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The Myth of Casual Competition

In which the topic of whether or not casual gaming is taking money from the AAA market is discussed. SPOILER WARNING: It's not.

For my first post, I’m going to address a hot-button issue that’s as topical and relevant as it is non-existent and absurd. Whoops, I think I just gave away my thesis.

One of the most pervasive ideas today is that hardcore (here defined as a game which represents a significant investment in time) games are doing poorly because of the exploding iPhone, Android, and Facebook game market. It’s a simple idea; people aren’t playing big expensive titles when they can play cheap or free games on devices they already own. It’s a logical idea unless you think about it for even one second.

Call of Duty isn’t competing with Angry Birds. This should be obvious. Uncharted isn’t competing with Temple Run, Assassin’s Creed isn’t competing with Fruit Ninja, Prometheus isn’t competing with Marble Hornets, Madagascar 3 isn’t competing with Homestar Runner, The Dark Knight Rises and The Amazing Spiderman aren’t competing with Baman Piderman. By now you’re probably sick of me just asserting things, so I’ll try to explain why this is the case:

 

People play hardcore and casual games for completely different reasons.

This is the most fundamental objection to the idea of competition. While they both satisfy a desire for play, they have little else in common in terms of their basic appeal. Hardcore games appeal to someone who wants to use video games as their primary form of entertainment. If you consider yourself a gamer, ask yourself, how much TV do you watch? Most likely not very much. Games are how you spend your downtime; it’s how you unwind when the day is done.

Now let’s compare casual games: where hardcore games dominate dedicated gaming equipment like consoles, casual games flourish on devices that have been co-opted for gaming, like smartphones. PCs and, to a lesser degree tablets form a weird middle ground between these two categories, but let’s go back to smartphones.

The reason why casual games are over 99% of the mobile gaming market is because people don’t play casual games to invest time, but to kill time. People play casual games because, hey, I’ve already got an iPhone and my train isn’t coming for 15 minutes, I’ll play some Temple Run. Hardcore gaming is done as an activity; casual gaming is done between activities. There will always be exceptions, but this generally holds true.

But what about Farmville? Zynga’s games, while they may be simplistic, can hardly be called casual in the sense of the way I’m using the term. While I concede that Zynga games could be considered a hybrid of hardcore and casual, ask yourself if you honestly believe that Farmville and Red Dead Redemption have the same basic appeal, that they both target the same audience. This brings us to the second point:

There is very little overlap between hardcore and casual gamers.

This is a somewhat misleading statement. A more accurate one is that the overlap between casual and hardcore gamers usually goes one way, and that’s the reason why you don’t notice this. Most people play casual games to some degree, their ease of access on mobile platforms is the biggest reason why the market is exploding. People who play hardcore games, meanwhile, are still a distinct demographic. This is why you don’t see gratuitous fanservice in casual games: to be successful, a casual game needs to appeal to the widest possible audience, and for mobile games, the possible audience is nearly everyone.

The casual gaming market as it exists today was created by the preponderance of smartphone access, opening up videos games to non-gamers. The people now exclusively playing casual games either had no desire or ability to play hardcore games. The idea that hardcore and casual games are in competition rests on the idea that if casual games did not exist people would play hardcore games instead. This is patently absurd. People are not choosing casual games instead of hardcore games; they are choosing casual games instead of not playing games at all. This brings us to the third point:

Casual games and hardcore game are barely even the same thing.

One of the most interminable and useless debates in the industry has got to be “What is a game?” It’s not quite as interminable and useless as “What is Fun?” but it’s close. One debate we’ve managed to settle, though, is “Are games art?” which we’ve answered with a resounding and slightly-defensive “Yes!”. Casual games are not art. They will never be art, if you wanted the casual game you’re making to be art you’d be grandly missing the point of casual gaming. Casual gamers aren’t looking for new experiences and ideas, they’re looking for a distraction.

If there is a hard distinction between hardcore and casual, it’s this: all hardcore games involve roleplay. When you play a hardcore game, either you take on the guise of the player character, and in doing so become someone different from who you are; or the player character becomes a projection of you, to transport you into a whole new experience and let you become part of a world not your own. This is the magic of games.

There is no element of roleplay in casual games. They are a test to see if you, Billy Simmons (insert your own name here, unless you’re already Billy Simmons, in which case, you’re welcome), have the skill to complete a challenge. I’ll try to explain with an analogy: Mass Effect is our generation’s Star Wars. Angry Birds is our generation’s newspaper crossword.

Conclusions:

I honestly feel like I just spent six paragraphs saying the same thing, and it’s silly that I even have to say it, but sometimes I feel like I’m taking crazy pills. Casual and hardcore games don’t compete. So, the question is: why does casual gaming get blamed?

The most likely reason is that it’s a convenient scapegoat. If the casual market is choking sales of AAA titles, then it’s not the fault of the people who make AAA games when sales drop. Any mistakes and missteps can easily be deflected onto the boogeyman of casual gaming.

And, since lots of hardcore gamers already have animosity towards casual games, they’ll buy it hook, line and sinker, since it reconfirms their already held beliefs, and even justifies them, because now casual games aren’t just inferior to hardcore games, they’re a threat to the very existence of hardcore gaming.

Add to this a surface credibility (they’re all games, and casual games are on the up while hardcore games are on the down, so logically it’s a zero-sum situation), and you have basically the perfect scapegoat.

So stop saying that casual games are killing AAA titles. You’re distracting attention from the real issues, and you’re just making yourself look stupid.

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