29
Oct
08

Dante’s Big Think – Casual Games

Picture courtesy of Rock Paper Shotgun

Picture courtesy of Rock Paper Shotgun

We at MVH like thinking, it’s mostly productive, sometimes dangerous. This week Dante has been thinking a little too much, to the extent that his thoughts have started actually leaking out of him. So we present to you, dear reader, the first of several pieces dealing with life the universe and everything, but first, something smaller. Read below for Dante’s definition of casual games’

For quite some time now I’ve been thinking about the growing use of the term ‘casual game’ and it’s supposed counterpart, the ‘hardcore game’. There’s been a lot of articles written about this, in fact I’m rather late to the party regarding the debate, but when I saw that famous loudmouth Cliffy B was talking about Gears of War 2 having ‘casual appeal‘ I decided it was time to chip in my two cents.

You see, I think Gears of War already is a casual game, very casual, confused? Read on.

First off, hands on buzzers, what is a casual game? Seriously, go on name a few for me.

Chances are you just thought of something like Wii Sports, Brain Training, the Sims or Peggle, and you’re right (good for you), most of those are casual games, but you’re also wrong (take that!) because what you’ve actually defined is a very specific, family friendly kind of game aimed at a specific demographic, and you’ve left out notable titles that could easily fit under the casual banner, things like Guitar Hero, Madden, Gears of War and er… World of Warcraft.

Let us begin with music games. Although not the first thing you’d mention when asked what a casual game was, I think most of you will agree that these are indeed casual, many non-gamers play the Guitar Hero and Rock band games, often to the exclusion of everything else. They aren’t exactly family friendly however, their core audience still being largely young men (and a significant proportion of women) rather than parents and children. Nor are they easy, oh they’re simple you merely have to hit the button’s to correspond with the notes on screen, but they aren’t easy, later guitar hero difficulties can be astonishingly hard. Neither are they cheap, with the guitar peripherals raising it well beyond the price range of the average game, never mind that of peggle et al. They are relatively low tech, featuring simple graphics and no real stand out software technology.

So Guitar Hero: low tech, simple, but not easy, not cheap and not for kids. Already we see cracks appearing in the classical definition of casual games.

So we move on to a similar field; sport. Marginally more contentious than the music games, but nevertheless fairly easy to accept as casual, why? Because a significant number of those who play them are sports fans first and gamers second, if at all. Yet they are curiously dedicated, in England we nearly all know someone who buys the new Fifa religiously every year yet seldom plays anything else, I suspect in America the same is true of Madden. Neither are these games reliant on simplicity, or graphically inferior, they constantly push the envelope of graphical prowess and have evolved complex and arcane control systems (in the case of Madden) and carefully crafted ball physics (in the case of Fifa). Their audience is largely young adults, although with a significant proportion of children and almost exclusively male.

Sports: Not simple, cheap or easy, family friendly, but male dominated.

Now, we’re getting further and further from the stereotype, so it’s about time I through you a curveball. Let’s take a look at our sports demographic, go on, picture your typical Madden/Fifa player. Young male, big sports fan, probably a group of them playing on one console, add in some beer and a lot of whooping and you’ve pretty much hit the frat boy demographic. What do frat boys play when they’re not playing Madden? Halo, of course.

There’s going to be a few detractors by this point, but hear me out.

Halo was a breakout hit for the Xbox, with huge sales and high critical scores, when it later came to the PC (often seen as the less accessible machine) the reception was far more lukewarm. Whatever your stance on Halo (mine being one of anger and despair) it didn’t really innovate, or do anything complex, but delivered polished and accessible gameplay, largely focused on deathmatch multiplayer. It sold Xbox’s, something which rarely happens with core gamers, as they’re more likely to evaluate each of a system’s games on it’s merits. Accessibility, simplicity and appealing to a market (the frat boy) outside of traditional gamers. Sounds pretty casual to me, no?

Gears of War goes even further in that direction, with the revelling in action movie stereotypes, the gratuitious gore and the constant use of the word ‘badass’ that surrounds it. It appeals expressly and obviously to the jock and the fratboy, not the classic nerd that the gamer is identified with. In fact the game received it’s share of distain from the gamer audience itself, the incoherent plot, the ridiculous characters and the hilariously unintentionally homoerotic atmosphere of it all. Once again the PC port had a lukewarm reception, yet the game sold on consoles by the bucketload. Who are these people buying it? Some of them are gamers for sure, but plenty are not, many of them have only a handful of games (GTA, Gears and Madden/Fifa) and they aren’t into the games community, they’re casual gamers.

Want more? It’s not just the fratboys that are at it, look at World of Warcraft.

Yes, World of Warcraft, geekiest of the geek is a casual game. Why? For many people is their only game (even some of those you’d count as core gamers) it has a significant population of female and middle aged games, who are often seen as the most ‘casual’ of markets. A friend at work, in his forties, plays it with his son as a bonding experience and he is by no means out of the ordinary. There’s a reason The Guild features a middle aged bachelor and a neglectful mother among it’s characters, they’re stereotypes for sure, but they wouldn’t be there if they weren’t based on someone.

So what is a casual game? Well the common convention avoids a strict definition in favour of “I’ll know it when I see it” but as we’ve established, people rarely do. If I were to define it clearly I’d say that is “a game in which a significant proportion of the market lies outside the traditional gamer audience”, unwieldy yes, but probably accurate.

So what does this definition mean? Well it means we’re going to have to think hard about what actually constitutes a casual game, rather than simply throwing the term around er… casually what do we need to think about? How about games with an obsessive ‘cult’ audience, but not the same one as other games (Football Manager) or mainstream games with a broad audience of both gamers and non-gamers (GTA).

And Cliffy B? He’s going to have to take a rain check on chasing the casual audience, he’s already got it, it’s the core gamers he needs to convince.

Dante appreciates that stereotypes aren’t real people, but they aren’t half handy for making a point.

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