"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.
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.
The Game Design Canvas Speaks!
Using the Game Design Canvas, we can analyze casual titles and contrast them to their hardcore counterparts. This analysis can help us determine exactly what casual is and what is causing all of these differences that we just discussed.
To start, let's look at the Game Design Canvas for a popular AAA hardcore game in a well defined genre: Halo 3.
The five components here are pretty straightforward. The Core Experience of the Halo series is for the player to feel like they are a futuristic trooper in battle. For the multiplayer, which we're focusing on here, the player should feel like they're in a single battle against enemy soldiers, either alone or with a team. The Punishment and Reward Systems are classic to the first person shooter genre: kill another player and gain a point for your team, or be killed and have the opposing team earn a point off of your dead body. The Long Term Incentive in multiplayer, the goal that keeps the player going, is to win the entire match and, even longer term, to increase their rating so they can play better players. Finally, the setting is a sci-fi world in the future, filled with all of the characters and locations within the rich Halo universe.
Next, let's compare it to similarly famous console casual game: Wii Sports, specifically Tennis.
Since the Core Experience of Wii Sports Tennis is to emulate a real tennis match as much as possible, the four components supporting that experience are almost identical to the real game of tennis. The P&R Systems dictate the unreturned shots give points, and as the player gains enough points to win games and sets, they win the match. The Long Term Incentive is to win the match and raise the player's rating so that they can face stronger and stronger computer opponents. The Aesthetics are simple, representing a small tennis court with the player's caricature plastered on their avatar.
Other than the Aesthetic Layout, the gameplay surrounding both of these titles, outlined in the Long Term Incentive and P&R Systems, are almost identical, eliminating them as candidates for the indicators of a casual versus a hardcore game. And we've already decided that it couldn't simply be the artwork that makes a game casual, so what is it?
That's right, it's the difference in the top-left component: the Base Mechanics.
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:
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.