Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Building Bridges (Part I)

In Part I of this article, QA tester and aspiring game designer Kumar Daryanani looks at the hardcore/casual dichotomy and gives suggestions on how game developers can bridge the gap between hardcore and casual players.

For the most part, video games are still a business. The underlying truth in that statement is that developers have one and only one major responsibility: to create games that will ensure that they can create more games in the future. The main means to this end are either to create games that appeal to the widest audience possible, or to create brand strength and recognition to secure repeat customers.

One of the major effects of the casual games boom is that some developers of traditionally 'core' games are attempting to tap into the new casual gamer demographic. This is a sound business strategy, since more potential users means more possibilities for revenue in the form of sales. The quandary is that casual gamers seem to have very particular tastes when it comes to games. The industry standard multi-million dollar blockbusters that keep our hit-driven business running don't see much penetration beyond the core gamer audience, for a variety of reasons: theme is an instant suspect, since casual gamers are mostly profiled as mature women who don't particularly care for the excess guns (in both senses of the words) that permeate games aimed at core audiences. Complexity also affects the appeal of core games: compare the standard button configurations on the Xbox 360 and Playstation3 controllers and how they reflect on the gameplay of a standard first- or third-person shooter, and the relative simplicity of the average PC mouse, or the Wiimote.

It would seem, then, that dumbing down the essence of core games is not the answer to appealing to the casual gamer. This instantly detracts from the core gamer's experience, and there is little worse in this industry than alienating the very people who have kept the game industry going for the last 30-odd years. Besides, core games still sell well as they are, and as time goes by, core gamers will continue to spend money on the games the industry creates for them. If anything, core games need to continue to evolve and cater to their target audiences.

How, then, are we to appeal to the casual gamer? Is it possible to 'convert' a casual gamer into a core gamer?

If we compare the games of today to the ones made back in the dawn of the video game era, it is easy to see that games have become relatively complex. The last 2D platformer I saw released with a minimum of media coverage was Henry Hatsworth and the Puzzling Adventure, and even that is a far cry from the original Super Mario Brothers and Sonic the Hedgehog. By comparison, icons of those early days, like Mario and Sonic, have made the jump to 3D, which is significantly more complex than 2D, requiring an extra dimension of spatial navigation that isn't necessarily accessible to uninitiated gamers.

Of course, creating such games nowadays is a gamble, because core gamers have supposedly moved on from 2D, and there is no guarantee that casual gamers will give these games a try. This leaves us in the unenviable position of having two separate kinds of games, with nothing in between that could bridge the gap that could maybe allow us to 'convert' casual gamers into core ones. Looking at it this way, is it really a surprise that the casual/core debate is discussed as a dichotomy?

Part of the reason more people don't play games is the various misconceptions about them. Many people still believe that video games are for children, or huge wastes of time, or aimed at a very specific subset of the population. One of the main advantages we have over the developers of the 70s and 80s, though, is that games are better established as a form of entertainment. Developers have evolved and refined theories on what makes games fun, on learning curves, on player incentivization and motivation, on flow and immersion, on creating meaningful experiences, on a visual language unique to the medium. As well as more complex, modern games are more polished and refined than their early counterparts. We also have amazing technology in terms of sound and graphics and AI, and more platforms for gaming than ever before.

With all of these advances in the way games are made, it is natural that some developers may balk at taking a chance at creating more basic or introductory games that casual gamers may or may not buy. As I have said before, video games are a business, and creating a game that doesn't sell is money and time lost. While these games are still necessary, it is important to ensure that they will sell, mainly by creating a market for them. We must first create interest in these games, by making casual and non-gamers more receptive to what these games have to offer.

More importantly than the technology and the ideas we now have at our disposal, we now have a group of very important people as resource: people who see games as a viable choice when it comes to entertainment. Not just the ones with visibility among the general non-gaming populace, although those are very nice to have, and my thanks and appreciation go out to them for doing what they do, but rather, we have the core gamers who have children, siblings, spouses, parents and friends who may have more than a passing interest in games, but have never taken the plunge. Gamers who think to themselves "I wish there was a game I could show them that they would get!" These are our mavens. These are the people to whom we can appeal to, who will buy our games on behalf of the casual gamers, if only we create the right games.

Kumar Daryanani is a QA tester, videogame enthusiast and aspiring game designer. He currently resides in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife. He keeps a blog where he writes about various aspects of video games.


Alan Jack said...

I feel there's a lot of elements to games that we often fail to consider due to being gamers ourselves - see Nels Anderson's Readability series:

The idea that casual and hardcore gamers want two different types of game is, I think, completely flawed. I think they're just turned off mainstream games because certain elements - control schemes, elements of interaction, or narrative elements such as the portrayal of characters and their behaviour - have been designed in a way that is acceptable to hardcore gamers, but not acceptable in general.

Think of it like genre-focussed cinema. Paper-thin characters with ridiculous reactions to things, smattered with little touches of racism are common in exploitation action movies, but would kill mainstream movies at the box office. This doesn't mean we can't make action movies that have success at the box office, we just need to make action movies that go deeper than the rest and address the problems common to the genre.

As an example in games, take Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. I have had personal, first-hand experience at retail of the effect this game had on casual players. They loved it - because, unlike most games, they could relate to the situation, empathize with the believable characters, and the controls were (relatively) simple. Trying to explain Far Cry 2 to the same players is a far more difficult experience, despite it being (in most people's opinions) a far superior game - there's far more going on in the game, it isn't linear and the story is a little more abstract.

There will always be a gap between the two types of customer in the games market, but I think there are directions we can take other than creating games to ease casual gamers into the market - we could also make some games simply easier to get into.

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