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  • Why 'Casual' Doesn't Mean 'Easy'

    [04.08.10]
    - Brice Morrison

  • Base Mechanics as the Foundation of Casual vs. Hardcore


    By far the most noticeable difference between these two games is their Base Mechanics. In Halo, the player is required to learn and perform a number of skills simultaneously:

    1. Walking or moving (using the left joystick)
    2. Turning or facing (using the right joystick)
    3. Shooting firearms and weapons
    4. Throwing or using special items such as grenades
    5. Jumping when necessary
    6. Ducking when necessary

    At any given time, it is almost certain that the player is required to perform at least Mechanics one through three. Much of the time they are performing even more.

    Compare this to Wii Sports Tennis, where the player is required to perform only one skill to play the game:

    1. Swing the racquet (by swinging the Wii remote)

    Wii Sports Tennis is a casual game because it requires that the player perform only one skill to interface with the game. Thus, almost anyone can pick up and enjoy the title immediately because the player can focus all of their energies into mastering that single skill. Even walking or moving the tennis player around, a given in almost every game, it handled by the computer so that the player doesn't need to think about it. The realization of the Core Experience through the Base is entirely through the single action of swinging the racquet and making contact with the ball.

    Mastering Skills, Playing Games

    A Base Mechanic is a skill, an action with a goal that the player can perform. Skills take time to learn. Everything that you, me, and everyone else in life learned to do well, we first learned to do poorly. Humans can only learn one skill at a time, and only when a skill is mastered can another skill be taught.

    Because players can only focus on learning one new skill at a time, that means that there is a barrier to entry for games that involve multiple Mechanics. Thus, casual games can defined as games that employ few Base Mechanics, whereas hardcore titles require multiple Base Mechanics. There's no hard and fast rule for this, but I like to suggest 1-2 for casual titles. When you get to 4 or more then you're entering hardcore territory.

    As stated earlier when discussing misconceptions, games with few Base Mechanics tend to be easy. However, making an easy game does not make it a casual title. If you gave the player easier tasks in Halo 3, such as defeating a single enemy instead of dozens in succession, then it would still be a hardcore title. The tuning (how difficult the game is) may be easier, but the skills required of the player would be the same. Casual players would be able to succeed, but they would still have trouble in terms of the skills that the game was asking them to perform. On the other hand, players who had already mastered all six Mechanics required would likely be bored to tears from such a game.

    Simplicity in Difficulty

    At first glance, there appear to be some exceptions to this rule. For example, what about games that have a low number of Mechanics, but the games are tuned to be very hard?


    Take for example the niche genre of bullet-hell games. I happen to be a huge fan of titles like these, but many of my friends have no interest in them because they have a tendency to make you pull your hair out. In these titles, the player is often a spaceship against a barrage of bullets. Often the entire screen is filled with deadly orbs that, if touched, will result in the player's death. This game is certainly hardcore; while the shoot-em-up genre is one that encompasses new and mature players, bullet-hell games require that the player be a true guru of navigating tight spaces.

    Thus, to make sense of how a bullet-hell game is a hardcore title, it makes sense to break up the seemingly single mechanic of avoiding bullets into their skills levels. Consider the following Base Mechanics:

    1. Avoid a bullet
    2. Avoid several bullets
    3. Avoid many bullets
    4. Navigate an entire screen of bullets
    5. Etc...

    When broken into more than one Base Mechanic, this genre, and others which are considered very difficult and unwelcoming, begins to make sense. Becoming more proficient at a skill is essentially the same as learning a new skill entirely. If someone can hit a ball in Wii Sports Tennis, that doesn't mean that they can hit the ball to the backhand corner every time. The latter would be a more honed skill, built on top of what the player already learned. In this sense, the requirements of the game (the P&R Systems) demand that the player develop themselves, actually adding another Base Mechanic to the mix.

    How Many Skills?

    When designing a game for a particular audience, it's helpful to be aware of what skills the audience already has, and thus, if the game is really casual or not. Casual does not mean easy; casual means the number of skills needed to play the game. If the audience has experience with platformers, then you can create additional Base Mechanics to your platformer to keep the game interesting, like the later Mega Man X games on top of the original Megaman games. This allows for greater depth and length of to your games but at a price; you alienate players who don't have a resume of experience with at least some of the Base Mechanics you require.

    If you assume your audience has no experience and you want to appeal to as many people as possible (often the goal of a casual title), then you can focus on a single Mechanic, such as the breakout indie title Canabalt. Players are going to burn through these games quicker as they soon master the single skill presented to them, but you'll have more players at your doorstep.

    The trade-off is up to the developer, but being aware of how many Mechanics are asked of the player, whether developing a casual or a hardcore title, can make mastering the skill of creating a successful title much easier.

    Brice Morrison is a game designer and founder of TheGameProdigy.com. Visit the site for more articles and resources on intelligent career and game development.

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