How "Casual" Are You? - David Braben looks at casual gaming
David Braben continues his regular monthly column for Develop Magazine where he delves deep into "technology, design, and the murky ground where they cross-over" within the games industry, this time by covering the snobbery towards casual gamers and making games accessible. The article can be read in full below, or on the Develop Website.
Let us know your thoughts in the Frontier forums, we'd be delighted to hear them.
How "Casual" Are You?
I hate the term ‘casual gamer’.
At Frontier we have made a number of games that appeal to a broad audience, including the so-called ‘casual’ gamer, like the Roller Coaster Tycoon games, Thrillville games, Dog’s Life and Wallace and Gromit games (we view LostWinds as primarily a core-gamer game, by the way). With each of these games we have conducted audience studies both in our own right, and with publishers, as well as the anecdotal feel we all have anyway as gamers. Over time this gives a good impression of what people tend to like and dislike, and it is a subtle, complex mix.
I regularly answer interview questions, both face to face, over the phone and by email, and a very common question that has come up time and again in the past in relation to these games is “so how far did you have to dumb things down to appeal to the casual gamer”. Each time I hear it, my heart sinks. The unspoken but clearly felt snobbery towards these players underlying this is a big problem. I sometimes think some people in our industry have this private image of the casual gamer as an inbred potato-faced, straw-chewing idiot, with a fat wallet. It really isn’t like that. In our experience making games accessible to a broad audience involves just as much, if not more, development effort and focus testing as a ‘core gamer’ game. Quality has a universal appeal, no matter what demographic your player may (or may not) fit into.
Cast your mind back to ye olden times of 1997 (feels a blink of an eye ago for some of us!), and the release of “Goldeneye” on the Nintendo 64. I remember many gamers complaining how hard the controls were to come to terms with. Thankfully, they eventually did so and all this is now forgotten, and it spawned perhaps the most successful genre in our industry (so far!), the console FPS. There are still purists that think mouse and twenty hard-to-remember keyboard buttons are the ‘true’ FPSes, but that is a whole separate rant which just reinforces my point.
The previous year, other gamers complained about the number of buttons used in Mario 64 with its move to 3D. This, and the issues with Goldeneye, is no different to what a typical ‘casual’ gamer feels when they try to play Modern Warfare 2, especially when they get whupped instantly by pixel-perfect expert players, while they are busy trying to work out how to stop the camera looking down at their feet. In this sphere, they are merely beginners. We ‘core’ gamers have had a gradual build up over a long sequence of FPSs since Goldeneye, each very slightly more complex (and unforgiving) than the last, and we are used to the, frankly complex controls. If our 1997 selves were magically brought forward today with just the experience we had then, we would probably be considered as casual gamers too, by the standards of today.
Those new to gaming now, attracted by the simple approachability of Wii, iPhone, iPad, and hopefully in the near future Sony’s Move and Microsoft’s Natal, have not spent all their waking moments poring over games reviews or the latest in gaming hardware. They have been doing other things. This doesn’t mean we should treat them like idiots, but should draw them in by providing interesting, accessible experiences that are something more than shallow party games.
Great levellers like “Heavy Rain”, (in that ‘core gamer’ skills and twitch response are not needed), are an interesting move in this direction, as it is focussing more on the experience and choices of the player than their ability, and yet is not patronising them with a primary-colours-based simplistic interface.
We have seen new players come to the Wii in droves, but there has sadly been a significant exodus too since, as I believe we have failed to follow up with enough varied experiences to hold the interest of those players, without overwhelming them with complex controls that make them feel foolish. Clearly many will have bought the machine through fashion, and may still wheel it out occasionally at parties, but no longer buy any games for it. It may be too late for these people of this Wii generation – but let’s not underestimate those who come to our industry through Natal or Move? These people are not afraid of technology – they love it and will buy it in droves – they are afraid of feeling, or being made to look stupid. It is our job to make them look and feel clever, to feel involved, to draw them in.
I have even overheard people say ‘the market for casual games is dead’. It is not. The market for some of the cheap rubbish labelled as ‘casual’ games, aiming for the fictitious straw-chewer may well be dead, but the market for new experiences is as alive as ever. There is a danger that as developers we will look inward as an industry, studying our collective navels. Microsoft and Sony have staked a great deal on their forthcoming technologies, which together present a scale of opportunity for innovation this industry has hardly seen before. We are in an industry that has never stopped changing – we should embrace the change and push these exciting new technologies to deliver great new experiences for all our audiences.
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