Acting Casual About Casual Gamers
by Brian Green
Let us consider the case of the casual gamer, before we do this
it is important to get our definitions right. I think that too often
people take definitions for granted. Words also have a
lot of connotation that can sometimes be unintentionally invoked in
Definition: Casual gamers are people who like games but do not have the
time or inclination to play them obsessively. For convenience, let us
allow this definition to cover people that are casual gamers in a
specific area. For example, I am a pretty hard-core gamer (I typically
play PC and console games at least 4 hours per day), but I am a casual
MUD player (I play maybe 4 hours per week).
Casual Dress Nymph, I wonder what sort of nymphs you catch with it?
I am intentionally excluding including people who are not gamers. Most
people's parents are not gamers, and by extension are not casual
gamers. These people may be considered "potential gamers", though.
Why the distinction? Because I think the first step in growing the
market is to attract the casual gamers I have defined. Too often people
talk about "attracting the casual gamer" when they really mean "getting
non-gamers into games" (or more appropriately, "getting non-gamers to
give us money" ;).
So, why should we worry about casual gamers? Because these people are
interested in our games, but do not play because of the way the games are
currently designed. They is the "low hanging fruit" of the industry.
Many do not have the time to play, or do not have the desire to engage in
the obsessive game play that is so richly rewarded in these games. We
do not have to teach these people what an role playing game is, we do not have to get
them familiar with a computer and a mouse, we just have to allow them to
have an enriching experience with the amount of time they can commit to
the game. As I have said several times before, no game company is getting
my $10 (or $5 or $15) per month because I do not have the time or the
desire to make the time to play the game as much as required to keep up
with my friends.
So, what creates this problem? What prevents the casual gamer from
enjoying our games? I think it can be caused by both an unbalanced
focus on advancement and an improper handling of the social environment.
As has said, people feel penalized for only playing a couple hours
(only?!?) per night. Why? Because they can not keep up with the
advancement of other players they know. Every hour they are not playing that
someone else is is an hour they are behind. The only way to catch up is to
spend an extra hour playing that their friends do not. If their friends
spend 10 hours per day compared to 2 hours, you can see how quickly they
Again, the problems with too strong a focus on advancement rear their
ugly heads. If a player cannot keep up with friends, then he or she
will not be able to interact with them in a meaningful way.
Socialization is harmed as well when you cannot spend time with your
As an aside, I think that "persistent character" is a poor solution.
Games have a hard enough time providing interesting AI for the monsters,
let alone characters. Even with a scripting system, you have to make a
trade-off between simplicity and expressiveness of the system. Simple
systems are, well, simple; expressive systems are an obstacle the player
must conquer before succeeding in the game. Unfortunately, there is no
"right mix" that is good for everyone. In addition, players HATE it
when their character is affected in negative ways when they are
offline. If you make them invulnerable to avoid negative consequences,
then what is the point of having them persistent?
Yet, I think that character persistence can be partially applied to ease
the problem of the casual gamer. Many people have suggested allowing
characters to do typically repetitive activities (such as using trade
skills) during offline times. Although the character is not "in the
world", they are still doing something productive for the player. This
would allow a warrior character to patch up his or her armor using
offline time instead of online time. Or, it would allow a merchant to
produce and procure items during offline times, allowing them to focus
on the more "fun" social interactions. Or, another merchant character
could sell items during offline time, allowing them to focus on the more
"fun" exploration for new items to sell.
Given this option, it becomes even more imperative that we discard the
linear power curves currently found in most muds. If advancement can
happen when the player is logged off, it becomes meaningless. The ideal
tactic then becomes creating a character and waiting enough time before
using it for it to have gained significant power. We still want people
to, you know, play our games, just not require it to the obsessive
degree we have to today. Alternate advancement mechanisms need to be
(A side note: Someone said that the power curves in a typical
advancement system are not linear. Actually, strictly according to the
raw numbers, they generally are linear; AD&D's levels all gave you
roughly the same hit point and THAC0 adjustment (at least in the first 9
or 10 levels). Yet, in comparative power, a level 10 character was more
than a match for 10 level 1 characters. I will continue to refer to the
power curve as "linear", however, for understandability.)
The goal is to allow people to log on, enjoy the game, and leave knowing
that they can log on sometime in the future and still enjoy the game as
much as they did the last time, if not more. This is not accomplished
when people stagnate in advancement because they do not have time to find
a group or do not have time to camp a spawn to get an item they want. We
have to rethink our whole system.
Yet, no matter how many problems are caused by advancement, poor social
tools can hurt just as much. When a casual player cannot keep in touch
with other players, it hurts his connection with the game. In order to
make up for this lack of connection, a typical player must play more
often in order to maintain it.
In my recent ponderings, I have found it useful to divide in-game
communication into four categories: instant vs. persistent, and
personal vs. broadcast. Instant messages happen in real time, while
persistent messages are stored for viewing at any time. Personal
messages are "private" messages between specified recipients, which can
include a small, select group. Broadcast messages are messages viewable
by anyone (or members of a large group) in range of the message. For
example, tells are instant personal messages, chat channels would be
considered instant broadcast messages, and bulletin boards would be
persistent broadcast messages.
Any game that does not have sufficient messaging options will hurt
casual game play. EverQuest, to pick a favorite target, has a
definitive lack of persistent communication in the game. If I wish to
leave a message for someone, I need their ICQ number or Email address.
If I am the type that does not like giving out my Email address or ICQ
number to strangers, then I have a hard time keeping track of friends in
the game. If I want to leave a note for my guild mates, I have to put a
message on a web forum. The time I spend outside the game posting to
web forums is time I am not spending participating in the game.
To be fair, there are problems with allowing this communication within
the game, such as monitoring for inappropriate posts; however, the
problems caused by not having it far outweigh the costs of any problems
they can create, in my opinion. The biggest reason many people stick
around a game in the long run is for the friends they have made. Making
these friends hard to keep in touch with in the context of the game
hurts to an immeasurable degree.
Times are changing, my friends. We can no longer sit around in smug
satisfaction at the wonderful works we have made. Our current audience is
bored with us, and want something newer and shinier. They are a fickle
crowd, and we need to make sure our industry and hobby continues to
grow; we need to attract the casual gamers into our games in order to
How do we do this? We need fix the glaring problems with advancement.
Abandoning the useless linear power curve that defines advancement-based
game play is the first step. We need to develop a replacement advancement
system that does not reward obsessive play. We must also provide
sufficient communication options within the game. Ignoring options
(particularly persistent messaging) can harm the connection a casual
gamer has within your game. If the casual gamer cannot find his or her
friends, he or she will not be playing our game for long.
All muds should consider this lesson. Text muds as well as graphical
muds can benefit from attracting casual gamers. While there is
obviously successful games that do not cater to casual gamers, one has
to wonder how long this will remain possible.
July 2000 Imaginary Realities, the magazine of your mind.
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