Casual players are a dying breed

Whenever the topic of casual games comes up, I always question who exactly these ‘casual gamers’ are, and I think the term itself is a little misleading. I think ‘casual player’ is more accurate. Gamer to me, be they casual or not, indicates someone who is interesting in gaming itself, rather than someone who just plays something like Angry Birds because they heard about it like they would have heard about a new TV show or movie.

A gamer (casually) plays games, while a player will occasionally (casually) play a game. (I believe a subset exists that will play one game very hardcore (the super cow clickers), much like someone can be casual about movies but know every last details about the SW films, or not really love music but be crazy about one artist)

I would consider my father a casual gamer. He has been playing games for as long as I have (we played Shining in the Darkness together, drawing dungeon maps on graph paper, good times), yet does not have the time/interest to jump into something like EVE (though you should dad). He has played WoW longer than most of you reading this though, and he would never consider anything from Zynga worthwhile. I have no doubt that there are a LOT of gamers just like him out there (more on that in a bit).

A game like Angry Birds, and to a lesser extend Zynga games, are not aimed at gamers, but gamers will play them under the right circumstance (on the move, little time, etc). Angry Birds is popular not just because it allows casual players to pick it up, but also because the design is solid-enough to get positive word-of-mouth from gamers. Zynga games, on the other hand, are popular because they do a good job of spamming (and previously, scamming) casual players, much like certain TV shows do a solid job of ‘spamming’ you with advertising. Gamers know that Zynga games are garbage, but the casual players that the games are aimed at don’t hear that negative word-of-mouth buzz (think movie tie-in games selling despite being awful 99% of the time), nor do they ‘get’ gaming enough to quickly identify the shallow and horrid ‘gameplay’, and fall for the marketing ‘hooks’ that really drive the games.

What often gets lost in all of this is how the overall population breaks down, and just how many gamers are out there, their resources, and what exactly they are looking for. The whole “casual = more” thing might not be as true as so many just seem to accept, at least not to the level of ‘casual’ that is suggested.

Back in the late 80s, early 90s, kids played consoles, most people did not own a computer, the Internet was not up, and gaming was far more niche than TV/movies/music.  If you played games back then, you were most definitely a hardcore gamer, and the games reflected this. Mario, the  ‘for everyone’ game was incredibly hardcore by today’s standards, and most games were much harder than Mario.

But gaming has exploded in popularity, in large part thanks to Sony and the PS1, and has continued to gain market share in the entertainment world. At some point, gaming became as accepted as going to the movies or watching TV (would you rather admit you play games, or watch Jersey Shore/Kardashians to your co-workers?).

And not only is gaming extremely popular now, it’s not just popular with kids. The ESA tells us the average age of a gamer is 37 (and age 41 for people buying games), and that the average gamer has been playing for 12 years. 12 years ago was 1999, where Silent Hill, Soul Calibur, Quake 3 Arena, FF VIII, EQ1, Counterstrike, and Unreal Tournament dominated. Raise your hand if you transitioned from Soul Calibur to Farmville? And how many of those EQ1 players do you think consider WoW too hardcore?

‘Hardcore’ games like Halo and CoD:MW dwarf Zynga games (and everyone else) in profit. Far more people are online with an Xbox playing ‘hardcore’ games than people who are logging in to click a cow. Is anyone really surprised that the most popular game on Xfire is a ‘hardcore’ PvP game (League of Legends)? And short of a zombie apocalypse, people are not going to regress and go back to playing simple games in the future.

Point is, gamers today ‘get’ gaming and demand more from their gaming than the bare minimum. This is only going to increase as time goes on. More and more people are going to grow up with gaming being as much (if not more) a part of their lives as TV or movies. The kids growing up on Club Penguin today are not going to transition from that game to Farmville. As they grow up, they are not only going to seek more mature titles in terms of theme, but also in terms of gameplay.

Once the millions of “MMO noobs” learned WoW, they no longer found the basics of an MMO “too complex”. To capture that crowd going forward is not going to take a more casual WoW, but rather a better WoW, one that builds on the core that worked and expands it. WoW’s worst enemy is WoW, because as it gets dumber, its playerbase gets smarter, and the pool of ‘dumb’ gamers to replace those moving on is shrinking.

To me the whole ‘social gaming’ fad is the minority of the population who are NOT gamers catching up. Facebook games are just a very thin primer for those who were not gaming in 1999, and as the trending is showing, as soon as that crowd takes just a few steps forward, they are going to be looking for something with a little more gameplay than a cow clicker. Most will not continue the journey all the way to something like EVE, but they will certainly be closer to it then what we call casual games today.

About SynCaine

Former hardcore raider turned casual gamer.
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13 Responses to Casual players are a dying breed

  1. Raelyf says:

    *wipes tear*

    You’ve given me some hope.

  2. dsj says:

    I would argue that the difficulty that games like EVE will experience as it tries to grow is that the core of the pvp gameplay simply doesn’t happen according to a schedule you can count on. You have to go looking for the fight … which can be fun and is helped by joining the right type of corp/ally. As opposed to a FPS game, pvp in an MMO like EVE isn’t a pick up and play affair. The relative lack of PvP MMO’s is due not to the PVP I think but the inability to give people that want it a daily dose of old fashioned shooting people in the face that FPS games do so well.

  3. Rammstein says:

    /begintoboldarticleexcerpt

    “Where will that end? Unfortunately for the hardcore, they do not play Zynga games. I believe that to understand trends in gaming, you need to be open enough to try everything. Which is why I play everything from hardcore PvP games to Farmville, even if many of the games I try out turn out to be not to my liking.”

    The interesting observation is that I do play Zynga games, I played 2, Farmville and some cooking game. As a hardcore gamer living in the San Francisco area, I in fact have played many complex table games with multiple people who are current Zynga game designers, none of whom themselves play anything but games like LoL on their own time. The irony is that while hardcore gamers call people like Tobold out on the fact that they disrespect hardcore gaming while being unable to hack it themselves and therefore never progress far enough into the complex games to “get” what it’s all about–the incompetents like Tobold don’t say “oh, you hardcore gamers just haven’t played Farmville for long enough, you don’t understand the true essence of the game”. They just lie and claim that hardcore players never even tried the game. Sorry, hardcore players “designed” your shitty game, sir.

    /end talking about tobold’s article (would have posted it there but obviously would have just been deleted, seemed relevant here)

    “WoW’s worst enemy is WoW, because as it gets dumber, its playerbase gets smarter, and the pool of ‘dumb’ gamers to replace those moving on is shrinking.”

    I don’t agree, a lot of people are being born/turn 18 every day, enough to keep their prospect pool as large as ever. The real problem with WoW getting dumber is then it starts competing with cheaper (or just newer shinier but actually worse) games, and they run the risk of the new target demographic being too stupid to appreciate content that makes it worth the price it charges. Other than that, you hit the nail right on the head.

    • SynCaine says:

      The whole “have you played every Zynga game?” argument is foolish IMO. I’ve played Mafia Wars-like games, so I think I ‘get’ what those types of games are aiming to do. Have I played the cowboy-themed version? Nope. And yea, it took me all of 5 minutes to ‘get’ Mafia Wars. Not exactly a difficult concept.

      My point about the WoW pool is that in 2004, people trying WoW were totally new to MMO gaming, so all the stuff that I thought was novel and cool in 97 was novel and cool to them in 2004, in addition to what was actually unique to WoW. People who come into WoW:MoP are far more likely to already understand the basic ‘novel and cool’ concepts of an MMO, and hence will only be judging WoW on it’s unique points (Pandas!). They might also expect it to be a step up from Club Penguin or W101, rather than a step down in terms of gameplay depth.

      • Rammstein says:

        “The whole “have you played every Zynga game?” argument is foolish IMO.”

        Does Tobold do that? Seems like he’s claiming hardcore players never play even one. Of course I agree, a few hours betwixt a few Zynga games and I felt I understood and was done with them as a company…but of course it’s not just that casuals don’t claim you need to play casual games in a hardcore manner to understand them, but that they are prohibited from doing so without becoming hardcore themselves, in some respect–just like Zynga completionism would be hardcore-ish, given how many titles they are churning out.

        I see what you are saying about WoW’s future pool, although I admit I’ve never played the other games you’re referring to there.

  4. bhagpuss says:

    Nice piece. I tend to agree on your analysis of the direction of travel.

    On the other hand I really don’t cotton to your definition of “gamer”. My first experience of video games was a Space Invaders machine in a pub in, I think, 1978. And yes, I was legally old enough to buy drinks then. I owned one of those home Pong machines, then an Atari 2600. My then-wife and I used to rent Atari cartridges on a Friday and play all weekend, trying to finish the games before we had to return them on Monday.

    From there I went to a ZX Spectrum, then an Amiga. I went through the whole “teach yourself to program” bit as well. Then there was a bit of a gap before I bought a PC in the early-mid 90s and started playing cRPGs and adventure games along with Mrs Bhagpuss until we transitioned into MMOs in 1999, where we’ve been ever since.

    But I absolutely would never call myself a Gamer with a Capital G. Not the way I have always been and always will be a Comics Fan or a Punk. Those things were part of who I was and will always be. Gaming has always been something I do. There’s a big difference in my opinion.

    I think of myself as a casual gamer, if I’m any kind of gamer at all, even though over the last dozen years I must have spent something approaching 25% of my life playing MMOs.

  5. The real truth of the matter is that gaming is the dominant, primary form of entertainment. At $25 billion US in 2010, it was more than double the size of the movie industry, and bigger than the movie and music industries combined.

    72% of all US households play video games and that percentage is rapidly growing.

    The average age was indeed 37 in the latest ESA numbers, but last year that average was 35. The average age is increasing faster than current gamers are aging.

    Just as interesting is the fact that 27% of gamers are over the age of 50.

    This is great for the health of the industry, but there are some “negatives” (depending on your perspective) that come along with being part of the mainstream.

    Hardcore gamers are really never going to be catered to like they were as recently as 5-10 years ago. That ship has sailed.

    The shift that is happening is that the indie game companies will be the one making niche, hardcore content, and the mainstream companies will be the ones making the more casual friendly, mainstream content. The same thing happens in tv, movies, and music.

    You get much harder core stuff on HBO, FX, even USA than you do on CBS, ABC, NBC, and FOX.

    Embrace the change. You’ll still get games you like. You just might have to look at little harder. Start caring more about the indie side of the game industry because it is going to play a larger and larger role in your gaming life the more hardcore of a gamer you become.

  6. Torcano says:

    Personally I don’t really think that for example Halo is a hardcore game. Its one of the most mass market games out there. While there are hardcore Halo players, the vast majority are casual. Same for CoD, etc.

    You might think that in contrast mmos have a much higher percentage of hardcores. This perception is skewed by the mmo blogging community. In reality the percentage is virtually the same.

    Casual gamers will always be the majority. In fact as gaming has become more mainstream, the amount of casuals has only increased percentage wise.

    I think a distinction needs to be made: rarely is a game hardcore, it’s players that are either hardcore or casual. And id guess that in most cases hardcore gamers are simply those that dedicate themselves to one game, albeit they are those who play far more often than the average.

    The majorirty of gamers simply won’t ever dedicate their entire gaming time to one game, and the majority also won’t ever play gamers nearly as much as the hardcore.

    However I think it’s interesting that a group that probably games on average more than anyone, that being kids, probably aren’t considered hardcore by most people. Then again going by the metric of dedicating to one game, kids rarely do this.

    • Syncaine says:

      So because Halo sold millions of copies, that somehow changes how the game plays? If Halo only sold 50k copies, it magically becomes a hardcore game? So you would also argue Madden is a casual game, because it sells millions? CoD sells more than Farmville, so CoD is more casual?

      Like I said, anyone can take basically any game and play it casually or hardcore, but that’s a different story. When talking about the games themselves, what do the top selling games look like?

  7. Pingback: Did Cata actually make WoW too hardcore? — MMO Melting Pot

  8. Tanaquil says:

    Your definition of a hardcore gamer seems to be based solely on the type of game the person is playing, but I’m still confused. How hardcore is COD, really? What makes it more hardcore than Farmville? It’s just a lack of required skill that makes a game less hardcore? In your opinion then Angry Birds requires no skills?

    I think it’s probably reductive to try to define games based on the amount of skill they require and I think most people rank a gamer as hardcore/casual based on a combination of time they spend on a game and the effort they put into understanding the game’s mechanics.

    I mean, if we’re talking about the learning curve of games getting steeper over time, then I have to disagree. I don’t really think I’d classify FFXIII as being any more difficult to learn to play than FFVII (all of them are fairly easy, really – unless you go the extra mile and kill all of the ‘extra’ bosses or impose artificial restraints on your play – which, to me, defines you as a more hardcore player even though the game isn’t that hard). I used that example, just because it’s a set of games I am familiar with, but I think it holds up for lots of games out there.

    I don’t think casual games will ever vanish, by any definition. I like to play casual games to kill some time. Not games like Farmville, because it forces you to put in a lot of time, but I’ll play Bejeweled or Angry Birds, or a pinball game or a rousing game of Text Twist if I feel like it. I guess I don’t impose some set of values on the type of game, whether it’s a video game or a board game. I will play Apples to Apples and I will play Axis and Allies. Different games fit different moods. Maybe that automatically makes me a casual gamer though.

    • SynCaine says:

      FFVII is a hardcore game. It was just so good that a lot of ‘casual’ console players also picked it up. Same with COD, hardcore game in terms of mechanics/detail, but a title millions pick up.

      Angry Birds is a casual game (simple mechanics, low requirements to play), it’s just a solidly designed casual game. Farmville is not.

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