Definition Wars: Hardcore vs. Casual

There’s a good article on the Escapist by Richard Aihoshi called The Future of Massively Multiplayer Isn’t You. That said, I’m not so much going to talk about the article as I am going to pull a quote from the article and use it the basis for my own article. It’s a subject we all hate to love to discuss. It’s a subject everyone has an opinion on, and most of it just has to do with terminology. It’s hardcore vs. casual. What’s the difference? What do they mean? Is time a factor?

Richard Aihoshi on the Escapist:
Goslin thinks “the big difference between casual and hardcore gamers is the amount of time they are willing to invest. To attract the former, you have to get them engaged faster, because their time is limited. Once they’re playing, however, the game needs to be challenging, deep and fun, if you want them to continue. If you succeed in creating a game that’s challenging, deep and fun for a casual player, it will likely also be fun for a hardcore gamer.”

While this is in part a simple question of terminology, this statement is still fundamentally incorrect. Time is not a factor when determining the difference between a hardcore and casual gamer as it applies to game design; hardcore gamers may be more willing to dedicate a lot of time to a game in general, but casual gamers can spend a ton of time playing games, and hardcore gamers can spend very little. In fact, I believe it is an outright fallacy, even when creating a niche game for hardcore gamers, to design around the assumption that players will be willing to dedicate a huge amount of time to the game.

For example, I am a hardcore min/max style gamer. I almost never spend more than 10 hours a week playing any given MMO these days, but the time I do spend is carefully approached and maximized for efficiency.

On the flip side, I’ve met a number of gamers I would consider casual, in that they spend most of their time in the game hanging out and slowly advancing, but they play games 4+ hours a day. They never maximize efficiency, watching TV while playing or wandering in and out of the room, casually chatting with friends, hanging out, etc.

I understand part of this can be that who I view as a hardcore player has different goals than a casual player (character advancement being one of them), but I look at a casual player as being someone who simply doesn’t put forth a great deal of effort while they are playing a game as compared to a hardcore player (whether their motives are character advancement, monetary gain, socialization, or otherwise).

Here’s where I attempt to define the terms everyone loves to argue about:

Hardcore Gamer: A player who is willing–and usually desires–to delve into the intricacies of a game, and who strives to meet his or her goals actively.

Casual Gamer: A player who generally does not desire to delve into the intricacies of a game, and who strives to meet his or her goals passively.

Simply put, I believe a hardcore gamer is willing and able to put forth a lot of effort to learn how a game is played best in at least one aspect. A hardcore gamer can focus (in an MMO) on character advancement, exploration, socialization, or anything else, but the overriding factor is that they are willing to dedicate the effort required to meet their goals. Hardcore gamers often desire (or at least tolerate) complexity in a game. This lends well to dedicating a large portion of time to games, but doesn’t require it.

A casual gamer is someone who is more likely just to play a game to have fun, and may not even have particular goals beyond having fun (though many do). They passively play a game, meaning they don’t intend to put forth a great deal of effort toward accomplishing their goals, and therefore will meet their goals at a slower hour for hour pace than a hardcore gamer. Casual gamers often desire simplicity in a game. This style usually lends well to someone who dedicates less time to a game, but some will play for many hours.

Anyway, I believe that time is not a factor when considering the terms “hardcore” and “casual.” When we develop for these audiences, time is not what we need to keep in mind. Instead, it has a lot more to do with play styles, player skill, and a willingness to get into the nitty gritty of a game.

Time, however, is absolutely a consideration when talking about and creating massively multiplayer games. If you want to appeal to players who have short play sessions, you need to make it possible for players to accomplish their goals in short play sessions. But, that’s another subject entirely.

Another factor to consider is player skill. At the risk of offending anyone who believes they are casual gamers, hardcore gamers tend to be more skilled at playing games, in part due to their willingness to delve into the details of a game. This is not always true, but it’s a generalization, hence my not including it in the definition. There are plenty of casual gamers who are quite skilled, and plenty of hardcore gamers who aren’t particularly skilled.

In summary, the difference between a hardcore and casual gamer is their willingness (or unwillingness) to actively dedicate themselves to accomplishing their self-imposed goals–hardcore gamers actively seek to accomplish their goals, while casual gamers more passively accomplish their goals.

Note: Read the comments. Ideas are developing below that are probably more interesting than the initial post, and I will follow this one up with another post after I’ve thought them through further.

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