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The Free Zone: What Makes Games Hardcore or Casual?

Columns By Richard Aihoshi on October 19, 2009

What Makes Games Hardcore or Casual?

It's impossible to pay even a passing amount of attention to the free to play sector without running into some topic related to these two types of gameplay. Quite often, we see them addressed as if they form a basic dichotomy; i.e. hardcore versus casual. Sometimes, advanced casual works its way in as a third category. Either way, it generally seems as if we're all supposed to know and understand the differences.

While it can be easy to use these two or three groupings, I prefer to think along the lines of a spectrum that runs from extremely hardcore at one end to very casual on the other. In addition, I don't necessarily position any given game at a single point. That's because key elements can fall at different places; for example, in a release with sieging and crafting, the latter can be considerably more casual. Whether this is good design is questionable, but it does happen, presumably to help broaden a title's potential market.

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Of course, this model just reflects my opinion. I certainly don't expect it to be seen as definitive since I don't regard it as such myself. In fact, I always welcome opportunities to learn more about this subject area by discussing it with other people, especially those whose games and work are directly related. However, it's not always easy to find developers willing to state their thoughts for public consumption, so when Eric Liu, Global Manager of Redbana US Corp., agreed to do so, I made sure he didn't have time to change his mind.

Liu feels that if we take the current range of free to play games and apply our preconceived notions of hardcore versus casual, we'll find quite a bit of overlap. The reason he offers is that publishers and developers are trying to get the best of both worlds in order to appeal to the widest possible audience. In my opinion, that can be a questionable goal, but regardless, we both believe that teams that are experimenting by adapting and combining diverse aesthetics and play styles ranging from well-known to not so familiar and sometimes even new.

According to Liu, this means the market isn't as saturated as it may seem. He explains this by saying "MMO fans just don't have a way to differentiate one free to play offering from another... which isn't surprising if you think about it, since the entire category is defined by its business model, not by how you play." Furthermore, he's also up front about the name not being completely accurate, stating "In fact, these games aren't free because they often require many hours to get into, and time is money."

That said, he doesn't get stuck on the nomenclature. Instead, he moves on to something far more important, which is understanding what makes F2P attractive. "First, the value isn't that it's free, but that users can pick and choose what to pay for. This is what makes free to play games at once casual and hardcore. You can play one for five minutes and put it away forever, or spend 100 hours with it and buy every premium item, map and character upgrade - whatever suits you."


In reality, it's
almost always a blend between
casual and hardcore.

I don't disagree in theory, but at the level of practical implementations, I'd have to question whether many games truly succeed at being both. It strikes me that if we use time as our key yardstick, we'd be more likely to play a casual game in a hardcore manner than vice versa.

In any event, Liu expands on his assertion by stating that a F2P release's appeal should be based on the flexibility of its gameplay systems. This is because it's vital to have a large population. Since relatively few users generate revenue, the value of the virtual goods they purchase depends on the size of the audience. In other words, "Who wants to pay $5 for an item if you can't show it off to your peers?" Taking this to the next higher level, he also believes that the quality of an online free to play game's experience is highly correlated with the size and diversity of its player base, and that to have wide reach, a design must be both intuitive and deep.

Naturally, I wanted to know how Liu feels Redbana's own endeavor, Audition, fits with his thinking. The internationally popular title certainly comes across as casual since it involves participating in music-based competitions rather than violent battles in order to gain experience. The company likes to call it a rhythm MMO, and it's said to feature popular mainstream tunes from both Korea and the US, including artists like Lady Gaga and Sean Kingston.

While readily admitting that the concept is very casual - you tap the arrow keys in tune with the rhythm of the song to execute dance moves - Liu added that there are almost 20 gameplay modes ranging from simple and casual to extremely difficult - and arguably hardcore. Audition's greatest asset, he says, is that it provides something for everyone.

I'm not sure it's possible for any game to meet this claim, but I do believe more casual ones have greater potential to attract broader audiences. Can they also incorporate enough depth to appeal to the hardcore? I think so, although only to a degree. Accordingly, with more free to play implementations sure to appear for me to check out, I look forward to seeing how well they can and will actually fare in this regard.

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Richard Aihoshi has been writing about MMOGs since the mid-1990s, always with a global perspective. As a result, he has observed the emergence and growth of the free to play business model from its early days in both hemispheres.

He is the former Editor of RPG Vault and his column, focusing on free to play MMOs, appears on MMORPG.com every Monday.
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