Category: Casual vs. Hardcore Gameplay

Games Have An Attention Problem

March 11th, 2013 — 6:25pm

Last week I talked about how mid-core games aren’t the answer to consumer engagement issues.  This week I want to take a closer look at some of the underlying design problems with casual and hardcore thinking, and how we might better address them.

It’s been several years since I first talked about games and attention.  At the time, I noted that games compete for our attention with other games, other media, and interruptions from friends, family and work.  Despite all the advances in friction reduction over the past decade, games are hard pressed to thrive — nevermind get noticed — in this noisy media environment.

Looking ahead, the trendline is not positive.  Content creation costs keep dropping, so the amount of content available keeps rising.  Our choices are unlimited but our time is not.

Traditional solutions to the attention problem fall into two buckets:

  • Reduce friction (a.k.a. the casual solution)
  • Add depth (a.k.a. the hardcore solution)

In general, good casual design affects a player’s willingness to play, while good hardcore design affects their desire to play.


The Casual Solution

The friction reduction method requires games to:

  • Have few barriers to entry
  • Be commitment friendly
  • Be attention span agnostic
  • Have a short build-try-fail loop

That’s all good.  However, while these characteristics reduce friction and increase a player’s willingness to play, they don’t actually generate a desire to play (or to keep playing).  In an effort to meet the requirements above and make the game more accessible, most designers simplify the game’s mechanics and the way those mechanics combine, effectively reducing the play dynamics as well (in the MDA sense).  The result is a shallow product with a small possibility space and little long term retention.

Casual games succeed by demanding less from the consumer — they don’t ask you to sacrifice attention you might prefer to devote to other things, complementing rather than competing with other media.  The best of these products tend to have large audiences with low unit economics and short user life cycles.


The Hardcore Solution

The depth approach, on the other hand, means the game:

  • Has extensive and varied play dynamics
  • Has a lot of content to consume
  • Gives the player a reason to make a deep personal investment (often through persistence, identity and relationships).

Again, a good list.  Games of this type tend to create a strong desire to play.  Unfortunately, they also erect a lot of barriers to someone’s willingness to play.  To create a wide range of play dynamics, many designers simply pile on the game mechanics (i.e. they keep layering on the rules and systems).  That’s a lot for someone to learn and then remember from session to session, and with a lot of mechanics to comprehend, 100% focus is required.  The only players willing to do that are the few that will make a large personal investment in the product.   The result is a deep product with a large possibility space and great long term retention, but it bounces most consumers at the start.

Hardcore products succeed by being more compelling than other media — they ask for your undivided attention and tell you it’s better spent on them than competing options.  High quality hardcore products tend to have small audiences with high unit economics and long user life cycles.


Hardcore + Casual

There’s nothing inherent to these two approaches that makes them incompatible, but you can see how solving for one can easily lead to problems with the other (it doesn’t help that, as an industry, we’ve set up a false dichotomy that places casual and hardcore products at opposite ends of the same spectrum;  mid-core is the latest iteration along these lines).

Much of the problem starts with the game’s mechanics, where most casual games have simple mechanics and simple dynamics, and most hardcore games have complex mechanics and complex dynamics.  There’s a reason for that:  they’re much easier to design and balance (simple dynamics imply a small possibility space, which presents fewer outcomes to balance;  complex mechanics make it easier to isolate systems for independent tuning, particularly when dealing with the large possibility spaces associated with complex dynamics).

What we really want are games with simple mechanics and complex dynamics, because simple mechanics are easy to learn and remember, while complex dynamics are deep and engaging.  How we do that is the subject of next week’s post.

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Mid-Core Is Bullshit

March 6th, 2013 — 8:15pm

The game industry continues to believe that casual and hardcore players are separate monolithic audiences interested solely in games reflecting their respective play styles.  The latest entry along these lines is the mid-core game, which seeks to claim a middle ground between the two.

The underlying case for mid-core players is genuine enough:  there are many players who would like a deeper, more engaging experience without the burden of a steep learning curve or large time commitment.

But mid-core comes up short for the same reasons traditional casual and hardcore thinking does:

  • It confuses product specific engagement and commitment characteristics (where they are valid) with demographic characteristics (where they are not).  To claim there is an audience of casual players, hardcore players, and now mid-core players outside the scope of a single product is nonsensical.  These are different people for different products, and one game’s hardcore player is another’s casual player.  And remember:  everyone is hardcore about something.
  • It falsely assumes there is a spectrum of play from casual to hardcore where a given product falls, instead of treating casual and hardcore play as separate and compatible in the same game.  To make a game more casual is to make it more accessible;  to make it hardcore is to make it more engaging.  Good casual design increases a player’s willingness to play but does nothing to increase their desire to play.  Good hardcore design improves a player’s desire to play but does nothing to increase their willingness to play.
  • It takes a very narrow view of player behavior:  that an individual seeks the exact same play experience every time they sit down to play.

Of these, the last is most important.  In the busy, chaotic world we all live in, our ability to engage and commit to a product varies from day to day. When you build for mid-core, you haven’t addressed this problem any better than casual or hardcore approaches because you’re still building for a fixed level of player engagement.  Which means you’re still going to lose consumers when they want to engage more and there’s nothing interesting to do, or you require them to engage more and they don’t have the time.

It’s a lot like picking a single price point for your product — it can work, but it’s not terribly efficient compared to free-to-play models.  And it’s a poor strategy for any product hoping to build a long term relationship with the player.

We should enable high levels of casual and hardcore play in the same product, not find a happy medium between the two.  Doing so doesn’t re-align your product with a different demographic or change the level of engagement;  it expands your product’s audience to include a much greater number of players, without sacrificing one group to make room for another.


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90 Seconds vs. 90 Minutes

March 12th, 2012 — 6:17pm

There’s an old saying I heard when I first started making games almost 20 years ago:  in the arcade, you want a 90 second experience to feel like 90 minutes;  on a pc, you want a 90 minute experience to feel like 90 seconds.

Game play lengths have changed a lot over the past two decades.  There may even be a case against thinking in discreet segments at all.  Nevertheless, it’s worth applying the general concept to the wide range of gaming platforms available in 2012 (inasmuch as individual platforms tend to set certain expectations).

Which of the following should feel like more time has passed than actually has, which ones less?

  • Arcade
  • Console – Retail
  • Console – Downloadable (e.g. Xbox Live)
  • Console – Handheld
  • PC – Retail
  • PC – Downloadable
  • PC – Web (e.g. flash games)
  • PC – Social
  • PC – MMO
  • Mobile

I’d say arcade, handheld, web, social and mobile games want you to feel like more time has passed.  The rest — retail and downloadable games, plus MMOs, want your play experience to feel shorter than it is.  That may not be how they should or could be designed, but the current expectations of the audience suggest that breakdown.

Agree or disagree?  The original phrase isn’t exactly symmetrical:  the economics of the arcade drove shorter play times, so they had to feel much longer to create the perception of value.  At home on the pc, with more time available, you wanted the player so immersed they didn’t notice the passage of time (which is less directly about value than maintaining engagement).

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Casual Vs. Hardcore Play: Wrong Question

February 27th, 2012 — 4:02pm

I think there’s some acceptance in the industry that the terms “casual” and “hardcore” have been co-opted by historical circumstances and no longer match their functional meaning.  These days most people array casual and hardcore as two ends of an audience spectrum from large (casual) to small (hardcore).   What they’re really talking about is how niche a title is.

This would be merely a semantic debate and beside the point, except that folks in the industry also go on to attribute all kinds of other (arguably more genuine) characteristics to casual and hardcore titles.  For example, casual titles may have short play sessions, simple interfaces and fast learning curves.  Hardcore titles might have deep, complicated rule systems that encourage extended play and long life cycles.  By making the original assertion about audience, however, these characteristics falsely wind up at both ends of a spectrum.

To make something casual is to make it accessible.  There’s not much more to it than that.  Attention friendly, light on commitment, easy to understand, and so forth.  These are product characteristics not audience characteristics.

To make something hardcore is to make it more engaging.  More content to consume, more variety, more personal.

The question isn’t whether you’re making a casual or hardcore game but two separate questions:  does it enable casual play? does it enable hardcore play?  The answer can be yes to both.

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Standard Play Lengths

February 23rd, 2010 — 12:15am

Are games converging on standard play lengths?  Other media forms have de facto ranges:  movies at 90-120 min, popular music at 2 – 4 min, concerts at 2 – 3 hours, etc.  There are plenty of exceptions, but even those are almost always within the same order of magnitude.

What about games?  Lighter, more casual fare allows for play sessions of a minute or two (everything from solitaire to various Facebook titles).  Many console titles ask at least 20 minutes of you.  And it’s hard to imagine having any meaningful experience in World of Warcraft in less than an hour.  These all feel a bit muddier than other media types though, and there’s no consistency across a given platform or market segment (i.e. the ranges are huge compared to movies, music, et al).

Does this lack of clarity help or hurt games?  Does it create tension for the user to not know in advance what they’re getting into?

Or have we gotten to a point where people do have expectations associated with a given platform or segment, even if many games aren’t following those standards?  Are they then disappointed when it doesn’t match, or worse, do they not bother to try a game because they assume all titles in that category require a certain time commitment?

I do think standard play lengths are a potential problem for all media forms going forward.  The interesting question to ask though, is whether consumers are helped or hurt by these formalized expectations (or for that matter, whether content creators benefit from these implicit constraints).

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