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What Defines a Casual Player?

Editorial By Steve Wilson on November 30, 2006

Casual Play: What Defines a Casual Player

Weekly Column by Steve Wilson

Editor's Note: This is an edition of a weekly column by Staff Writer Steve Wilson. The column is called "Casual Play" and will look at some of the stranger or more frustrating events in MMOs as seen by Mr. Wilson. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of MMORPG.com, its staff or management.

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I consider myself a casual gamer.

The reaction I get is always the same, I can't be one, after all I'm too invested too be a casual gamer. Its true, I visit websites about games, talk about meta gaming, discuss game mechanics, write about games, and play games more than I probably should, yet I still consider myself a casual gamer. So why do I, and other casual hardcore players, define our play style as casual?

Most frequently it has to do with time. I wish I could spend every waking hour playing MMOs non-stop. Being a powerful mage beats the pants off a real life career of ineffectual middle management suck up, or convenience store clerk. Sadly there comes a point in most people's lives where they accumulate too many world responsibilities to play as much as they would like. Things like spouses, mortgages and children all vie for that ever important gaming time. I went from putting in 50 hours of week playing X-com to my current state of only having a dozen hours or so a week for MMOs. Not only can I not play as often as I like, but I have to log out immediately when real world responsibilities interfere. This makes raiding dungeons an almost impossible endeavor. Not to mention that I don't have an extra hour to wait for everyone else on the raid to show up. That alone can account for up to half my recreation time on any given day.

There is another consideration too however, that of investment. Just having time to play doesn't mean that someone is going to be serious about it. This can range from being serious enough to put in countless hours repeating the same raid content over and over as a means to make their character one of the most powerful on the server. Or it can be serious as in learning the intricacies of the game's minutiae to take advantage of every little detail, like picking a character solely for a half percent advantage in some obscure skill later on. Generally this translates into only doing the things needed to improve your character, like non-stop raiding. The other fluff content gets passed by in the quest to be way ahead of the power curve in relation to other players. The non-invested are far more likely to do silly and non-profitable things, hang out with friends chatting, dance at inns for no reason, and run naked across the world. For them the game is not about getting from point a to b the fastest, it's more about enjoying the scenery along the way. Even if the non-invested have tons of time to devote to playing they still come off as very casual to the hardcore gamers. Not only do I not have time for raids, but I'm not so invested that I'd want to run the same dungeons over and over again endlessly. The thought of doing that frankly bores me to tears and makes me want to move on to other more interesting (and not necessarily MMO) games.

While hardcore and casual are easy paintbrush definitions of gamer styles, it seems that there is a much broader spectrum than those two categories. Based on reading opinions on our forums, searching for web definitions of casual gamers, and looking up interviews with game designers, it seems that there are actually two axes that define exactly how hardcore or casual a player really is.

                          (true hardcore)
                              devoted           Ample Time             slacker

                                                     |

                                                     |

                    Heavy Investment --------------- + ---------------- Light Investment

                                                     |

                                                     |

                             reservist          Little Time            dabbler
                                                                    (true casual)

The axes on the graph represent investment and time. The x-axis goes from Heavy Investment on the left to Light Investment on the right and represents how much the player truly cares about besting or understanding the game system. Those that are driven to beat the system would have a heavier investment while those in the game to enjoy themselves without being too committed would be on the right. The y-axis goes from Little Time on the bottom to Ample Time on the top and represent how much time the player commits to the game. Those that spend considerably fewer hours, under 10 per week, would be at the bottom of the scale, while those players devoting something coming close to a full time job would be at the top of the axis. From this a few new classifications were added to help further define hardcore and casual players.

Devoted players, these are the true hardcore. This group spends nearly all their leisure time playing and they care deeply about not only reaching the level cap, but having the very best gear in game. They will grind out endless dungeon raids and faction quests in order to ensure their character is equipped with the very best gear the game has to offer. They tend to be very serious players that are not very forgiving of newcomers mistakes or questions. This group represent the smallest group of total game players, although they are more heavily represented in MMOs. Based on interviews it seems developers are no longer as concerned with impressing this group as much as they have been in the past. Although nearly every developer identified that the hardcore players are the innovators the ones that try things out first and help contribute by word of mouth whether the game will be successful or not.

Reservists, these players are serious about their game but may not have the time to play they wish they did. When the opportunity arises they will go on raids but probably only have time to do less formal less organized dungeon runs. They tend to stay focused on quests and things that help improve their character and avoid wasting time on things that don't advance their goals somehow. Many of these players seem to end up in smaller guilds of friends or likeminded players with regular meeting times.

Slackers have the time to play but are mostly there for the ride. Frequently these are the players that are interested in hanging out with friends and socializing. They'll run a dungeon if friends are involved but it's not essential to improve their character for enjoyment of the game.

Dabblers, the true casuals, have neither the time nor the energy to commit to a game seriously. They hop in when they can and only do what seems interesting to them at the time. They have no hopes of every hitting the level cap and don't care since their time in the world is transitory at best. These players also represent the largest sector of the overall game market, but less of the market for MMOs which typically demand committed players. As the entry bar to MMOs lowers more of these type of players will enter to see what all the fuss is about. Whether they evolve into other types depends almost solely on the game's ability to engage them from the very beginning, something WoW is especially good at while most other MMOs (UO particularly) have not measured up well.

There is no all encompassing definition of casual players. The amount of time or investment in a game can make a player a casual gamer, while a hardcore player requires high commitments in both. There are elements of hardcore attributes in both the Dabblers and Reservists, but their playing style will always hinder them from being truly hardcore. Sliding into the casual realm however requires only that a player does not meet all the criteria of the hardcore player.

What does this mean for the hardcore? Simple, you guys are hopelessly outnumbered.

Steve Wilson / Did some dumb stuff, grew up, then against better judgement went and did some more.

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