Talking at GDC Europe on Tuesday, Zenimax Online head Matt Firor talked about the complex definitional relationships between the "casual" and "hardcore" in games, showcasing how Zynga's FarmVille "has serious hardcore gaming characteristics."
Kicking off, Firor points out that, for whatever reason, casual games are defined as being "fun," and being easy to jump in and out of and play for limited amounts of time. In addition, there's little pressure to advance, and they "don't box people into decisions" with regard to player choice.
On the other hand, "hardcore" titles such as the Call Of Duty franchise or the original EverQuest require more of a commitment to get to the good part -- and you feel powerful by dominating other players. In addition, sometimes you'll make a decision you can't back out of such as character choice, and often have cutting-edge graphics.
"But is it really that easy?", Firor asks. In fact, several of the leading "casual" games violate many of the tenets that seem to define casual games. Firor investigated Zynga's FarmVille, and discovered it has power-leveling services where you can pay people to level up your farm in the popular social game.
Referencing a leveling website called FarmVillePerfect.com, he points out that Zynga's game actually has "serious hardcore gaming characteristics." There are repetitive, time-based tasks, there's social pressure to keep up with your friends, "not too dissimilar from any big MMORPG" which has guilds that pressure you to go and play with them.
Next up, Firor references Jagex's Runescape, which was largely defined as "casual" by the press, perhaps because it's a web-browser based, free-to-play game. But really.. is it? When you die in Runescape, you lose your items. If you're player vs. player fighting and are defeated, you lose all of your items. How is this "casual," he asked? Where did these definitions start?
Going back to the beginnings of the industry, Firor points out that early, iconic titles like Donkey Kong or Super Mario Bros. weren't actually that casual -- they were, if anything, "fun but hard." But then in the 1990s, "new, dark games" like Doom changed things again.
Perhaps the gameplay of those 'darker' titles was similar in terms of losing lives easily and having powerups, although from a different perspective. But further differentiation was needed. So from a marketing and cultural perspective, it developed that, if there were bright colorful games, they were "casual."
Conversely, if games were dark and ominous, they were "hardcore," Firor suggests. So more cartoony games were considered to be easier to play and more for beginners, even though that may not have been true. And this is where the definitional problems have come in.
Firor notes that "you can play hardcore games casually," and vice versa. It "comes down to a mindset, more than a game." In fact, Firor argues that World Of Warcraft can often be played casually, depending on how relaxed your guild is and if you're largely socializing in-game, rather than grinding for new levels. Even Quake Live is easy to jump on and off as a web browser game, and "the game experience is kind of fun and casual."
And, of course, you can even play Solitaire in a hardcore fashion, and FarmVille is the ultimate example. Other titles like Tetris Friends on Facebook actually introduce hardcore mechanics, like competing high scores, which allow people to battle each other for supremacy, "a very hardcore concept." (World Of Warcraft's success may be down to the fact that it's very easy to play in a social way and in a more 'hardcore' way.)
Firor's conclusion? "Games aren't casual or hardcore... the gamers are." It's to what extent and detail and length of time that the player wants to play the game that dictates things, rather than the nature of the graphics -- so perhaps we all need to look at how we define things in the game space.