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A Conversation with Damion Schubert: Moving beyond the casual-hardcore dichotomy

Originally published in late 2011, this interview with Damion Schubert, Lead Systems Designer at Bioware Austin, discusses new ways of thinking about player investment, casual gaming, and more.

Jared Lorince, Blogger

February 19, 2013

16 Min Read

Repost from Motivate.Play.


Damion Schubert, Principle Lead Systems Designer of Bioware's Star Wars: The Old Republic has stressed the importance of moving beyond the simple casual-hardcore dichotomy of gamers, arguing that it's better for game designers to instead see all players as occupying various points along a single continuum of investment in a game.

Originally published in late 2011, this interview with Schubert discusses new ways of thinking player investment, casual gaming, and more.

Jared Lorince (MotivatePlay): So could you start by elaborating your take on the casual-hardcore dichotomy among gamers?

Damion Schubert: So pretty much the idea is that you think of these blocks of people as too monolithic and that really people are not hardcore about games, they're hardcore about a genre And they're not just hardcore about a genre, they actually tend to be more hardcore towards a [particular] game.

What I was getting at in the last slide where I had the different layers, the different activities players can do, is that very frequently players are actually hardcore towards some activity in the game. In MMOs players tend to be either hardcore raiders or hardcore pvp (player vs. player)-ers, or hardcore roleplayers. There are people who are hardcore World of Warcraft players, for example, who have never raided a day in their lives. To them, being hardcore is about logging in and actually roleplaying in the world of Azeroth.

And that's fine, that's cool, and that's how they're emotionally invested in the game. And in Facebook games you similarly have people who are hardcore decorators and you have hardcore, as Raph [Koster, of Playdom] was describing, pvp-ers, people who actually want to go to war with each other. And both these people invest lots of time and money and effort into actually playing the game their way.

Now, understanding that people are hardcore in these these little individual specturms that are defined by individual feature sets or play styles inside your game is fine, but at the end of the day what out business guys care about is some kind of actual investment hierarchy. For Facebook guys it's how many people are spending money in our game. That's the actual investment hierarchy that they care about.

For MMO players it's how invested people are in actually maintaing their subscription. It's a very nuts and bolts, business-oriented way of thinking about it, but ultimately we have to collapse the roleplayers the PVP-ers and the raiders into one category for us to be able to say. "ok it's working for these people, its not working for these other people. These people are maintaining their investment". But ultimately it all comes down to the same metric. Does that make sense?

JL: It does but I think the only problem I see with it is that you're talking, in a way, about games (MMOs) where you essentially have many games within a game. You can do raiding, you can do all these differnet things, and to maintain investment across these different player styles forces you to optimize all of these different game modes. So you're ending up diffusing your design effort across many games within a game instead of focusing on one.

DS: And to some degree for an MMO we have to do that because our business model is, for better or for worse, about maintaining a long term relationship over time. One of the things you see a lot inside of any MMO is that, hey, people get tired of PPV and they want to do something else.

But they're still heavily invested in the game, and you want them to have another track to jump onto. In other games, like in a single player game, if you decide that you're done with the game, the studio doesn't care. They've already got your sixty bucks, and they just hope they sell you the next one because you really liked playing Arkham Asylum, for example, the first time around.

Inside of our game, and to a lesser extent the Facebook games, they really want you to have something else that you can point to so that you keep coming back, and that's just the way that our games are actually structured. We want to maintain your investment inside the game. We don't want you to hit a wall in one of the vectors and decide, "ok i'm done", and so we actually have multiple paths, multiple treadmills, multiple verbs for people who are inside these games.

JL: But there still is a point - and maybe this is the more interesting question - where you choose between breadth and depth. Obviously you don't want to have everything, but you also don't want to focus on it just being a raiding game, say.

DS: I think if you actually look on my blog somewhere I talk about breadth versus depth. If you look at, for example Everquest versus Ultima Online, Ultima Online was a game that had a lot of breadth. And unfortunately the breadth that they had was a lot of really shallow treadmills, and the treadmills didn't interact with each other very well, whereas if you look at Everquest, they pretty much had a combat game and they had a whole bunch of other games that were not as deep as the combat game, but overall tended to support the combat game in one way or another.

And while they were shallower than the combat game, they were still more developed than the UO activities because there were fewer of them and they could actually afford to focus on these five or six things that players were doing instead of UO, which tried to provide twenty of these verbs that players could go do. So they were actually able to develop these a little more fully and provide a...I won't say a complete casual-hardcore arc, but it was able to go across two or three tiers as opposed to UO.

A similar example is, if you look at Free Realms versus Wizard 101, Free realms was very much like UO (which is ironic because Free Realms is a Sony product) where they had like twenty mini-games and it was designed for kids, it should be easy. The idea was you would play the male game and you would win it in like a day and a half, and after that there was no more male game. You got invested in this thing you liked and then you ran out of content, and they expected you to jump to another track, but it's like "no, I liked the male game".

Whereas if you look at Wizard 101, it is very much a collectible card, Harry-Potter-meets-Pokemon combat game. We have other systems in the game but at the very core of it it's that. They have some treadmills in there as well, they have some activities that serve both causal and hardcore people along the lines, but the game very strongly has a center and these other activities act as, "You do this when you're bored, when you're tired of that game. You do this when you need a break."

JL: Another thing that I wanted to ask about the idea of looking at different players who have something like an investment ceiling. I know you're trying to get away from this idea of "lets make our business model very dependent on this one percent that are whales", or at least i got the impression you want to get away from that.

But it still seems relevant because there's a point where there will be players that are only interested in a certain level of investment. It's going to be difficult to get them in there. Maybe it's a question of hard you bother trying to design for that subset of players that are going to be more susceptible to an investment ceiling.

DS: I think one of the ways to think about is how i defined in there [the talk]: You have rungs in the ladder, right? And as a general rule you know for your game where the rungs of that ladder are. There might be 5, there might be 12. The example i gave was, for Facebook games: "I tried this once", "I log in every day", "I spent my first dollar", "I spend ten bucks a month", "I spend 1,000 dollars a month."

And what you want to do is devote time, energy, and effort to trying to increase each of those rungs of that ladder. Because if you have six million people playing your Facebook game, there is no chance at all that you're going to get six million people paying $1,000 dollars a month. But if you can get a substantial portion of them to move up one rung, and a substantial portion of those people to move up one rung, and even if thats as far as you succeed, you've still made a marked improvement in your life.

Instead, what I've seen in most of the Facebook games is that they have a monolithic block of people for the casual [market], and then they have put some thought into getting them to spend that first dollar, but they don't do a very good job of ratcheting the price up very intelligently from there.

JL: And you'd say that's partially because they have this mindset that people are one or the other, that they aren't worried about bridging the [hardcore-casual] gap?

DS: It's hard for me to be entirely critical of them because I can't see the metrics, and I know they have a ridiculous number of metrics.

JL: And they are making money. Obviously it's working.

DS: Well, they are making some amount of money. If you actually do the math of what they're talking about, they're making respectable money. But I'm still more impressed with the World of Warcraft business model than I am with these.

Again, if you're servicing six million people and one percent of them are giving any amount money, and it's usually around ten bucks a month, it's a lot better to be the World of Warcraft game that's getting ten bucks a month from every single one of your customers. Unless you have a lot of lawyers.

JL: The only thing you could say in defense, I guess, is that it's still a pretty nascent industry. Facebook games are new, and they're getting better. That was the sense i got from the Playdom talk today, at least.

DS: Well, there are a couple things going on. The first is that the games are getting more sophisticated. I actually went to a talk today where a guy tried to pick apart why core (which I guess I'm a part of) game designers don't like the social games, the Facebook games. My primary critique was missing, though, which is that there still isn't a Facebook game that I've ever seen that I've actually wanted to play. I think a lot of what happens out there is actually a sadness; we really don't want the water to run downhill to a place where the entire games industry is making games that they effectively don't want to play.

I think that's where some of the funk and some of the depression comes in. Now, the question is whether or not somebody will come along and make Facebook games that people like me would want to play and possibly like you would want to play. I'm the kind of guy that likes to play Starcraft and WoW and really "crunchy" board games, and right now that Facebook game doesn't exist. The issue is that right now economics fight that. As long as there's a more lucrative market in the casual space - lets not call it the casual space - in the mass market, then the big fish, the Zyngas, the EAs are going to gravitate towards that.

But i think that for the most part gamers like you and me are probably more willing to pay cash for games. So i keep waiting for somebody to come along with the Magic the Gathering business model, or the Warhammer figurines model, in Facebook games where people are a little more willing to invest in the game because it's a good game, and they're willing to pay for good quality gameplay the way that we're willing to pay sixty bucks for a console game right now.

JL: Do you see it going that way right now?

DS: I don't know, but i think that's where a lot of the angst around Facebook and social comes from right now. I think I've already heard some mumbling that some studios want to try to move in that direction. I think part of the problem is that to some degree Facebook games are stigmatized by that market right now.

JL: So its going to be hard to attract [hardcore players]?

DS: Yeah. Right now Facebook is where your mom and your girlfriend play games. So actually trying to make a game for that space is actually going to involve making something that's pretty darn nifty and impressive. That being said, I have faith in my fellow game designers and i think that somebody will probably do something. There's actually a game called Warstorm, which was put together by a studio here in town [Austin, TX], which is actually the only Facebook game that ever compelled me to spend money.

It was basically a Magic-ish game where you would build a small deck. There was no control in playing. you would basically build an army which was a deck of cards, and you would play your friends, who could be offline, so it was asynchronous. It just had a draw order that it did all the rules by, and so there was some luck involved, and there was some having the right cards involved, and it was just hardcore enough that it was like, "damnit I do want that booster pack". It was just a really cool, nifty design, and I was excited to see that because I thought the market might go that way. And then Zynga bought them and stopped supporting the game because it wasn't mass market. So, who knows.

JL: The only hope I have for the social games market is that it's starting to get a little more saturated with garbage and clones. The lowest common denominator is going up, because people have gotten so used to these games that they're expecting a little higher level of complexity, a little higher level of polish. And maybe it will take some time, but if that lowest common denominator keeps inching up that might eventually let - and this is speculation on my part - but it might let the more hardcore gamers break in.

DS: I think the interesting thing about the game market today, or the Facebook game market today, is that it pretty much mirrors where console games were maybe six years ago. Console gamers were in a total funk. Every game was completely and totally derivative of another game. Every game was either a clone or a sequel. And development costs were going through the roof because everybody was making the same game design, and the only way you could compete was by doing it newer and shinier.

If you're competing on shiny you basically rely on hiring an army of artists to make your games. And you know you actually saw this when Facebook games first started. You'd make a game like Mafia Wars or Vampire Wars, or any of those "war" games in like 6 weeks. Raph [Koster] made My Vineyard with tech he already had. He decided to try making a Facebook game, and he describes the whole process taking a week, most of it getting art. I mean, it's a website. It reads some numbers from a database and says, "here, you successfully planted a tree." It's not rocket science. But since then the bar has been raised.

I mean Frontierville is a watershed mark for that kind of game. It's not my kind of game, but it has mean huge, huge numbers and most of it was introducing story and introducing high quality art and introducing, well, all these things that cost money. So now all these games like Adventure World world have been released to match that bar, so this bar of investment is going up. And the funny thing is that you see this on almost every platform. Early iPhone games used to be really cheap and fun and crappy, and the bar for those has been going up. And then DS games.

I remember when all my friends were like, "Screw making these multi-million dollar budget games for the console, I'm going to go work on the DS, which is small and cheap and you can be agile and whatnot." And then that market got saturated and the development costs for that for those went way up. Facebook is a platform. Facebook is a platform just like the DS is a platform, just like the iPhone is a platform. People are competing on that platform, and it's not going to be the last platform. Whether or not Facebook introduces the new better version of itself or some other fad comes along thats better than Facebook, I don't know...at some point I imagine that people are going to realize that they want something better than Flash to play these games on.

JL: Flash is getting better, though.

DS: Flash is getting better, but a main part of the issue that Facebook games have right now - and this is just my opinion - is that most of them are overhead strategy, click-on games. Flash does not deal with drawing that kind of scene right now. It's just too much stuff, so when you have a full city or vineyard or whatever you have, it just gets incredibly laggy and slow and whatnot. Every time I play one of those games it makes we want to start playing Tropico or some other strategy game running on the 3D card, because then I won't get that level of frustration. Somebody's going to solve that problem and i think that's going to be fairly revolutionary at some point.

JL: Well I was talking to some of the Adobe guys here [GDC Online] and they were saying the new APIs can actually use your onboard GPU, so they can do vastly superior 3D graphics compared to what you could see with Flash before.

DS: I hope so. That's part of what makes the Facebook revolution so tedious for me. It's like, this feels so slow compared to every other game that I play.

JL: Well, awesome, thank you so much for your time.

DS: No problem.

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