... now with 35% more arrogance!

Friday, January 13, 2012

Hardcore vs. Casual

Thanks, everyone, for commentary on my questions about the family gamer. I did intend the questions to be serious, but some of them may have no answers, or at least I have no preconceived answers. Those questions were meant more as something to think about. But some of the questions touch on some topics I have thought about; I have some concerns whenever the topic of broadening the player base comes up and I don't think people ever address them. People periodically say "we could get more players if only we did X", but "X" never works; the next time someone offers that solution again, no one seems to remember that it didn't work the first time, and that potential game designers are making the same mistakes over and over.

One of these issues has to do with the distinction between hardcore gamers and casual gamers. Now, I don't mean "hardcore" in the sense of pornography or punk rock or anything like that, and I don't entirely mean extreme immersion in gamer culture (that has more to do with my comments about fetishism and self-referentialism.) By "hardcore", I mean "really seriously dedicated to and invested in". The hardcore gamer spends a lot of time playing the game, preparing for it, and analyzing it, and purchasing supplemental products.

About ten or so years ago, I read an article in either Wired or possibly one of the video game magazines about a problem with the design of video games: game designers were focusing on appealing to the hardcore gamers. These are the people who spend a lot of time playing video games, figure out all the combo moves and strategies quickly, have well-honed game playing talents, and usually wind up writing all the walk-throughs and exploit articles. Because they have a huge amount of experience playing games and examine every new game so closely, gaming comes easy to them, and they quickly become bored with a new game that doesn't challenge their highly-evolved skills. Because they get bored so easily, they're always on the look-out for the next big game, and because they often spend hundreds of dollars a month on games and are early adopters that will spread the news, they are a lucrative target market. Video game designers wound up designing new games to appeal to players who expect to play four to eight hours a day for an entire weekend at a minimum, possibly an entire week.

The problem, of course, is that most people aren't like that. Most people are casual gamers, looking for a game not because they are bored with the last one they conquered, but because they are bored right now and just want some entertainment to kill the time. They want to be able to pick up a game and start playing at a moment's notice, play for an hour or two, and move on to something else. They aren't novice gamers, but they also don't have highly specialized gamer skills, so games designed to challenge hardcore gamers just wind up pissing them off. Although the video game industry does pretty well appealing to the hardcore gamers, every once in a while, someone will design a game that appeals to casual gamers as well, such as The Sims -- a game franchise with profits that crush the sales of most other games, because it has a broader appeal.

Shift the focus to tabletop RPGs. These are being designed by people who are dedicated RPG enthusiasts for an audience of their peers. This is an audience that argues about the benefits of class-based vs. skill-based systems, the best dice mechanics, how much tactical depth each game has, how to optimize each class, how balanced the system is... in other words, hardcore gamers. What a lot of us don't realize is that absolutely none of these things appeal to casual gamers; they don't care. They won't play RPGs with us not because they are novices, or because WoW has better graphics, or because our games are not politically correct, or because they are about fantasy combat instead of romance or drama; they won't play RPGs with us because they are interested in playing a game, not dedicating their lives to one game. They want to be able to pick up and play a game on a moment's notice, and drop it just as easily.


  1. I'm the really odd duck, then. A lot of the personality types in the hardcore gamer community really bug me, but I like thinking about the design and how I'd wrap up my ideal setting when I fall back into gaming. Also, I just want to pick it up and play for a few hours and then move on to something else, but I am only interested in classic D&D, not so much the newer things, or some of the other branches of the old-school family.

    No wonder I don't fit in! ;-)

  2. Not that odd; I'm pretty much the same way. But I realize that I'm still "hardcore", even if I'm on the lower end of the range; I was perhaps more hardcore in the past, but got dissatisfied with many hardcore aspects.

    What rpg designers frequently seem to forget is that designing games for the hardcore is not going to bring new people into gaming. When I've mentioned this before -- including on the Forge -- the response was excuses that people actually enjoy hardcore elements.

  3. I've been thinking about this for a while, and I kept concluding that a genuine 'introductory RPG' would be either a board game or a video game.

    I've often wondered whether 'Talisman', 'Dungeon', 'Hero Quest' and the like were more popular than actual RPGs back in the day.

    The owners of D&D have often had linked board games available, but I don't think they were compatible ie you couldn't take your 'Dungeon' character and play D&D with it.

  4. @Talysman:
    "When I've mentioned this before -- including on the Forge -- the response was excuses that people actually enjoy hardcore elements."

    In my opinion there are many 'unacceptable truths' in RPG fandom, that derive from the fact that people like the idea of an introductory RPG, but don't like the idea of changing anything.

    In my mind D&D has a similar position to Lord of the Rings. They're both the very personal creation of people with very specific and unusual ideas of what was cool, yet both have been taken as a template for fantasy.

    That's not a criticism of either D&D or Lord of the Rings - idiosyncratic personal style is what creative people are meant to have - but some fans don't see that distinction.