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Casual Versus Core
By Ernest Adams
Gamasutra
August 1, 2000

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.

goldeneyebox

Nintendo 64's GoldenEye 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.

goldeneyeshot

Screen shot from GoldenEye 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.]

loveboat

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.

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