Why all the best hardcore games are casual games

"Casualification"? Give me a break

You know what I really, really hate about casual gamers? They have no idea they're casual gamers. The only ones who seem conscious of this seismic existential category are people like you and I, the red-blooded hardcore. Hah! Stupid casuals. Just look at them all - grannies with iPhones and men in white pyjamas and single female lawyers, ambling around down there without a care in the world, oblivious to their own criminal want of taste.

Where do they get that strange air of serenity? What is it about ignorance that inspires such boundless bliss? The mind boggles. It's almost as if there were more important things in life than whether you can flank your target, or how many elements there are in your magic system. Fancy that! Almost as if "hardcore" and "casual" were thick-witted labels dreamt up by marketing men to make sense of stuff like FarmVille, appropriated by belligerent hobbyists as a means of buttressing some absurd cultural tree house, inconsequential beyond the precincts of the game-playing internet.

Only three inputs? Superficial lifestyle dross.

I tell a lie. The "hardcore/casual" schism isn't inconsequential - it's damaging. Developers routinely prostrate themselves before it in interviews, and while we've learned through bitter experience to draw a big old line between what producers tell us and what designers and programmers achieve, there's the worry nonetheless that this bonkers concept will be reflected somehow in-game. Even now, QA staff on current projects may be scribbling things like "core not hard enough" or "insufficiently laidback - REDO FROM START".

What do "hardcore" and "casual" even mean? I don't know, but I know somebody who does - evergreen friend of internet blagging Wikipedia. The site gives a number of requirements for qualification as a casual game, which I republish here in abridged form: simple mechanics; gameplay that can be enjoyed in short bursts; short completion time or the ability to play continuously without saving; free trials or an advertising-driven revenue model. The great thing about these useful criteria is that for the most part, they can apply to so-called hardcore games too. Join me as I demonstrate what all your favourite space marine shooters have in common with Angry Birds.

Firstly, this simplicity thing. Limbo's pretty simple, you know - it's a platformer that, surprise surprise, trades on running and jumping - and I don't hear many anti-casuals decrying its existence. As Mario proves with annoying regularity, the difference between simple and simplistic can be measured in lightyears: good games found elaborate, instructive or simply entertaining experiences on modest handfuls of self-explanatory mechanics. Bad ones often suffocate beneath the weight of contrived complexities, desperate to seem grown-up. They'll excitably present you with a dozen critical choices off the bat, or pile on so many mechanics that individual mechanics don't have time to shine.

Limbo doesn't need 10 hours to put its point across.

The truth is, any game that isn't intuitive, that doesn't give you something in the way of a curve, isn't doing its job properly. I played Sniper Elite V2 earlier this month, and words can't describe how relieved I was that for all the scary talk of sophistication through maximum fidelity, it's fundamentally a game about finding a good place to shoot, then shooting.

As for games that suit short-burst enjoyment, that's like arguing that hardcore games are those which strive to be inconvenient (not to be confused with "difficult"), and most of the modern candidates don't. Auto-saving is all but mandatory, now that the related technical barriers have been lowered. You can argue, as Edge marvellously does, that spaced-out checkpoints are important sources of suspense - there's no gaming thrill quite so primal as scraping through to a save station, health in tatters. But it takes fine judgement to balance those moments of purged tension with the exploding frustration that results when you fudge the last hop for the nineteenth time. And not every genre suits this kind of treatment: losing level progress in a role-player is maddening, not invigorating, and when a dragon eats my face in Skyrim, I don't want to respawn miles from my tumbling corpse.

  1 2