely casual players, but after a few months of playing with more hardcore players they became pretty hardcore themselves.

    when hardcore players become casual players it’s usually because of real-life circumstances (had a baby, money issues, etc:)… but when casual players become hardcore players, it’s usually because the game and the people around them has lead them from the casual end of the spectrum to the hardcore end.

    which i think is the goal of any good MMO… take casual players and turn them into hardcore players, the hardcore are more invested and more likely to stick around, which is how MMOs make their money right?

    • World of Warcraft is the closest example to the game you are describing. However, even the most complex areas of WoW, raiding and PvP, are very, very simple and easy to understand compared to even the beginning levels of more hardcore MMOs. By level 30, LOTRO is already more complex and more challenging than WoW entry-level end-game content. And, as you said, an MMO only gets more complex and more challenging as you progress. The trick to getting the casual market is that the end-game needs to be just below their breaking point. Because, again, the casual market will stop playing once they reach a point where they can no longer progress – either because of frustration, complexity, or difficulty.

      Difficulty levels are great and there are ways to implement them (Hard Mode, Heroic Mode, Solo Mode) but mostly only in instanced content. World content is very difficult to design to accommodate varying difficulty levels. And the hardcore market and casual market differ greatly on their desires for World content. The hardcore want challenging group content in the open World and World PvP – the casuals typically want neither. The truth is, if you don’t have World group content and World PvP, the hardcore will still play. If you have both of them, and they feel forced – in any way – the casuals will stop playing. It sounds like I’m saying that you can ignore the hardcore completely and they’ll still grudgingly play, and that’s because I am. Hardcore players have a much higher tolerance for doing things they don’t necessarily enjoy as long as they are eventually getting their accomplishment fix. Casuals have no tolerance. And that’s why so many MMOs start off with big numbers and drop off quickly. As soon as that casual player hits a point where the game is no longer fun, he quits. A hardcore player will slog through content that they don’t necessarily find fun because it is an accomplishment to complete it.

      I agree that hardcore gamers can “turn” casual gamers. But they will usually still be the more casual hardcore gamers. They may be more tolerant to frustrating game play but they still have a relatively short attention span for it.

      I disagree that hardcore gamers ever become casual. Play time doesn’t dictate your motivations for playing, which is what truly separates hardcore and casual.

      • I would disagree with your disagreement 🙂

        Starting from your “hardcore” definition (which I think is the closest approximation to a good definition I’ve seen yet) of “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).” then if that person finds that same sense of accomplishment and fulfillment elsewhere (ie. moves out of their parents’ basement, gets a real job, and gets laid) they may still continue to play for entertainment – ie. become “casual”.

      • In theory, yes.

        In reality, I would say that rarely, if ever, happens.

  2. Wait, is WAR really a successful niche game? EVE & LotR & EQII, sure. Darkfall & Fallen Earth seem relatively successful given their intensely small niches. DDO is doing okay now that it’s F2P. But WAR? I don’t think a game that attempts to be the next Wow, fails horribly, and is a current laughing-stock of marketing, player management, and PvP is successful.

    I also disagree with your premise that Hardcore and Casual describe entire player profiles. I think it’s more accurate that Hardcore and Casual are two different ends of a spectrum, but that spectrum exists for a number of different player attributes. A player can be “Casual” in the number of hours that the play but “Hardcore” in their motivations.

    For example, a PvP veteran who recently had a child and now gets to log on only an hour or so every week – they’ll still be able to talk the theory and kick your ass, but they’re just not around any longer. The opposite – hardcore time investment vs. casual motivations, may be the 6-hour Peggle marathon.

    • I specifically say that time investment has no bearing on whether a person is casual or hardcore and then have two comments using time investment to describe hardcore gamers. /headdesk

      Your PvP veteran did not stop being a hardcore gamer because his play time dropped off or disappeared altogether. He’s still a hardcore gamer regardless of how much he is playing.

      If a player is “hardcore in their motivations” then they are a hardcore player. As I said, the only determining factor is why you play. Your motivation for playing the game. Time investment doesn’t matter.

  3. Stop talking about my blog, god! 🙂

    Good post, although you make it sound like it should be easy to make a mass market MMO; just polish it and make it as easy as WoW, and bam, 1m+ subs. I know you don’t directly say that, or likely believe that, but I at least read it as such. Maybe some future clarification?

    Also mass-market depends on the actual market. In Asia, hardcore grinds + PvP = mass market, while in the US easy PvE is indeed king. EU seems to be somewhat in the middle of the two.

    • Exactly.

      You have to target your market.

      It just seems like all these MMOs coming out keep targeting small, niche, IP-centric, hardcore markets and then wondering why they are only popular in small, niche, IP-centric, hardcore markets.

      Every publisher wants to be a WoW-killer, but you are only going to do that by focusing on the casual market and launching in a state that is better-than-WoW quality. And no MMO has even attempted that, let alone executed that plan well.

      • On the other hand, there are several who did target a smaller market and planned accordingly. Wizard 101, Puzzle Pirates, Darkfall, even EVE. The trouble is dreaming about shooting the moon while not understanding what it takes to get there.

        …which is more or less what you’re getting at, so I’m agreeing.

  4. […] Lord of the Rings Online legendary item system has always rubbed me the wrong way.  In most other MMOs, with work and people, I can plan out my character to the pixel.  Then it becomes a budgeting process where I evaluate the estimated time per milestone accomplishment whereupon I reorder said milestones to constantly feed me some measure of accomplishment.  Afterall, I am hardcore.  […]

  5. It seems that one of the things dragging on current MMO design is the desire to either be a “WoW killer” or to somehow ride Blizzard’s coattails to success. I think that a little more creativity can bring about environments that not only make both playstyles viable, but use them to mutually support one another. Especially in the case of things like meaningful pvp and interaction with the environment.

    I’ve been reading a lot about the SWG New Game Experience the last couple of weeks, I wonder how you see the attitude that Sony had in changing the game? Was the “hardcore players will stay, but we need to be casual friendly” attitude warranted? Does a Star Wars IP actually merit the idea of 1m+ subs, or is it genuinely just a niche, especially considering that there were already many titles available on consoles and pc that were not sub based? What changes might you have made to SWG or to a current ‘niche’ title to make it more casual friendly without completely alienating a hardcore fanbase?

    • To be clear, the NGE for SWG was not a decision made by Sony. It was a decision made by LucasArts. They saw the SWG MMO as being too hardcore, having too few subs, and seeing the massive influx of players (and profit) to WoW, and were concerned that their IP was not getting the attention it deserved.

      Overall I disagree with the direction they took the game. If the game was not originally aimed at the casual market, there is little sense to radically adjust the mechanics to accommodate them 6+ months after launch. WoW has always been casual friendly. It may have previously been somewhat more challenging in Vanilla, but it was still the easiest mainstream MMO by a long shot.

      SWG was perfectly well and good appealing to that relatively small, niche, hardcore market. Those players really felt the game was in a near perfect state for them. Radically changing the game mechanics mid-life cycle is always a bad idea. You can change the game enough to alienate and ultimately lose your player base. And the NGE is a good example of that.

      However, there is still a community of hardcore players that have stuck with it, despite the radical changes. The more casual players, however, have long since left and will probably never return. Which is ironic since the NGE was supposed to appeal more to them than anyone else.

  6. the perfect imaginary MMO to fit your qualifications for a successful mass-market game:

    Harry Potter Online

    make it happen.

  7. Brilliant!

  8. I’ve given a lot of thought to this post, and I think that your hardcore definition of wanting “accomplishment and fulfillment.” It makes us seem broken when you go on to describe those huge, relative terms.

    I get the gist of your “hardcore” definition, and I think that you could replace “hardcore” with “hobbyist” in almost every line. This, IMHO, reduces the edge. It becomes the difference between someone that likes Star Wars movies, and someone that delves into Star Wars lore and applies it to the movies. Do you want just entertainment, or do you want a hobby?

    While I guess all hobbyists want some sort of “accomplishment and fulfillment” I don’t think that is the core agenda to having a hobby.

    Good post though. Lots to think about.

  9. So are you suggesting to compete with WoW for casual player? Outwow WoW? Obvious answer imho to go for niche – go for hardcore player. Unless you have Blizzard resources you have no hope of competing with them. Blizzard never creates innovative games, but it polishes the existing one to the best levels in industry

    Casual players are wrong target to aim for. They are already in wow.

    • It sounds like you are suggesting that there shouldn’t be competition in the MMO market because it is “too hard” to compete with World of Warcraft.

      WoW is only WoW because no one has tried to “OutWoW WoW” successfully. All the recent MMOs have tried to emulate World of Warcraft, but are still pandering to hardcore enthusiasts with overly grinding and overly challenging game play or PvP.

      What I am suggesting is that a MMO company have the testicular fortitude and common sense to make an MMO right. And there are two ways to make an MMO right.

      The first one is to focus on a IP-centric hardcore MMO and be satisfied with less than 250k subs. That’s something I think you misunderstood. 250k subs is the *maximum* you will have, not the average. 250k is what you can expect if your game is wildly successful. Most hardcore MMOs end up with significantly less.

      The second one is to “OutWoW WoW”. To launch a casual friendly MMO in a highly polished state with extreme ease of game play. And no one has actually done this yet. Which is why World of Warcraft has the vast majority of the market. No one has even attempted to compete with it on the same level. They’ve all just made World of Warcraft for hardcore players and then wonder why the WoW casual crowd doesn’t buy it.

  10. 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.

    So 250k is bad? I mean look at eve. niche of a niche. Doing all right (to put it mildly) . are you a publisher who only thinks about numbers in terms of return on investment and only want billions of income? -If so be prepared to pay a lot of money to make “casual” friendly game. And your game is most likely will join the graveyard of “me too MMOs”

    Do you have an experienced development studio, 100 million of dollars and 5 years?- If answer is yes , then go ahead and try make something to compete with WoW.

    Why not choose your core audience and make quality product for THEM? Not for everyone and their mom. I would not ever think that eve would take off , seriously – its has the most boring core gameplay ever.

    I mean SB had 100k+ box purchases and it was complete disaster of a game from any point of view.

    Why not aim at 100k. Pick a small team, small budget and carve in your niche . just remember to actually make a quality product, you may not have the budget to match wow content or polish wise, but you have the advantage of designing what wow does not have in terms of gameplay.

  11. The first one is to focus on a IP-centric hardcore MMO and be satisfied with less than 250k subs. That’s something I think you misunderstood. 250k subs is the *maximum* you will have, not the average. 250k is what you can expect if your game is wildly successful. Most hardcore MMOs end up with significantly less.

    Why it has to be IP centric? And again look at eve. 250k subs is a lot. It is a lot of money, not anywhere near, but still A LOT. And yeah it has to a game worth playing. But again aim low ,hit high, make sure you can survive with 50k subs , but make sure its scales if needed higher.

    The second one is to “OutWoW WoW”. To launch a casual friendly MMO in a highly polished state with extreme ease of game play. And no one has actually done this yet. Which is why World of Warcraft has the vast majority of the market. No one has even attempted to compete with it on the same level.

    Well why no one succeeded at that? I mean its easy to say ” highly polished mmo ” .But we are talking Blizzard polished. WoW did a lot of things right and I am think 10 million is pretty close to market saturation ( I mean MMO market is not THAT big) . There are plenty of other high quality games which are even accessible for f2p (RoM, Allods etc).

    If you going to make casual friendly MMO – good luck. Every company is after that and market is saturated with them. Next BioWare game would probably closest one to succeed with that formula (I trust them make a quality product, but I bet it wont be enough to make even a dent in WoW )

    its like saying ohh topping James Cameron movie at box office is easy peasy. Just make a helluva good ,accessible movie with special effects- bham!. The only thing is that only James Cameron was able to make a movie to top his last one . There is one James Cameron and many michael Bay’s and Roland Emmerichs. There is only one Blizzard.

    And the other question is why? Are you a publisher who only cares about the bottom line? Would you enjoy making a game you personally wouldn’t play? To be yet another “me too”?

    You cant make another Titanic or Avatar (face it you dont have both budget and talent). But you can make Memento – if you only have talent

    • You keep referencing EVE Online, which by its own developer’s admission is an exception, as if it is the rule. It is not. EVE Online is an anomaly. It isn’t to be taken as an example, but rather as a possibility. Is it possible to make a successful hardcore MMO without an IP to work with? Yes. EVE Online shows that it is possible. Now, when you look at the MMO market as a whole, you see that the majority of successful hardcore MMOs are built on IPs. The evidence is there to support that having an IP to work with, increases the likelihood of success. It brings in an established market and player base that you don’t have to convince to purchase your game. Star Trek Online is a good example of this. The game is, by most reviews and opinions, not that great. But they had a big push of Star Trek fans that was able to overlook its shortcomings because they like Star Trek. Without the Star Trek IP, the game wouldn’t have gotten anywhere off the ground. It would be dead in the water.

      As for the casual friendly MMO. You are off a little on your wording. Publishers are after that level of profit. However, they are not targeting that market. Name a casual friendly MMO that was launched recently by a major publisher and isn’t aimed at preteens and children? There are none. Champions Online? Hardcore Grindfest. Aion? Hardcore Grindfest. Star Trek Online? Hardcore Grindfest. WAR? Hardcore Grindfest. LOTRO? Hardcore Grindfest. Darkfall? Hardcore Grindfest.

      See the pattern? All these publishers keep dreaming of the golden ticket while green lighting the same old tired hardcore MMO formula. Granted, some of those examples are more hardcore than others and/or more grindy than others. But they are all admitted and obviously much more hardcore than World of Warcraft.

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