Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Fallacy of Casual Gaming

The latest fad in video games is “casual gaming”. Nintendo is to blame – the resounding success of the Nintendo Wii has demolished the gaming industry's preconceptions about who their audience is. Unfortunately, this comeuppance has not given them an equal insight into the real truth about gaming.

Instead, they have replaced one misconception with another. Now, rather than believing their only audience is males between the ages of 16 and 25 interested in brutal, complex, and immersive games, they think they need to cater to an additional audience of “casual” gamers. This translates for many people in the industry into a series of short, light-weight “mini-games” connected by the slimmest ghost of a story.

Sorry. They got it wrong once again. “Casual gamer” does not mean brain-dead. The problem with this line of thinking is that it confuses the audience's initial response to the video game console with their gaming interests.

The fact is that a significant portion – the significant portion – of society is afraid of video games. Watching someone play a game on a traditional video game console (xBox, Playstation, or even Nintendo's own N64 or Gamecube) is like watching someone possessed by an alien spirit. They clutch the controller with both hands, twitching and swerving as if in another dimension, while brightly colored (and often heavily armed) objects hurtle towards them on the screen, just missing by inches. How do they do that?

I know how they do it. I've do it myself. But for the uninitiated, it is both disconcerting and off-putting. The standard PlayStation controller has 10 face buttons, two thumb sticks, and four shoulder buttons. Given that the thumb sticks are overloaded with two additional button actions (if you push down on them) that gives a total of 18 distinct controls. Not for the uninitiated.

The Wii remote, on the other hand – despite having 12 buttons on it – is essentially a stick you wave around with one large button (A) you push. Can't get much simpler – and more approachable – than that!

The true genius of the Wii is in its design: you can ignore the other 11 buttons until you need them... And then there is that connector on the bottom. The connector lets you add functionality as needed, such as the nunchuck. The Wii remote with nunchuck attached is at least as complex as the PlayStation or xBox controller, because although it only has a total of 17 distinct buttons or dials, it has two separate components whose position, rotation, and/or speed can be used as controls.

So what the Wii has done (and the DS to some extent) is overcome the initial aversion to the game console as a device. But once you get people to pick it up, what do they want to play? My experience – with friends and relatives, which is hardly scientific – is that once they are willing to play, they play pretty much anything as long as they are not being chased and you do not offend them.

Once you get them on the machine, they will stay on it and enjoy themselves, as long as they are not put into a threatening position early on. This tends to mean no FPS (first person shooters). After they become adept at the controls, they might try it. But nothing will drive your audience away faster than making them feel helpless while they are still learning.

It is significant that Nintendo shipped Wii Sports with the console in the US. These are not mini-games; these are fully-fledged and recognizable games – again making the new audience feel comfortable and reinforcing the physical nature of the game play.

And the other top quality games on the console are not mini-games: Super Paper Mario, Zelda (which involves chasing but brings the user along slowly, which is the genius of all the Zelda games), and a series of lesser but equally enjoyable games: Wing Island, Mario Strikers, Excite Truck...

So, there is plenty of room for innovation. Plenty of room to wow, welcome, and enthrall new users of any age. The opportunity exists, but the industry can't seem to be able to see past the initial simplicity. They have read "casual gamer" as fickle, feeble, and with a short-attention span. Nothing is going to disappoint and turn off these new users faster -- once they have got past the initial resistance to the console itself -- than finding nothing but a bunch of simplistic, unchallenging titles like Boogie, Carnival Games, etc.

So, if a "casual gamer" is not a twitchy 16 year-old and its not a frumpy housewife with ADD, who are they? Generalizing about an audience is a dangerous thing and I have absolutely no scientific or statistical knowledge to go on. But since it is clear something has changed in the marketplace, it is probably worthwhile to figure out what it is. And we can start by determining what it isn't.

Let's go out on a limb and say casual gamers are not hardcore gamers. That means gaming is not their primary passion -- it is a pastime. Gaming is for them a recreational activity. They may play video games for two or three hours at a time, but once or twice a week at most -- not every day. They may only play once or twice a month.

Which means that games that require you to memorize a dizzying array of button combos are probably out. (Sorry, Madden NFL.) Games with simple controls, where control reminders are shown on the screen (ala Zelda), or where the player can easily practice and freshen up before getting embroiled in a new battle will be favored. It sounds silly, but the ability to save easily is also essential if any storyline episode lasts more than 30 minutes. (Save locations like the blocks in Paper Mario or Marvel Ultimate Alliance may well be too far apart for gamers who don't have the time. Or the player gives up simply not knowing how much further they need to go.)

Next, they are not all 16-25 year old boys. Which means that the subject material of games needs to expand to include more than just those of interest to teenage boys. Lots of shooting, crashing, and punching will upset a significant portion of the audience under 12 and over 35. That doesn't mean competition, conflict, racing, and fighting are out; but the violent edge that infects the majority of "hardcore" games is a problem for the expanded audience. So less "intense" variations are likely to appeal more -- that is, less intense in presentation (no death, blood, screaming, etc.), not necessarily in game play.

We can also assume, since video gaming is a recreational activity, that they have other hobbies. Given a free half hour, they may be more likely to pick up a book, do a crossword, or work on a model airplane than play a video game. These are your competitors, not other video games.

Finally, you will find that as with many recreational activities (sports, board games, even crafts) casual gamers have more fun when they to play together rather than separately. Online play has its benefits, but playing with strangers can be off-putting and it is much easier (more comfortable, less stressful) to get your friends together and play, just as you would to watch a movie or play touch football.

Local multiplayer is key to supporting the expanded audience of casual gamers. Wii Sports is fun, but it is ten times better playing with a friend or family member. Even single player games significantly expand their playability for casual gamers if they include a local multiplayer mode. (Not some weak minigame. Something that can be played for at least 30 minutes without getting bored.)

Of course, because of the unprecedented sales of the Wii console, many many games are being released for it, as publishers try to cash in. Such as the ubiquitous Madden NFL, a title that is anything but user friendly for the casual gamer.* Even with the Wii remote, you have to memorize a dizzying array of button presses, waves and shoves. The same goes for flashy but weak games based on movie franchises (usually with little or no Wii-specific functionality beyond their comparable Playstation or xBox releases).

Nintendo's success is ultimately the cause of the confusion -- and disappointment -- these "filler" games create as everyone and their brother tries to sell to this new audience. On the up side, Nintendo continues its push to develop high-quality games for the real "casual gamer" and selected other publishers are beginning to catch on. Zack & Wiki is one upcoming game that appears to understand its audience and looks terrific to boot.

So let's hear it for diversity and hope the other publishers eventually catch on.

*Footnote: I read somewhere that the latest Madden NFL includes two control schemes, regular and simplified. I haven't tried this new edition, but alternate play modes and control schemes may be one way for multiplatform games to retain their essence while meeting the needs of new players on the Wii.

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