Do you game casually? Do you only play casual games? If a casual gamer attacked you would you know how to defend yourself? How many casual gamers does it take to install windows and start playing World of WarCrack? And mostly importantly; what exactly is a casual gamer and would you be able to indentify one in a police line up?
Apparently this is the all new gaming sector that every major company should be looking to tap into. The real money lies in tapping this great unwashed resource. Seemingly there are huge swathes of people who want to barely pay attention to playing computer games. Soon we won't be able to move for such people. Who are these people and do they actually exist, is this just a marketing category and what will the term imply with regards game design?
As best as I can make out casual gamers are defined as people who like to play games, don't spend very long in aggregate per week playing and probably regard gaming as a pastime rather than a hobby. Seem reasonable? Stop me if you think I'm missing something.
But important questions remain. Does this really mean they want different game experiences? Should games be tailored to such a group? Is such a simple view of the market's requirements even helpful?
The Current Market
Time was that the word casual would have brought to mind the clientele of Laura Ashley, Pringle and House of Fraser. Today this is the growth sector for the gaming industry. It's been decided that the hardcore games hobbyist has been captured, there are no significant market gains to be had by producing games which cater for that market sector.
To a great degree this is totally correct. Few people persue one hobby at the expense of other life activities. If your product appeals to such a mentality then once they are on board you have no more market to expand into. In the case of games technology; hardware and software development both keep getting more and more costly but the market size isn't expanding in a manner that can keep up. The main consequence is that games get more and more expensive for the individual. Such high costs almost ensures that the market remains (relatively) small and only attractive to the hobbyist.
Whither Other Markets?
If we step back and take a look at the film or music industries the unit cost to the customer is about comparable (£10) and for the customer it is usually a one time cost for any given cinema visit or album. In both these cases the producing studio's cost of production (marketing etc.) is often vast. Assuming we're talking internationally released films or albums that is. Film budgets can easily range between $5million and $60million. Music production budgets initially seem smaller, $1million to $10million, but once you factor in that for every $1million spent on a profitable artist $5-10million is spent on non-profitable artists then, the dollar for dollar the cost of producing an internationally successful album becomes equivilent to the cost of producing a internationally released film.
Yet for all this expense the unit cost remains around the $10 mark. How is this achieved? The simple answer (ignoring some bits and pieces about the music industry) is that their potential markets are massive. The markets are large for two reasons. The first is that the unit cost of any item is very low, people will buy albums on impulse or go and see films that they might not consider if it were expensive. The second is that the diversity of available films or albums is huge. There are quality products available in all styles and to suit all tastes.
Take a look at the games market in comparision. Unit cost is high, often 3 to 6 times the unit cost for seeing a film or buying an album. Diversity in the product is low, there are a small number of game genres and they are honed to appeal only to that genre's fans. Lastly the market sector is small but software development costs are equivilent to film and music production. Can you see the problem here?
Few people really persue films or music obsessively enough for it to be considered a hobby yet everyone goes to the cinema and everyone buys the odd album here and there. Until the games industry reconfigures itself to cater for a diverse market then it's market penetration won't increase. Until then you're not going to see the consumer cost fall or the games industry significantly expand. Some companies have realised this, have you seen Nintendo's release schedule or their latest Japanese ad campaigns?
The Casual Market
The games industry is starting to come round to this and they think they've found the way to bridge out of their niche hobby status; The Casual gamer. I think that the industry is mistaken in realigning it's sights to target this conceptual entity. Simply; the casual gamer, as defined by the gaming industry, doesn't exist and as such creating games that pander to them will hinder the industry's long term goal of greater market penetration. Lets have a look at who these casual gamers are, so here's two case studies:
Our first case, let call her… er… My mother makes an first ideal case study. Mid 50's, retired, with absolutely no desire to own the latest greatest computer hardware. She is partial to the odd computer game but only if it's not a test of your raw reaction speeds. So that's beat 'em ups, shoot 'em ups, sport and racing sims out. Anything more complex than a mouse is right out, no multi-button or two handed controls. On most days I doubt her computer is switched on for longer than an hour. Still, she really enjoys the computer games that are to her taste. Sounds like an ideal casual gamer candidate.
The types of games she plays are your Myst and Rivens, your Monkey Islands or Tetris. These are games that she'd gladly sit down for hours at a time playing. If you pointed her in the direction of the Sims or Puzzle Pirates I doubt you'd ever drag her away from the computer. Take note: these are games that are outside the usual canon of exploding, zooming, stabbing, screaming, flashing things.
Out second case is my friend Amy. She always owns the latest portable hardware. The games she prefers need some pace (no RTS games) but she is easily bored if games have too steep a difficulty curve. And she is quickly bored if there is too much to read or skip to get to the action. Immediacy is key. The right game will not only hold her attention but will also keep her playing for hours. I've seen her totally complete Crash Bandicoot:Warped which is involved and no easy task either.
What does this tell use about potential "casual gamers"? In case you missed them the main points are; that their gaming interests are not centred around exploding, punching, smashing things and lightening fast reactions. Instead they're attracted to the games from the broader pallette of gaming experiences. The other point is that the way they play the games they like isn't portioned up into little, bite-sized, "casual" pieces.
Hey Mister Designer Design Me A Game
The whole concept of casual gamers brings with it two innate concepts. The first is that the games should be low in substance, easily consumable – "Lite" (to use that horrible americanism) if you will. There should be nothing involved about the game that might put people off. We can see this design attitude in the rise of games for the "kiddie" market (Lego starwars anyone?). Nobody made consecessions in games for me when I was eight and today most eight year olds will kick your ass at the latest console games.
The second assumption is that the games should be in easily consumable chunks that don't take long to play or master. There is a time and a place for this, sometimes I do want a game that I can play for just 20 minutes while I take a bus ride. Games like Mario Kart DS, Luminees, Meteos or Tetris fulfil that type of role very well but it really shouldn't be a core assumption in your game design ethos. Some games won't lend themselves to such portioning and you risk alienating game players who find your games too easy or too short. Keep in mind that the market for literature sees no need in dividing up their target audience by that amount of time they spend reading.
It's not that the wider community of potential game players wants lightweight content that doesn't require much engagement (be that mentally or temporally). I would hope that my two examples illustrate that with the right content the casual gamer is happy to be engaged for hours on end. What the potential game playing market needs is greater diversity in the game playing experience. Until then there'll be no appreciable market sector growth.
Focussing on the "casual gamer" will be to the detriment of all game players regardless of how long any given person spends per day playing games. The industry should be asking itself not what "casual gamers" might want to play but what "potential gamers" might like to play.