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Casual Versus Core

There are as many types of gamer as there are gamers. But publishers seem to have created two groups, arbitrarily defined as "casual" and "core". This has become part of the publisher's mental model of the market during the past year or so. This distinction is now firmly fixed in the marketing mind, so as designers, we're stuck with it. And if we have to use it, we'd better think about what it means.

I've been playing computer games for almost as long as they have existed. From Pong to the present day, I've played games just about every day of my life. You might think that that makes me a hard-core gamer, but actually, I'm not. I'm a casual gamer. If that sounds like a damning admission from a professional game designer, think again; there are a lot more casual gamers out there than core gamers, and it behooves us to understand what they want from a game.

The core game market is saturated. There are too many products competing for the core gamer's attention, and it's no wonder a lot of game companies that once seemed like sure things are now in trouble. The publishers are starting to looking beyond their traditional audiences to new ones: casual gamers. So what's a casual gamer?

Before we get into it, I'm going to apologize for even bringing the subject up. A great deal of the trouble in the world today is caused by an insistence on finding simple answers to complex problems, or on seeing complex mechanisms as simple ones. You can divide any conceptual space into two by choosing some binary distinction and saying everything on the left is of type A, while everything on the right is of type B. That doesn't guarantee that the distinction is meaningful or serves to solve a problem. As often as not, dividing things into two and labeling them does nothing but obscure a more important underlying truth.

So by dividing gamers into "core" and "casual," I know I'm creating a phony dichotomy. In reality, there are as many types of gamer as there are gamers. But I'm going to talk about it anyway, not because I think it's accurate, but because it has become part of the publisher's mental model of the market during the past year or so. I have sat in on any number of design discussions where ideas were dismissed as being "too core" or "too casual." This distinction is now firmly fixed in the marketing mind, so as designers, we're stuck with it. If we're going to use it, we'd better think about what we mean.

To start with, let's look at core gamers. What characterizes a core gamer? Well, they play games a lot. A lot. For core gamers, game software is their favorite entertainment medium, surpassing television and the movies. Core gamers spend a great deal of their leisure time playing games, and if they're not playing, they're reading magazines about games, surfing the web for information on games, or hanging around the game store. They write walkthroughs and build websites devoted to their favorite games. They discuss them on bulletin boards. It goes on and on.

For core gamers, playing games is more than light entertainment. It's a hobby, and it requires dedication. A good analogy from the non-game world is building and flying model airplanes. In addition to the time you spend actually flying the airplanes, there's a lot of time spent on building them, obtaining plans and parts for them, and getting together with other modeling buffs. Core gamers and airplane modelers also spend a lot of money on their hobbies - much more than people spend on the occasional trip to the movies or the video store. They're not only spending their leisure time, they're also spending a lot of their leisure dollars.

The casual gamer is not prepared to spend that much time or money on it. The casual gamer wants to play games the same way she watches TV or reads a book: sit down, do it for a while, then stop and do something else. She doesn't want games to consume her life, she wants them to entertain her for a while.

This distinction is not new. Everyone knows casual gamers spend less time on games than core gamers do. But there's a more important difference, and it has to do with why we play, and what we want to get out of the experience. It has signficant implications for game design.

The core gamer plays for the exhilaration of defeating the game. The core gamer is much more tolerant of frustration, because what the core gamer wants is a sense of having achieved something, having overcome an obstacle. The greater the obstacle, the greater the sense of achievement. The core gamer is engaged in a competition - with himself, with the game, with other gamers. A core gamer wants a sense of reward and "bragging rights" from having beaten the game. In this respect he has a lot in common with athletes, particularly of the track and field variety. Most athletes won't tell you that what they do is "fun." It's not. It's grueling, exhausting, often painful. It's also very repetitive. The joy comes from winning.


This desire is cleverly catered to in Goldeneye - it's one of the many reasons why it's such a brilliant game. In Goldeneye it's possible to replay levels that you've already defeated as much as you want. Instead of forcing you to go on, it allows you to play any previous level again to see if you can beat it more quickly. There are rewards for beating each of the levels within a certain time limit.

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Nintendo 64's Golden Eye 007



By contrast, the casual gamer plays for the sheer enjoyment of playing the game. If the game stops being enjoyable or becomes frustrating, the casual gamer will stop playing. Obviously the casual gamer enjoys a challenge and wants to win, but the old cliché applies: life is a journey, not a destination. For the casual gamer, playing games must be entertaining, whether it's competitive or not.

The casual gamer cares nothing for improving his time in Goldeneye, and he is free to ignore this feature. Once a casual gamer has defeated a level, he wants to go on to the next level, to take up the next challenge and see the next part of the story. A core gamer, on the other hand, wants to hone her skills and improve her time. From learning to beat the level consistently, she devises a new challenge: learning to beat it faster and faster.
Core gamers are often rather contemptuous of casual gamers. Casual gamers aren't serious, they aren't dedicated, and they aren't capable of beating core gamers when they play against them. Core gamers like their games to be long and hard. There's a certain amount of testosterone involved in being a core gamer, which is why they like long, hard things.

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Screen shot from Golden Eye 007


(That doesn't mean that all core gamers are male. Women have testosterone, too, you know, and too much of it has similar effects on them as it does on men.)

Casual gamers, on the other hand, think core gamers are a little nutty, a little nerdy. "It took you two hours and 25 tries to shave 15 seconds off your time in the 'Runway' level of Goldeneye? I'm sure your life is much fuller now." To which core gamers reply, "Hey - at least I didn't wimp out and go watch re-runs of The Love Boat instead."

[I actually did watch The Love Boat - once - to see what it was about. It turned out to be a two-hour special, which I didn't realize when it started, but I stuck it out from a sense of duty. When it was done I felt as if I'd eaten a 55-gallon drum of cotton candy. I also swore to whatever gods there be that I'd never waste two precious hours of my life in such an idiotic way again. Just about any computer game, no matter how mindless, would be an improvement.]

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Watch The Love Boat or play games?



What this implies for game design is that if you want to attract the casual gamer, you can't rely on the old coin-op video game standbys for challenging the player. A casual gamer is simply not willing to spend hours and hours learning complex controls, or trying incredibly difficult jumps over and over, or getting killed again and again until he finds the one weak point in an otherwise invicible enemy. To design a game for casual gamers, you have to challenge their minds at least as much as their motor skills.

And what about me? Well, the truth is that I'm not really a core gamer or a casual gamer. I told you that dichotomy was a phony one; I've got some things in common with core gamers and others in common with casual gamers. Furthermore, I'm a game developer, which changes the rules. I've made this my career, so I must care a heck of a lot about games - more even than most core gamers do. On the other hand, I play a lot of games at work, and when I go home I want to do something I can't do at work - read or watch TV or go out somewhere. I do play games in my leisure time, of course, but mostly I play them at work. Game developers themselves aren't always the best model for understanding our market. We're atypical, because we are by definition more interested in games than our customers are.

A lot of level designers, especially if they're young core gamers, think of designing levels in terms of creating hard, mean, nasty things to beat. That's partly because those are the kinds of challenges they like themselves, but it can also be a sort of laziness. It's comparatively easy to make things difficult. It's much trickier to make things interesting, to think up puzzles and challenges that require brainwork rather than sheer perseverance. If we want to reach the casual gamer, we need to make things not just nasty, mean, and hard to beat, but clever, exciting, and fun to beat.

Ernest Adams is an American freelance game designer currently living in England. He was most recently employed as a lead designer at Bullfrog Productions, and for several years before that he was the audio/video producer on the Madden NFL Football product line. In a much earlier life he was a software engineer. He has developed on-line, computer, and console games for everything from the IBM 360 mainframe to the Playstation 2. He was a founder of the International Game Developers Association, and is a frequent lecturer at the Game Developers Conference and anyplace else that people will listen to him. Ernest would be happy to receive E-mail about his columns at [email protected], and you may visit his professional web site at http://members.aol.com/ewadams

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