Once upon a time, a casual game was something you didn't spend a lot of time or money on. A hardcore game was one you did. Obviously! And then we all grew up and things got complicated.
When I was playing Farmville, a casual social game, I engaged in sleep-shifting to maximize harvest times. I kept spreadsheets to work out the best min/max on crop mastery. I lurked in wikis and forums searching for better strategies for farm layout and tree/animal ratios. If those aren't hardcore behaviors, I don't know what is.
Arcade games would be considered casual through our modern lens, too. But King of Kong surely demonstrates that the play behaviors could get pretty solidly hardcore.
Conversely, when I played World of Warcraft, I toddled around for a little while looking at things and sometimes also killed stuff. There was no power-leveling, no raiding, precious little questing. I didn't have a lot invested in the game emotionally. I dabbled. Was it not, then, a casual game for me?
There's a suggestion that our modern usage of casual and hardcore are really code for "a girly game" and "a manly game." More a gestalt of design and marketing cues than specific design elements. I think there's a lot of truth to that.
But as game designers trying to make great games -- and get as much audience share as we possibly can -- we really need to look at this from a different angle entirely. Forget thinking about casual and hardcore as types of games. They aren't. They also aren't player archetypes. Casual and hardcore are types of engagement.
Sure, some game mechanics are more and less rewarding of deep, hardcore-level engagement. It's not easy to be a hardcore player of, oh, Tic-Tac-Toe, for example. At the same time, some games -- particularly MMOs and AAA titles from big studios -- require a significant investment in time and money to get to a sort of baseline level of enjoyment, rendering it more difficult -- though not impossible -- to enjoy those games on a casual basis.
I strongly prefer games that give me choice in how much I want to engage. It's just good design to make a game experience immediately rewarding, right? And it's likewise good design to make a game more rewarding the more a player puts into it. But I reject game designs that funnel you toward a hardcore experience to such an extent that you cannot continue to play it on casual terms if that's what you prefer.
This is why I'm annoyed by games like, oh, World of Warcraft, which have a sweep of backstory you're never exposed to in a casual experience of the game. You have to engage in hardcore research behaviors to even discover they exist. Or games like Halo with a steep learning curve simply for handling the basic interface of the game.
This is also why I wish there were a button that let me skip parts of a game I'm bad at and find unrewarding to keep trying. I'm stuck on Super Mario Galaxy because I am not capable of leaping from one moving, hole-filled platform to another at the speed the game requires. I've been stuck on that level for a couple of years now, and it's been about that long since I even fired up the game. Does this mean I've fundamentally lost Super Mario Galaxy? Or does it mean the game has lost me?
We transmedia designers talk a lot about depth of engagement, and we like to draw pretty triangular graphs that demonstrate how the bulk of your audience will always be lurkers, dabblers, spectators. Casual players. What does this say about games that consider themselves hardcore? I don't know about you, but tells me they're leaving money on the table.
Game designers, forget about casual games and hardcore players. There's a false opposition there. Instead, think about depth of engagement. Try to make your game accessible to casual and hardcore engagement styles at the same time. The discussion has long been framed in unproductive language that won't ultimately help anyone to make better games for more people. And at the end of the day, we can all agree better games are what we want, right?