Casual Games is a Misnomer

There’s been a lot of discussion of the expanding “casual games” market for a while now, and frankly I think the term is causing some serious confusion because it’s not really a useful title. It’s not grossly inaccurate, it’s just not useful. We talk about games like Farmville being a casual game, because the mechanics of the game are relatively simple. The structural rules of the game are simple, but where it falls down as being “casual” is that the social rules, the “meta” rules of the game are more complex. There is a social give-and-take of desiring help from others, but also (hopefully) wanting to avoid annoying friends and relatives around you by flooding them with requests. People try to push those boundaries, though, to achieve more, to gain mastery of the game. The drive for achievement provokes a more “hardcore” approach to the game. The gameplay may be casual, but the intensity of play is more hardcore. The truly casual gamer doesn’t stick with it, because excelling requires more commitment than they are willing to give.

It would probably help at this point to define some terms and concepts, for the sake of clarity and communication.

  1. Play intensity: the level of investment of time, energy, and resources needed to achieve mastery of the game.
  2. Game mastery: the exact form mastery may take depends on the type of game, but generally involves a combination of implicit or explicit knowledge of how the game works that allows for maximizing the results of time spent playing. Maybe it will involve knowing every detail of a map and where and how players tend to play it; maybe it will involve having learned every skill combo in a game and developed the muscle memory to do each precisely and quickly.
  3. Investment threshold: the limit to how much time, energy, and resources a person is willing to invest in a given task. This varies from person to person and task to task, and is the crux of the difference between a “casual” and “hardcore” gamer.

I am fundamentally a casual gamer. Considering I write a game-related blog, wrote two theses related to game development, and work in QA in the game industry, I suppose some might think this is inaccurate, but hear me out. “Casual” gaming isn’t about the quantity of game time, nor the quality of play; it’s about the approach to gameplay. Put simply, I’m not really invested in mastery of most games. I will totally try to complete the game, find as many secrets and bonus content and other goodies as I can, but when doing so requires ludological mastery and precision, I usually walk away from that content (and sometimes the game). I’m not mad about it (more on that in a moment), at most a little disappointed that I didn’t/couldn’t get whatever it was I was trying to do. An unspoken threshold of skill investment was exceeded. If “good enough” isn’t enough, then I’m done. That, to me, is the distinction of a casual gamer.

Think about hardcore gaming, and the concept of the ragequit. It’s a valid, if undesired, reaction to being placed in what is perceived as “unfair” conditions without clear methods for correction, and isn’t new — think about the trope of “taking your ball and going home.” But what, exactly, is unfair about it? The game itself ostensibly has immutable rulesets (short of hacks), and if the game designers did their job balancing the game well, then neither side has undue advantage over the other mechanically. The difference comes down to the players themselves and what level of mastery they’ve invested. In a ragequit situation, there’s generally at least one player who has a relatively high level of mastery of the game — they’ve invested the time and energy in understanding the mechanics of the game, and how to maximize their use of those mechanics in their favor. When you then pair them with someone who has the desire for mastery, but either hasn’t had the time needed to invest, or the capacity for the necessary skills to compete, the mismatch results in a ragequit. A casual player may try to play, decide they don’t want to have to invest days or weeks into gaining mastery, and walk away. The behavior of the other players may have been exactly the same, but the likelihood of a ragequit is less, since the casual player isn’t as invested in the game.

Different games can have different requirements for game mastery, and still have both fall under the aegis of a casual or casual-friendly game. A more distinct delineation is to establish the play intensity of the game: examine the amount of investment in game mastery that is necessary to continue to move forward in the game. If there is little room for players who haven’t invested as many resources into mastery of the game (e.g. they didn’t spend hours playing the same zone or area, learning all its quirks and best solutions to the challenges it poses), then that game will only be attractive to players with a high investment threshold, i.e. it isn’t a casual game, no matter how simple the interface is, no matter how complex the game mechanics are.

Now, what really fascinates me are the games that find ways to straddle the line. While some consider World of Warcraft a hardcore game, I consider it a casual game: the requirements for game knowledge and expertise in order to proceed is relatively low — you can play without investing significant time in HOW to play (gaining mastery instead of moving forward in the game). But I tend to be an altaholic. If I were to try and get into raiding and high level instances (what’s considered the “end game”), I’m quite positive my perception of the game would shift to considering it a more “hardcore” game — to raid effectively, from all accounts, requires a more in-depth understanding of the mechanics of the game, as well as specific details of the instances themselves.

So, with all this in mind, the question I find myself asking is: are these sorts of casual gamers worth accounting for? We’re a pretty fickle lot; happy to drop a game if it’s no longer satisfying, and probably won’t even use some of your mini-games or features. My vote is: yes, they should be accounted for when designing games. A game can still be layered and complex; it can still reward greater mastery, and encourage high intensity play; it can still penalize errors and poor play. BUT, the complexity and greater mastery should enhance the player experience, not hinder it. Give a broad range of allowable game mastery and play intensity, and let the player decide their own level of involvement.