…but Casual Gaming (and Casual Gamers)! Wait, wait… Before you stop reading and ask yourself why I would make such an offensive proposition, please hear me out.

My Origin
I have a very tense relation to the terms Casual and Core Games that found on three things: 1) I am getting older and my best “Gamer” times are over ^^’, 2) I develop Browser Games and 3) I develop in Java! A very bad combination to go into a Game Developer discussion… trust me!
I am a Gamer for over two decades now, started with Pong and played a high percentage of every mentionable game ever made. Studying Computer Science and developing Games was a reasonable step and I like what I am doing now, I am good in what I do (yes, I am ^^), developing Games and I am proud of what I achieved until today. But nowadays if I mention that I develop Games, I get asked:

  • “Oh, very cool. What Games?”
  • “Browser MMOs”
  • “Ahhh…*pause*… Casual Games!”

Even with swallowing the bitter taste of that sentence I somehow feel unvalued for being part of one of the largest Browser Games around, over four years old, still growing and established way before Facebook. A massive simultaneous multiplayer game, relying heavy on PvP, time intensive and based on a very technical Story. All features that are normally related to so called “Core Games”. But if a Browser Game features such elements why is it that the term “Browser Game” is instantly related to “Casual Game”? And why in general is “Casual Game” leading to the idea of “not a real game”?
In my specific case Browser and Casual is not the only evil term. The dialog above often continues as follows:

  • “Why do you think I develop a Casual Game?”
  • “It’s in the Browser… probably Flash.”
  • “I am Java Developer.”
  • “I think you said you develop Games. How can you develop Games in Java?”

But that is another story I will cover in another post ^^’.

My Problem
Another thing that leads me to my “new” thinking was the evolution of my own gaming habits. As mentioned, I am a Gamer, a Core Gamer you would say, played Games from Wolfenstein 3D to Call of Duty: Black Ops, from Half-Life over CS to TS2, from Zork to The Whispered World. I owned and own Handhelds, Consoles and PCs. I spent ages playing through games each day after school, alone or with friends. But over time my gaming habits changed through studies and now a whole lot of work. I am still a Gamer, just tested the newest Crysis 2 and Bulletstorm Demos… but the actual gaming sessions changed!

I am part of the working community now. Most of the day I am sitting at my work desk and if I get home I have some commitments to do or just want to get some peace. Nevertheless, my Civilization is teasing me to conquer the world, while Snake is asking me to finally complete the Mission, besides Kane & Lynch still arguing. Everything becomes a Quest that Puzzles me and I get Angry like the Birds outside my Windows (couldn’t find a transition to my iPad here ^^).
So, every evening I really have to decide what I do and IF I play. And even if I play, the time a playing session takes reduced a lot nowadays. For example, I played Plants vs. Zombies as well as Dead Space. I played Mirror’s Edge as well as Angry Birds. All four games would be categorized into Casual and Core Games, but the way I played them somehow did not fit the definition. I played Plants vs. Zombies for hours straight but Dead Space actually in 15-20 minutes chunks until the end (not only because it was scary). Mirror’s Edge I played through in one session but Angry Birds just 15 minutes some evenings.
Now, with the advent of all this classification that somehow does not fit my overall love for games of every type that “entertains” me, I questioned myself: Am I doing something wrong? Or is the classification not practicable?

The Definition
With that many inconsistencies in my general understanding of Browser and further more Casual Games I tried to find a conclusive definition. During the search of a definition I had to notice that I never read so many different ways of defining something, especially as most definitions come down to attitudes of the writer. Because of that, let’s start with a “not so ideal” example from the Urban Dictionary:

Casual games are any kind of game that is over hyped and over rated or just the exactly same thing as a previous version that was over hyped and over rated, these games are known by gamers as “crap” because even with all the perfect scores the games still have mediocre graphics and shitty plots that casual gamers think are good. Usually the only thing that makes a casual game not-total shit is the multiplayer; otherwise these games would get ratings lower than dirt. With shitty graphics and a generally horrible campaign mode, the halo series is the indisputable king of casual games.

But all jokes aside, for a more serious definition from the IGDA Casual Games SIG from 2005/2006:

The term “casual games” is used to describe games that are easy to learn, utilize simple controls and aspire to forgiving gameplay. Without a doubt, the term “casual games” is sometimes an awkward and ill-fitting term – perhaps best described as games for everyone. Additionally, the term “casual” doesn’t accurately depict that these games can be quite addictive, often delivering hours of entertainment similar to that provided by more traditional console games. To be sure, there is nothing “casual” about the level of loyalty, commitment and enjoyment displayed by many avid casual game players – just as there is nothing “casual” about the market opportunity and market demand for these games.

That is an interesting definition. Let’s have a look at some more. Wikipedia describes:

Most casual games have similar basic features:

  • Extremely simple gameplay, like a puzzle game that can be played entirely using a one-button mouse or cellphone keypad
  • Allowing gameplay in short bursts, during work breaks or, in the case of portable and cell phone games, on public transportation
  • The ability to quickly reach a final stage, or continuous play with no need to save the game
  • Some variant on a “try before you buy” business model or an advertising-based model

The CasualGameWiki as well as About.com extend the definition with specifics about the price point and the platforms:

  • Style Of Play: Casual Games are now considered “games for everyone” – with a special emphasis on whether your mom can play it.
  • Distribution: Casual Games are frequently distributed with a “Try Before You Buy” model. Where a person can play for an hour for free and then decide whether to purchase or not. This model of play grew out of the Shareware distribution model.
  • Casual Games are usually sold for $19.95.
  • Platforms: Casual Games can now be found on Cell Phones and Consoles such as XBox 360 via the Xbox Live system.

and

Casual games are most often played via a Flash or Java based platform on a PC, but are now appearing in larger quantities on video game consoles and mobile phones.

The definitions often come with a timeframe of around the millennium or 2001.

An Interlude
Let’s move away a little from the term “Casual Games” and the definitions given and have a look at the last sentence: The Year! If we take a look on what happened and was released around that time that is somehow “defined” as the origin of the term we will find things like the Playstation 2 (2000) and the Xbox (2001). While the Playstation 1 was still a child of the “old” console generation especially the Playstation 2 as well as the Xbox introduced the “new” generation of consoles, away from old Entertainment Systems we adored. More important is that with the new generation the games from the “old world”, the Personal Computer, and the consoles were starting to congregate. Complexity from the PC moved to consoles and simplicity of the Consoles moved to the PC.
On the PC Flash was released in version 4.0 in 99 and one year later in version 5.0. These introduced and extended Flash’s own programming language ActionScript. From here on Flash was not only a way of playing frames off a timeline but introducing conditional actions onto these. More and more Flash Games started popping up. Around the same time Java 1.3 was released introducing the HotSpot VM and building the foundation for JavaME (J2ME at that time) that brought gaming very heavily to normal phones.
This interlude is important to understand how Games opened up to a larger community (yes, long before the Wii) away from the nerdy PC hardware geeks that “pimped” their autoexec.bat to play games as of today these build a large majority of the people defining and mostly complaining about “Casual Games” (no offense).

The Ambiguity
If we sum up the definitions the following list could be seen as a general understanding of Casual Games:

  • Easy to learn/simple gameplay
  • Simple controls
  • Forgiving Gameplay/quickly reach a final stage
  • Gameplay in Short Bursts
  • Games for Everyone
  • Up to 20$
  • Try before you Buy
  • Flash and Java Games on the PC side/DLGames on XBoxLive, PSN, etc.
  • Since 2000/2001

This list looks pretty decent doesn’t it? As you can guess from the headline the list is not as decent as I hoped it to be. I often refer to these hand full of games that somehow should fit these rules, are named casual but do not really allow a distinct identification of what a casual game should be.

Let’s start off with Plants vs. Zombies (one of my favourites over the last years). This modified Tower Defense game is a success on every platform. First released in 2009 it sold and sold and people rated it effusively. It’s a great game that just brings a ton of fun. If we look at our list we can see that it looks pretty good: It costs under 20$, the controls are simple and it is downloadable on PC, iOS and XBoxLive. Regarding the gameplay, it is simple and easy to learn… because of the many tutorials, and can be hard to master. This makes this game attractive to be played for just some minutes or for hours fiddling on the new strategies and therefore attracting Casual Gamers and Core Games as well as hybrids like me. It provides Casual Gaming and more, for Casual and Core Gamers. So, is this a Casual Game?
My second example would be Super Meat Boy (and N/N+ in parallel). This 2010 hit platform game has gone through different stages of the list. It was a Flash Game first, ported, tuned and extended for the PC and Consoles. Over 300 mostly short levels (short bursts) with a very gory portion of simple gameplay. It is also cheaper then 20$ and has some very simple controls. But it is extremely hard to master forbidding the slightest error ending in a pure gore fest. And actually (as PETA already noticed ^^’) this is no “game for everyone” anymore because of its scenario and its quickly increasing difficulty level. Hardly a Casual Game, isn’t it?
My third example is Prince of Persia (the one before the crappy Movie Game). Not a typical Casual Game and was more expensive then 20$. But if we look at some definitions it fits as much as the previous two examples: It has forgiving gameplay (yes, I mean you Elika), had a Demo, was easy to learn but had not the easiest controls. The save points were pretty frequent and it had a scenario that even my casual sister was able to relate to. Still Core or did it become Casual?
My fourth example is Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light. A franchise that may have brought many women to gaming, featuring intense 3D platform gaming and 3rd Person Shooting Gameplay. With GoL it became a DLG with a strict isometric perspective. It’s on PC and Consoles, downloadable, costs under 20$ and has (in my opinion) simple controls to master the fine placed action and puzzles. Now, are Tomb Raider and Lara Croft becoming casual? Is it just that game? Or does Lara Croft not count?
My fifth example (to use the full hand) would be every Wii Game. Nearly every gaming site and every “Core Gamer” defines a Wii Game as a Casual Game. Why? Because your Family got into “your hemisphere”?

In general if we just take some of the bullet points, some of the definitions describe things that nearly every game, no matter if Casual or Core, wants to achieve nowadays or is a general gaming tradition:

  • Try before you Buy

Demos, Shareware, … Nothing new to the experienced Gamer and Games in general.

  • Gameplay in Short Bursts

Actually, this is something popping up more and more since the advent of consoles. PC users are used to saving games, being able to use up space on their hard disc. For console gamers this was no natural thing to use so developers very often used stages with manual and automatic save points that were not separated too far away from each other to not enrage the player if he dies. I mentioned Dead Space and my very tight gaming sessions playing through it. This was only possible because of the very “controlled” stages and their save points that I could reach in the given time frame.

  • Forgiving Gameplay/quickly reach a final stage

This as well is something that especially First-Person-Shooters nowadays provide to the user. “Old” Gamers remember a time when it was a necessity to know where the next HealthPack is. Today, we rely on a regenerative system, often presented with the argument to be more accessible to more gamers (“games for everyone”). Becoming casual? And regarding the second part, I could get heretical now but games such as Modern Warfare do not really provide that much gaming time to the user anymore. 5-6 hours are some times normal.
The problem is that gaming following the definitions given is way older. This is why gameplay elements can hardly be used to define the games themselves. What is left are technical definitions, prices as well as hardware to describe the so called “Casual Games” and these obliterate more and more.
So, with all this ambiguity coming from the point of defining the Game, wouldn’t it be better to define the interaction?

Classic Classification
We tend to define things based on their surroundings and the “object” using the “subject” (“People Playing a Game” in our case) because that is what we visually perceive. And as it is easy for us to define unknown things from what we know, we derive the Browser into our experience of Casual Games as the Browser was never a dedicated environment for games but so many things that so many people do, not only gamer. Therefore, it is very easy for “Core Gamers” to define games such as Plants vs. Zombies as Casual Games as their Moms or Dads are playing them.
The problem with the classification and the according definitions of Casual Games is that they try to really define constraints where these games may fit in. In a time where it becomes harder and harder to “just” define the Genre of a game (e.g. Puzzle-Survival-Horror Adventure-Games) it is even harder to define an umbrella term of games in general. But my personal strongest point regarding the definition of “Casual Games” is that most of the people that play “Casual Games” do not even know that these are “Casual Games” (or did your Mother or Sister ever talked about Casual Games when playing Wii or DS?).
The classification normally is given by “Core Gamers”, Developers or Game Editors that want to separate themselves from these “unappreciated” games (in many cases). But what we were able to see from the definitions normally used to describe Casual Games is that these do not fit the real world anymore. Especially as they evolved over the last years, away from most simplistic Flash Games to the best gaming experiences of the last decade (e.g. Darwinia, Braid, Limbo and more)
What is required is to divide not only Games but the interaction, the gaming. For gameplay we have genres. Now, we need a new graduation for Facebook, Flash, Indie and everything else that evolved our gaming experience (and will in the future). To what this New Classification could be, I can give you no answer. This needs a long discussion and a broad overview of everything gaming has to offer nowadays.
But what all Gamers need to do is to be open minded to new possibilities and not argue with the term “Casual Game” anymore, especially those that call themselves Core Gamer. I think we all do not want to hear another: “Epic Mickey is a Casual Game. It’s on the Wii!

My Conclusion
My intention was to make a polemic assertion, presented with my experience, many questions and concluded with my own ways of thinking. If you were looking for THE definition of Casual Gaming, this post does not deliver. It just brings up some things that do not work out in our current scheme of games classification and with the ever growing amount of releases that qualify to our current definition of Casual Games we should quickly start thinking about a new way of filtering, fitting all modern characteristics such as Facebook, iOS and Android, Unity/Shiva/…, Steam and all the other new ways of developing, presenting and distributing games, challenging the “old way” of games development.
I started off with arguing that there are no “Casual Games” but “Casual Gaming” and I tend to support this even if I give away no new definition because such a broad definition of games cannot be made, if the gamers that count are so broad and different themselves. I agree that I only presented arguments for my theory but as long as it is possible to oppugn the current definition that easily it is in our hands to discuss and define better definitions for our most beloved games… that are changing pretty quickly right now!

Also published on INsanityDesign.com