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Braben: It's almost rude to call a game 'casual'
Braben: It's almost rude to call a game 'casual' Exclusive
March 20, 2012 | By Staff




As part of a recent Gamasutra feature interview, Frontier Developments' David Braben (Elite, Kinectimals) explains why he believes it's almost insulting to call a game "casual."

"The word 'casual' is almost like a rude word," Braben says. "It's the collective name given to games that are a bit shit. [laughs]"

"Now some of them are actually quite good, don't get me wrong, but what I mean by that is that there's a bandwagon where people have seen Facebook games get oodles of revenue, and then have tried to jump on thinking that the reason these games are good is that they're casual."

Braben notes that many games receive the "casual" tag because because they are 2D games on mobile or Facebook, making them appear simplistic at first glance.

"The perception is that they're quite easy to write and that they make their money out of microtransactions," so many developers have tried to emulate the few successful examples, he said.

"Thankfully, a lot of these games have crashed and burned, but I think that is starting to change. What we've seen in the mobile space already is the 1980s and '90s condensed into a few years…"

"Actually, games in the '80s were rubbish! But history sort of condenses it down into a glorified, wide-angle lens, and so we've got lots of games that have been remembered for being good, but there was lots of tosh -- which, in today's world, would be called 'casual games.'"

The real problem, Braben suspects, is that the industry doesn't have a clear definition of what a casual game is in the first place.

"I'm not sure what 'casual' really means. It's often just brightly colored graphics with relatively shallow gameplay that is somehow addictive… I think if you ask what 'casual' is again at the same time next year, I think it will be attached to something slightly different," he says.

The full interview, in which he discusses his studio's work with Kinect and why used games are killing single player titles, is live now on Gamasutra.


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Comments


sean lindskog
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To me, casual means:
- simple controls
- simple game rules
- easy to play
- usually 2D
- usually low development costs
- low hardware requirements
- less "player skill mastery" requirements than a hardcore game
- more oftain available on certain platforms - web, facebook, mobile
- low purchase price
- target audience of children or mentally stunted adults. Just kidding. ;)

Jonathan Jennings
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yeah I agree with these responses but I always felt their was a difference between a casual game and a casual gamer . a casual game to me says the experience is simplified more so to engage a wider audience than to provide a lesser experience usually entailing many of the qualities listed hear by Sean . While you would have games that are simpler in concept and execution such as facebook games that are simplified for producing a larger audience and in certain ways to monetize that same audience.still it's a tricky term because then we have games like madden which provide big sales and are made to certainly be very accessible but when does trying to improve accessibility make providing for a " lighter" gaming experience ? I don't think calling a game casual is offensive but I do feel like if the term is applied a person should further express their view of why it is so . much like whenever anyone criticizes a game... anyone can say a game is a bad game but being able to articulate why the game is bad is what makes me respect the opinion of other gamers.

sean lindskog
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Lots of hardcore gamers look down on casual games, in the same way that fans of many complex, nuanced art-forms or passtimes look down at simpler "fluff".

It's like a documentary film student talking to a guy whose favorite TV show is "Charles in Charge". Or a wine connoisseur talking to a dude whose chugging wine out of the box.

Sure, it's kind of snobby and judgemental. It's also legit that many (but not all) casual games lack substance and depth.

Jacob Pederson
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You forgot one. No installation required.
It's amazing how baffling even something as easy as Steam is to a casual gamer.

Jesse Tucker
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Going to have to disagree on your player skill mastery point. Casual games require a very low skill level to play, but the better ones (Popcap games, board game-based casual games like Scrabble, Doodle Jump, Tiny Wings, Angry Birds) all require a significant amount of mastery as you get more advanced.

sean lindskog
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Good point Jesse,
Maybe it should be "less genre-specific knowledge" required to play the game

What I'm trying to get across is that "hardcore" games come pre-loaded with the understanding that you already know, or are willing to learn a bunch of complex mechanics.

Examples:
RPGs: inventory, action bars, quest journals, etc.
RTSs: constructing buildings, managing resources, unit grouping, complex mouse sequences.
Fighters: complex controller motions ("dragon punches" etc)

Jesse Tucker
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I would agree with that, Sean.
In my opinion the Portal series isn't *quite* casual. I tried to get my wife to play. She was having no trouble figuring out the puzzles but was impeded by the prerequisite of being able to have good first person controls.

Jeremy Reaban
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As someone who owns probably 30 games on Big Fish Games, I think he's absolutely wrong.

Firstly, the name casual really goes to their accessibility. Pretty much anyone can play them

Secondly, quality is not really the problem, either. Bejeweled is a casual game. Would anyone deny its extremely well done?

I think Mr. Braben just is a bit touchy about the subject because he is apparently stuck, unable to develop anything but casual or Roller Coaster based games. I guess he doesn't like being called a casual developer, but you know, maybe if he spent less time complaining to the press about this or that, and more time working on titles like Elite IV or The Outsider, they wouldn't need to be always on hold.

Andrew Wallace
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@Christian: Sit a person who has never played a first person shooter down in front of an Xbox and throw them into Halo matchmaking and tell me that it's accessible. Then try it with Angry Birds.

Bob Johnson
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Maybe we should define casual as hobby and hardcore as career.

Are you looking for a hobby or a career?

This is often the difference to me between casual and hardcore.


Scott Lepthien
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I don't know, most of the Farmville based game (i.e. Pioneer Trail, Cityville, Empires & Allies, Adventure World, and any games based on these) all made me feel like I had taken up a part time job (yes I've played all those Zynga games), so maybe casual is the career. I tend to think that when I have a couple hours free to sit down and actually play a game that I'm doing it as a hobby to have fun, not because it feels like a second job.

William Holt
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I think that assigning 'hardcore gamer' as the opposite of 'casual game' would be comparing (to use a trite saying) apples and oranges. The former term refers to a player who has taken the playing of any given game to an extreme (or plays a 'hardcore game'), and the latter refers to a game that has very little barrier to entry, one that has an extreme amount of ease of use, which is by no means a bad thing. By extension, a casual gamer would be someone who primarily spends their time playing casual games; not because of the quality of the game, but because this casual gamer does not have the time (or money or attention span or level of interest or whatever) to play games that require more effort to get invested in.

To use a more concrete example, a game like Dragon Age has a higher barrier to entry than a casual game; there's a rather involved story, intricate, branching character development, choices to be made, and events that happen to remember, in order to make the following events have a modicum of coherence. By contrast, a game like Realm of the Mad God, while being of a similar genre to Dragon Age, has a much lower barrier to entry; there's virtually no story other than "kill the Mad God," there's very little gear, very little inventory to manage, linear character development and overly simplistic combat system. Somehow, though, I have just as much fun playing Realm of the Mad God as I do playing Dragon Age. Lastly, there's hardcore games (or games that can be played hardcore). An example of a hardcore game would be something like Dwarf Fortress. Huge barrier to entry, and the learning curve is a cliff that gleefully tosses new players to their deaths. It's ok, though, because "Dying is Fun"©. An example of a game that can be played hardcore would be something like WoW, where raiding requires hours upon hours upon hours of preparation, organization of groups, systems to track loot, a leadership structure... really, most games that have a degree of 'easy to learn, hard to master' to them can be played in a hardcore manner. Look at Realm of the Mad God - people actually spend their time farming the lesser gods for potions to increase their stats.

Bottom line? Casual games are fun, relatively simple things. There's absolutely nothing wrong with designing a casual game, as long as your intent isn't to design a core or hardcore game. If you end up designing something simple with no barrier to entry when your intent is complex and mindblowing, the label 'casual' is not your problem.

But let's stop defining games based on where they're available, or based on the presence of shovelware that employs Skinnerian psychological tricks. Facebook games can be just as fun as Steam games, Desura games, Hard copy games, Flash games, Sourceforge games, et cetera. Facebook just seems to bear the brunt of poorly designed titles due to a low barrier to publishing.

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William Holt
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Let's not entirely discount potentially hardcore players because the game they choose to play in a hardcore manner doesn't happen to be particularly complex. That would put us back to the 'hardcore gamer' versus 'hardcore game' issue, which is a problem because not all hardcore gamers play hardcore games, and not all hardcore games are played in a hardcore manner.

To wit, it's just as easy to play Dwarf Fortress casually (once you learn the rules, anyway, which is a hurdle in and of itself, and requires a hardcore effort to get started) as it is to play World of Warcraft in a hardcore manner.

Edit: Also, if WoW raiding isn't considered hardcore, put something like Vanguard, Everquest, Rift, SWtOR hard mode or whatever in place. I never got around to raiding in WoW; I grew bored of it before I was adequately geared. :p

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William Holt
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Damn it all, I hate when Ctrl + C doesn't work. Short version of my reply:

I agree with the bulk of your rating system, but also think it lacks something. A game's value outside the context of the game itself should be a factor in the overall value of the game. Therefore, something like Meta Value x Risk = Player Agency would be a suitable 4th aspect of game value adjudication.

Realm of the Mad God has a high Meta value rating, as does Minecraft, as does something like Perfect World, Furcadia, Neverwinter Nights (2), Fallout 3 / Oblivion / Skyrim, Starcraft (2), as does anything that allows the player to take agency in adding complexity, intensity or intelligence to a base game, be it through added content or through playing the game in a manner other than the one it was initially designed for.

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William Holt
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Or, perhaps the values can be negative if the design of the game actually detracts from the agency the player is given. For example, the ending to Mass Effect 3.

Edit: not negative, that wouldn't help matters. Fractions is what I mean.

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Geoffrey Kuhns
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In Braben's defense, he said "almost like" then laughed about it. His comments illustrate the misnomer of "casual" more than anything else. Anyway,...

Myriad differences could delineate casual games from the hardcore, but few rarely apply in all cases. One answer, however, is quite simple: time commitment. In the time it takes to craft a character in a hardcore experience, one could level up five times in a casual experience. To define more differences between casual and hardcore than the time it takes to achieve a goal quickly becomes subjective.

There's a time and a place for every kind of game, whether in the proverbial home alone or the equally proverbial grocery line. Approaches to development will vary accordingly.

Less game time roughly translates to shorter development cycles, which facilitates the more frequent crashing and burning Braben mentions. In a more positive light, however, this rapid iteration hopefully equates to faster improvement.

"Wise men learn from others' harms, fools scarcely from their own." ~ B.Franklin

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Geoffrey Kuhns
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@Joshua: Sure. You might think of sports, math, and writing as hardcore, but that'd be your approach to the subjects. The potential for gamification aside, I wouldn't call someone a hardcore gamer just because s/he studies a lot: wrong connotation. You have a good point though.

@Christian: Good points. However, I am talking about games, not players. Classifying players is much more difficult, and the article addresses games, not people.

People approach games how they want, despite authorial intent. However, an authorial intent still exists, so yes, there really are casual games afterall.

To leverage Terry Matthes' comment below about "idea snippets," hardcore games might offer many smaller, inter-related experiences that, when viewed individually, might be considered casual. In an FPS, pointing and clicking to shoot sounds simple enough, but that mechanic is not working in isolation like it could on a casual Flash banner advertisement.

Someone could play that banner advertisement religiously and be a hardcore "gamer," but that experience derives from the player's intent and is not facilitated by the casual "game."

Of course, that example relates more to complexity; back to time. Your FPS example illustrates this point well. The game allows you to choose a casual time commitment with shorter match times. Within that game, you can adjust your experience to be more casual or more hardcore. In this case, you shorten the mid-level game loop.

In casual games, that mid-level game loop does not adjust beyond one relative time: short. Again, a hardcore gamer might engage in that loop again and again, but each session is still brief. Some of these games cease to be casual when they introduce long-term achievements, etc. Imposing long term game loops adds a higher level time commitment, affecting the time-to-achieve delineation I originally mentioned.

Games with only short game loops and no explicit long term goals? Casual.

Geoffrey Kuhns
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@Christian: I thought I'd say yes, but no. Someone could potentially play a single round of Tetris, for example, for half an hour or more.

Point-and-shoot Flash advertisement games seem like a safe exemplar for casual games. Players can invest little more than a few seconds, unless they choose not to interact with the game at all. But then where do you draw the line between "short" and "long" game loops? Perhaps the time-to-achieve parameter is too subjective, after all.

Instead of tripping over myself trying to defend someone else's half-baked marketing labels, I will simply cede the point. Good discussion.

Benjamin Branch
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Generally when I throw around the term casual, it is a game that is both easy to pick up and offers little challenge or alternatively depth. Casual games seem to make the bucks these days as they offer high accessibility to new players. To me a hardcore game is one that offers a lot of challenge (but is not restricting in gameplay) or alternatively a lot of depth (so much story you can drown in it). Both too much challenge and too much depth can put off new players, but are very rewarding to video game hobbyists.

That said, I know there are gamers out there who use casual just to describe games that have bad graphics and hardcore to describe games with good graphics. I would argue these people are casual gamers themselves, but it seldom matters. I feel it is best when a developer aims to have an acessible experience that is casual at first but offers hardcore elements to return to.

Marcus Pettersson
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I wrote a short blog post on this quite a while ago. Seems the debate is coming back into focus.

http://bit.ly/GErZse

Terry Matthes
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I find most casual games have a low production value and derivative uninspiring art. This lends well though to their monetarily inspired nature.

Casual games also seem light in the mechanics department. The entire game usually revolves around a single mechanic that wouldn't warrant the average consumer investment of a "full retail game".

Casual games seem more like idea snippets taken through concept to completion as a game. Full retail titles would gather a bunch of these ideas together and start incorporating them into what we would think of as a typical console game.This whole idea of monetizing each idea snippet is rather à la mode and is part of what's driving the larger and larger amounts of for profit DLC.

I just miss the good old days when Epic Games would release maps, models, and game types for free just to help strengthen customer loyalty and the longevity of their products.

Kevin Fisk
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I don't think Braben was trying to incite the debate that's going on in the comments here but maybe that's a because of the headline?

I think he was simply trying to bring to light how devs/pubs try to capitalize on what's big with the mass market by producing a lot of crap in addition to a few gems here and there. In the 80's casual games were simple arcade games that had mass appeal like Pac-Man or something. We remember Pac-Man because it was good but do we remember all the low quality clones and other garbage that was put on the market? Today a casual game isn't played in the arcade but in the browser and on our phones and so that's where the focus of low quality easy to develop crap is. In this sense the term "casual" is kind of a moving target. It shouldn't be a negative term but it is.

Chris MacDonald
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I think there is some discrepancy here between gamers and games. There are hardcore and casual gamers and there are hardcore and casual games. I work all day making games and play or make them once my kids are in bed. I consider myself a hardcore gamer because gaming is simply my entire life. However, I really enjoy all forms of games. I appreciate that I can waste three hours playing Angry Birds because I simply need three stars on every level I complete. I also appreciate getting the highest ratings on any server I play BF3 on.

I don't know why gamers get so caught up on the terminology. I don't see the point of dating simulators, but that doesn't mean someone else shouldn't . More power to them. Leave these terms to the marketing types who need to give justification to executives and analysts who don't understand games.


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