"Casual" games have been all the rage in the games industry over the past few years. From the explosive growth of online games to the major First-Party support of the Wii, the "casual gamer" and the entire supposed market space has become a great buzzword and mainstay in game development. Entire divisions of large companies have cropped up solely around the idea of casual, and smaller companies and developers striking it rich in this wild west of an audience.
But seriously. What does "casual" really mean?
Of course anyone can point out games that are casual versus hardcore. Wii Sports and Farmville are casual games, sure. Call of Duty and World of Warcraft are not. But what does that actually signify? And if you're going to base independent or corporate projects and future sales figures on these genres, doesn't it make sense to understand what they are and how they work?
By using the Game Design Canvas, we can break down both casual and hardcore games and find out what really makes them tick. When we contrast them as you'll see in a moment, there aren't as many differences as one would assume. However, one major difference betrays a casual game as a casual game, and that one difference influences the game's audience, the viable platforms, sales methods, everything. It is the difference that sets it apart from the hardcore titles and gives it its soul.
Common (and Dangerous) Misconceptions of "Casual"
There are many definitions that people have attempted and employed to understand what this casual hubbub is all about. Even worse, some teams have forged ahead on their own casual titles without an understanding of what it actually means, leading to more than a few unsuccessful titles, where neither the hardcore audience nor casual audience alike have any interest. Instead of realizing what makes a game fit for a casual audience, but rather just trying to emulate a hodgepodge of aspects of other casual titles, some developers have set themselves up for failure.
The following are the main misconceptions of what casual really means. While there is a shred of truth in all of them, they still manage to miss the mark. What we want is a bull's eye of a definition that can guide our development decisions and help us understand our players.
Casual means easy. This is by far the biggest red herring that throws many developers off. After looking at many games like Wii Play, with their simple controls, easy levels of difficulty, and one sentence explanations, this is a quick conclusion to come to. Looking at the games, back at the astronomical sales figures, and back again, many bewildered industry pros conclude that it must be due to the fact that the games are very easy to understand
This is a step in the right direction, but it's not the whole story. Making a game's difficulty exceptionally easy does happen to have a high correlation with successful casual games, but being easy to play is a symptom of the real cause, not the cause itself.
Casual means family-friendly themes. Another go-to explanation for the casual phenomenon is that casual games are just games without all the blood and guts and violence of most other titles. They're much brighter and happier, boasting child-like themes and whimsical environments. Instead of destruction, the games' stories focus on healing and nurturing.
The genres of the games also appear to be different; eschewing medieval fantasy and science fiction, perhaps casual means that the games are more closely grounded in reality, such as golf or bowling. Wii Sports Resort and Wii Fit speak to this. Games that are closer to what a family might do together for fun must be what makes them casual, right?
Again, not exactly. This approach usually focuses too much on the game's Aesthetic Layout. Like being easy, most casual games happen have simple graphics, but doesn't define the difference between casual and hardcore. If you take a hardcore game and change the colors and the theme to be more family friendly, you aren't going to have a game ready for casual audiences. The simple graphics are a result of the market that the game is targeting, not the cause.
Casual means...dumb! Some hardcore gamers (and even some gaming press) appear to have taken the definition of casual to mean "dumb". They don't understand for a moment why in the world anyone would want to play such games when right down the block at your local GameStop you can pick up the gaming experience of the century in Modern Warfare 2 or Uncharted 2. Of course this is a conclusion one could only come to after a cursory examination, a failure to understand what's really going on or why people could possibly be interested in something different.
The truth is that people are different, and that these hardcore players are not built and trained to enjoy casual video games. Ironically, this violent gut response to casual games actually hints at the real cause better than the first two reasons, because it is based on the player's skills.