Rational thinking would have us believe that “casuals” are ruining gaming. Companies like Nintendo and Popcap appeal to the lowest common denominator, spend next to nothing making these games, and make gigantic wads of cash from them.
Thus, making these smaller casual games is more profitable, and so more and more companies make them, abandoning the “better”, more “hardcore” games.
At least, that’s the impression so many have. It’s difficult to even count the number of times “casual games are killing the industry” has been thrown around.
It’s difficult to even fathom how horrifically wrong this idea is, either.
“Casual” games have been on the rise for many years. Some treat it as a passing fad, others herald it as the apocalypse… both are wrong.
Casual games did not suddenly appear out of nowhere. Their creation was carefully engineered to produce large quantities of profit for the companies that created them.
There’s this illogical stigma around “casual” games, where the word “casual” is simply a nice way of saying that something suffers from acute retardation.
It isn’t true, but this is way a large chunk of the industry, and a large chunk of the players, think.
Games like Peggle and Bubble Bobble are deemed inherently inferior to games that are considered more “hardcore”.
With the release of the DS, the Wii, and all those games like Nintendogs, Brain Age, and so forth, so many people make the erroneous assumption that Nintendo was targeting stupid casual gamers.
In actuality, Nintendo was targeting people who either didn’t game anymore or never gamed before.
All these games, of course, were wildly successful. They opened up the world of gaming to an audience the industry didn’t even realize was there.
Thing is, these games were simple. They weren’t hard to play, understand, “get” whatever you want the word to be.
Something like Bejeweled, for instance, isn’t complicated. All you do is match colors. Tetris and Pacman are more complicated. Brain Age can’t even really be considered a game at all!
This whole “casual” movement was an untapped market. Most companies ignored these teeming millions, only making games for those that were already gaming.
Compare the difficulty of Bejeweled and Halo 3 to someone who has never played a single videogame in their entire life. Or Wii Bowling compared to Ninja Gaiden.
Guess which one a complete newbie is going to be able to play better? Guess which one they’re going to have fun playing?
Ok great. So now we have this huge, previously untapped market willing to play these ludicrously simple and cheap games. All these other companies that have, up to now, ignored this market attempt to cash in on the fad and make a quick buck.
But here’s the thing. These other companies don’t really get it.
You see, when Nintendo shifted their energies onto making “casual” games, they didn’t make crap. They assigned their best writers, their best programmers, into putting out these games.
When, say, Microsoft tries to emulate Nintendo, they put their third or fourth best people on it, keeping their best teams around to make Halo 4.
The result? Nintendo produces a series of fantastic games, selling milions. Microsoft produces a series of terrible games, selling dozens.
But enough about Nintendo (for now).
There is a phenomena in gaming, and I’m not sure if it has a name.
The best I can come up with is the phenomena of gamers swimming upstream.
It all starts with a philosophy a company has; in this case, a low barrier of entry. As low as possible.
Thus, when someone jumps into a game with a low entry requirement, they have fun. The game is simple, well within their ability to do well. They get good at it, and move on to either more difficult games or more difficult parts of the same game.
This is where Nintendo displays their sheer genious. They aimed their initial games squarely at those who had never gamed before. Games like Nintendogs had such an incredibly low barrier of entry that it’s hard to tell if one even existed.
So what did they do when Nintendogs proved to be massively popular? They sold millions of the game, and millions of DSs to go with it.
Nintendogs 2 came out, which didn’t fare as well as the OH WAIT NO that never happened!
Nintendo realized something. You can’t sell someone the same thing twice.
Borrowing a little from Greedy Goblin, let’s say you sell someone a Belt Buckle. They have one or two belts they need buckled, and that’s all they’re going to buy. If they only have one belt in need of buckling, you are not going to be able to convince them to buy two.
Notice how there isn’t a a Wii Fit 2? No Wii Sports 2? If those games were made, they would be automatic best-sellers; not as good as the first ones, not by a long shot, but still good.
Other companies laugh at Nintendo. After all, Nintendo isn’t riding this fad as well as they could be, they’re losing out on millions of dollars worth of potential sales.
So what does Nintendo do? Well, they up the ante.
They’ve already dragged untold millions of people into gaming that would otherwise never have done so.
So they sell them more games. But not the same game, slightly more complicated games.
Nintendogs was neat, now try out this slightly more complicated Animal Crossing thing. Have fun with that? Well, maybe you’d like Mario Kart? It’s a little difficult, but within your skill.
And before you know it, that same customer is now playing a complicated RPG called Dragon Quest. And they started off by poking a virtual puppy.
This is Nintendo’s plan. Start at the bottom, work up.
Think about it. Every one of us gamers started this way.
If we didn’t start on games that were easy and progress to harder ones, we started on easy games that became harder.
In a roundabout way, this brings me to Blizzard, a company that understands this more than most.
Games like Diablo, Warcraft, etc, owed a great deal of their success to their very low entry barrier. Starcraft started you off with extremely simple objectives controlling a tiny amount of one type of unit.
Then it added another one, then a defensive structure, then another unit, then gave you a special ability to that one…
By the end of the game, you had dozens of unique units comprising an army of hundreds, all while managing five or six bases at once.
All Blizzard games function the same way, operating under the mantra of “easy to play, hard to master”.
Hands up here, be honest. For how many of you was WoW your first MMO? First RPG? First PC game? First videogame ever?
Do you get it now? This is the way the industry works.
A new player comes in, starts with something ludicrously easy, and then starts swimming upstream.
Consider Popcap, briefly.
Bejeweled, a game that requires you to match pretty colors. Then there was Peggle, which required you to bounce a ball off pretty colors, except you needed to take physics into account, and juggle a few simple power ups.
Now, they’re latest release is a tower defense-esque game with numerous units, power ups, and complex strategy worthy of the finest RTS games on the market.
There are people who, two years ago, were barely even aware of gaming. Now, they’re raiding Ulduar.
The number of these people isn’t small. It’s HUGE.
Compare WoW with any other MMO on the market. Or, indeed, compare any Blizzard game with any other game on the market.
It isn’t a fluke. It’s not random chance. These games are specifically designed this way, to earn the most amount of money in both the short term and the long term.
When accused that Vault of Archavon was too easy, Blizzard said this:
We want the bosses in the Vault of Archavon to be doable by a wide variety of players and that includes pugs.
Casual games are not ruining the gaming world. They are not destroying the ideals of the hardcore.
Rather, casual games are exposing gaming to hundreds of millions of people. There are legions of players following in our footsteps.
Gaming isn’t in danger of being destroyed. It’s lively, it’s vibrant, and becoming more profitable than ever before.
I’m sorry, this was way too much of a pointless ramble.
It just ticks me off whenever I hear most of the idiocy that revolves around so-called “casuals” and “casual” gaming.