Your Mom! Beyond opposites and 1-dimensional design: Can the core/casual assumption be upheld?

It’s a funny thing. I’ve long been worried about the whole hardcore vs casual thing. And I wanted to post about it for a while. Now a wave of magazine articles and blog posts got ahead of me. I forgot though if I ever discussed Wolfhead’s last post. Even if I did I want to mention it again, as part of a wide arc about widely held models of gamers among developers, vis-a-vis gamers view of the same. Fittingly the post by Wolfhead from June 2007 is titled: “Are MMO’s in Danger of Becoming a Spectator Sport?“. This post really is of interest in the light of remarks of game designers. Jeff “Tigole” Kaplan, the WoW lead raid designer, has praised the rise of e-games and respectability of gaming as a serious endeavour in various video interviews, I specifically remember one at BlizzCon 2007 and Blizzard has featured exhibition games of top ranked raid and PVP guilds and runs public arena tournements.

So in a sense these are two sides of the same coin.

But before I go on I want to contrast another two sources, one is hard to cite though. One is a recent “scare” by Raph Koster (and I think I have figured him out, he sure knows how to create buzz by taking extreme positions or at least controversial titles, titles like “death of high fidelity games” is another example verifying that theory) compared to a much more level-headed discussion as the title feature of the 4/2007 issue of the German game dev magazine /GameStar/dev called “Casual booms, background, analysis and forecasts” (my translation, all futher english quotes from that source are also my translation) which contains the opinions of many game developers ranging from casual only developers to Igor Manceau of Ubisoft and Tim LeTourneau of Sims fame.

While Raph thinks that casual gaming threatens the “core gamers”, none of that scare appears in the discussions of the other developers. For example Igor Manceau emphasizes that casual games are simply different “The best [core] game is the one that keeps players in the game the longest [..] With casual games this is completely different, because the point is to repeat the incentive on a daily basis rather than within a playing session.” I.e. for Manceau a casual game just has a different focus, and is not better or worse. It emphazises fun for short sessions but repeatable on a daily basis. I think some “core” games like WoW could learn from that design difference even. But the clue is that the difference in design outlook is value free. Short game sessions are “OK” in fact desirable. 

Even then, what unifies all the discussion though is the tacit assumption of two categories describing player populations well: core vs casual.

It’s part of game dev lingua, of game dev assumptions, and also of gamer language who worry about game tuning and gaming experience enough to post about it.

The more sophisticated will allow this to be a one-dimensional object, a line continuum between the extremely casual (whatever that is) and the extremely core (whatever that would be). The graph posted by Nick Williams in his Gamasutra article (also a “scare”) about a supposed dilemma for nintendo. I also remember Jesper Juul, an academic studying game design used a linear continuum to categorize games along casual vs hardcore in a talk I heard. It’s very interesting to note here that in Juul’s graph World of Warcraft was the most hardcore game on the chart. (Sidenote: Casual games always existed, but they didn’t get that label. Tetris, mine sweeper, little computer people, duck’s ahoy? What is new is the label and the awareness of it as a separate design and market.)

Contrast this with what Jonathan Blow had to say at the Montreal Game Summit about WoW (via gamasutra):

Blow believes that according to WoW, the game’s rules are its meaning of life. “The meaning of life in WoW is you’re some schmo that doesn’t have anything better to do than sit around pressing a button and killing imaginary monsters,” he explained. “It doesn’t matter if you’re smart or how adept you are, it’s just how much time you sink in. You don’t need to do anything exceptional, you just need to run the treadmill like everyone else.”

Does that sound like a description of a hardcore game to you?

What according to Blow is cheap food to get the masses addicted, is the extreme end of hardcore in current gaming for Jesper Juul. I actually asked Jesper what he meant by a “casual game” and he said something along the lines of that a casual game is that you can pick up, play immediately for a few minutes and drop immediately. Clearly in that view WoW isn’t casual. There really is nothing interesting to do in WoW for just 3 minutes, just traveling to where you want to continue from your inn will take up that time and returning to the inn may or may not be immediate depending on whether your HS is available (or if it is even set to a desirable location!). In fact 10-20 minute trips are not unusual.

But I don’t actually care to take a position regarding whether Blow is right or Juul is right. In fact they are both right with some mental flexibility (and possibly modulo some specific reservations).

It much rather goes to show how deeply ingrained the tacit assumption of the words casual and core is in individuals minds and how these can be extremely stark, and also have utterly incompatible uses.

The Raph & Nintendo scare posts can be understood if one is an anxious gamer who considers WoW generally to be rather casual. While the positions of most developers in the GameStar/dev/ magazine take a more neutral position and embrace casual gaming as a separate category of gaming.

But even going back to the WoW design Rob Pardo discussed the design assumption of core vs casual (see the first blog entries I ever made). What is interesting about Pardo’s remarks is that indeed Blizz realized that the casual market is faster growing than the core but they tried to define game content for hardcore (instanced, grouped) and a path to become hardcore as entering instanced content.

There is a lot of data that Blizzard has that I would love to see. Specifically this specific one: What is the time spend in game by average long-time subscription gamers? And also: How many subscribers enter dungeons?

I wouldn’t be surprised if it actually turned out that most gamers even if they don’t play that much do enter dungeons in WoW. In fact Nick Yee’s article about how people play mostly alone in WoW actually gives the surprising indication that at level cap players spend 60% of their time grouped, i.e. don’t play alone (casual) at all! (People only play alone a lot while leveling, which may be more a function of levels causing dividers for joint play.)

And I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out that in fact Jesper Juul is perfectly right in classifying all current WoW gamers as hardcore by some rather meaningful metric derived from the data that Blizzard has! But of course someone who expects hardcore to play 7 days a week for 4 hours at least will have to see a large fraction of the player base as casual. Because 5 days a week for 30 mins to 2 hours or even just 2 days a week for 1 hour is a vanishing fraction of time spend in the game. Of course I wrote about the extra time-dimension with respect to hardcore vs casual very early on.

But this doesn’t cover it really. Because the tacit assumptions run deeper. Read the following list of assumptions:

* Whoever doesn’t like PK/PVP isn’t hardcore

* Treadmills are ways to cater to no-skillers aka “skill is not accessible”

* Pressing buttons is easy aka “if a macro can do it it’s easy”

* Your mom sucks and so do games she would like

I disagree with all of these because they collapse dimensions of what makes games good. (Or just make assumption without testing them or are assumptions that having nothing to do with games but flow into categorizing players as hardcore vs casual)

Let me just pick up the last one because it appears in the arguments I quoted above.

Raph quotes a post by IQ212 who talks about the mass market of casual gamers based on the Mom example. While Raph concludes that “Core gamers are almost certainly going to have to adapt to a world in which a lot of developer attention is going towards a much broader array of titles than in the past.” IQ212 however actually had a positive intend with his Mom example. He writes:

So as you consider the gameplay, theme, platform, difficulty level and marketing of your game, consider your mom as a mirror of the mass-market. Don’t ship without observing your mom playing your game cold, and seeing what she finds fun, rewarding and challenging. Doing so could expand your market reach, and the average American represents a potential market of 300 million people.

Note to the guys making “Panzergruppe Tactics 4: Eastern Front”, you already identified the 59 people who will buy your game, so good luck with that.

For the rest of us making games for the mass-market, we’ll keep thinking about your mother.

Clearly he doesn’t see anything wrong with your mom finding a game “fun, rewarding and challenging”. IQ212 doesn’t paint a mom that has no sense of fun, of reward, or of lack of interest in challenge. Rather he pains a Mom who for her specific gaming need has a right to access fun, reward and challenge.

Or read this as a bullet:

* Accessibility has nothing to do with challenge, fun or reward (if done right)

Basically IQ212 says the Mom test is good. And the Mom test is actually game dev procedure! Cathy Orr of PopCap located in Seattle who specialize in casual games says in said GameStar/dev/ issue:

At PopCap we use the Mom-test to find out if a game works: Our CEOs sit their Moms in front of the game to gauge the success-potential of the game [..] We leave our Moms alone with the alpha- and beta-version of a game. After 30 minutes, we return. If they are still playing, then we have learned that we are on the right path.”

But Raph reacts to IQ212’s description of the canonical mom like this: “Yah, that’s not us, now is it?” Where “us” is of course us (hard)core gamers who have played for ages.

I actually disagree to that for the simple reason that it mistrusts your mom to identify fun, to identify early access rewards, and to identify early access challenges. But Raph Koster sees hope for the million Mom march on games. “In other words — gamers may not want to become like Your Mom. But Your Mom is gradually becoming more of a gamer.”

This brings me back to Wolfhead’s post. A veteran EQ raider and a WoW raid leader. He grieves the loss of access to design for the core due to time constraints. Wolfhead is not your canonical Mom with no extensive gaming experience. Wolfhead is the growing number of demographics of long-time gamers who have a life (due to growing older). The people who became Moms and Dads and by that virtue cannot fulfill a game dev’s fantasy of gaming 40+ hours a week to access desirable content (like the most interesting and lore heavy content of WoW).

These are the new Moms and Dads that want accessible/”casual” design that isn’t dumb. And I dare wager a lot of canonical moms don’t want dumb games either. After all they are a huge demographics buying and solving Sudoku puzzles at substantial difficulty!

So maybe the tacit assumption that:

* Your average mom is dumb

is just a corollary of the equally false assumption that

* Most gamers are lazy

Certainly the core vs casual dimension doesn’t describe Wolfhead or myself, or some of my MMO playing buddies, some of which I know to be Moms in real life.

Rather than designing along a core vs casual dimensions, people should design based on X-tests, where X are gamers you like to reach. And if a designer thinks they can only design a game that passes a mom test and not a elitist-jerk test they haven’t even tried.

Rather than assuming a 1-dimensional model to design one-dimensional games, maybe designers can learn to not assume silly models, and instead design rich, deep, accessible, fun, challenging, rewarding multi-dimensional games.

Also listening to your Mom may have told you a few things earlier:

* Your mom probably likes collaborative games over competitive ones, if she likes competition it’s the friendly competition of a bridge game and not the one of a ranked boxing fight.

* Your mom doesn’t like the idea of killing other players/people

* Your mom considers grieving rude and doesn’t like game mechanisms that support it (like poisoning carrots or nude pickpocketing in UO)

* Your mom wouldn’t want to spend extra cash to bypass arbitrary game barriers via RMT but accepts if RMT is build into the design as sensible payment method.

The vast majority of people switched off PK in UO the second they were given the change. I think that just means that most of us, the “carebears” are legitimately like your mom – in a good way. And your mom would have the wits to identify those that demean others for not liking to kill people as bullies and those that don’t want others to enjoy the game as rather nasty and selfish.

But of course some absolutely want to exclude others, so if that means ditching your mom so be it? Well I guess we gotta be scared of her now if we believe Raph Koster or Nick Williams. After all, games that are designed for her gotta stink big times. Well, not, if game designers have a clue.

Finally, I love the Mom example for another reason. Noone is like her! Rather than having one model for what Mom wants how about people actually get a clue about what “people” want.

Malcom Gladwell’s TED talk is oft cited recently in the comments on Raph’s blog. I think it describes the fallacy of tacit assumptions in an industry perfectly. And the core vs casual assumptions are one of those that need to die to actually serve soup sensibly to everybody. And that’s not one soup for all, as some seem to be scared of. It’s a whole lot of soup and many types of soup that many game devs seem too opinionated to even think about. But to figure it out you cannot be scared of your Mom, Elitist Jerks or players like Wolfhead. They all are right if they say: “I didn’t find that soup fun or rewarding.”


Postscript: Raph posted the following reaction on his blog:

I just read Moroagh’s reply post to this… where there’s the mistaken assumption that *I* am worried about the moms taking over. As I said in the opening to the article, I’m commenting on something I get a lot from core gamers. Me personally, I’m not particularly worried.

My post never really was meant as a reply to Raph’s, but rather a post I wanted to make for a while but got catalysed by various source, including Raph’s article.

Just briefly an actual reaction to Raph’s article. I don’t believe that “core gamers” are a homogeneous blob either and I don’t think people who loved wolfenstein were particularly scared/worried by zoo tycoon or mine sweeper or solitaire being around. So I do still hold that there is a kind of scare going on that tells core gamers they kind of ought to be worried, when for years most never have. Taking Nintendo as an example: I have to date seen no evidence that the booming Nintendo DS market in any way diminished Nintendo’s console market or that the existence and scope of Nintendo Wii has honest-to-good alienated many gamers. Some gamers always look at others and peck against them, that’s a completely different matter though. I for one have not noticed any discussion about “core gamers” being worried (beyond the standard pecking that’s always around) until Raph blogged it as a broad concern. I’d conclude that for most gamers it actually isn’t a topic at all and loads of my core friends happily play Nintendo Wii and Nintendo DS alongside TF2, Portal, BioShock or Crysis. And they weren’t worried that their Mom played away at Zoo Tycoon or Yahoo Bridge or some variant of Sims. So my answer to Raph’s blog title “What will gamers do?” is simply “nothing” because most don’t even have the concern, so they won’t as Raph postulates, complain. Those that do complain always have complained about their specific needs not exclusively being met (“only the hardcore should be able to kill Illidan”, “PVP is welfare epics” etc etc), and that isn’t new or particular to Mom gaming.

But all this detracts from my post above which really wasn’t in its core about whether gamers are worried about an increasing casual market. It was about how game designers can be more multi-dimensional and experiment/evidence based in their outlook at gamer demographics and game design (learn from the “mom-test” idea), and it was about how the persistent “core vs casual” assumption and debate is rather very flawed and narrow. “Your mom” is just an excellent way to look at these points and I am indeed grateful that Raph and the GameStar/dev/ magazine articles both brought that idea to my attention (I actually read the GameStar/dev/ article before Raph’s blog entry. That both touched the topic of “Your Mom” is a happy coincidence).

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