What casual players want in games (Hint: it’s not evil)

March 29, 2012

I am a more casual game player than I used to be.

That pains me to type. I know the stigma associated with it, and I know the horrible morass that is the “casual gaming” market. But I certainly don’t want any part of that. Keep your Angry Birds and your Facebook games over there. Much like someone craving a sweet snack doesn’t just start chugging bags of sugar, I still care that my game experiences are high-quality and worthwhile.

So what do I even mean? I mean that there’s a large contingent out there that wants a more “casual” experience, but not anything like what is being offered. What’s more, the kinds of things it wants are pretty good things for everyone else, too, and if core games addressed these issues, maybe we’d see less of that saccharine stuff we hate. Let me break it down, because I’m sure I’m not alone.

Life’s stressful enough

When you’re a kid, your days are carefree, even if you don’t realize it at the time, and there’s largely nothing of consequence in your day-to-day decision-making. Games can come in and show you the range of human experience, putting you in horribly-tense situations that let you show the world, if only virtually, that you’re dependable in the clutch.

As an adult, you have largely experienced pain and tension already, and keeping a job and covering food and shelter is as high-stakes as it gets. Aiming a reticule at exactly the right pixel is satisfying and cool, but don’t make the experience reliant on me getting that exactly right every time. Games are an escape from your troubles. They don’t need to cause more.

Positive steps: The advent of the “casual” difficulty is for exactly this purpose. Yeah, sometimes it’s a bit too easy, but it’s nice that it’s there. After all, just because someone isn’t in it for the challenge doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be able to experience the story, combat system and lush environments. In rhythm games, no-fail modes are also nice.

Wrong turns: Abandoning all decision-making entirely is the least effective and most ham-fisted way of reducing stress. Just hanging out? That’s not a game. There need to be some mechanics and constraints, or otherwise I’m just sitting around Second Life or PlayStation Home or something.

Time is limited

There are so many games I want to play. As it turns out, I barely get to a fraction of them, and that’s frustrating. What’s more frustrating is when I do get a chance to play a game, I slog through loads of bad un-skippable cutscenes. Or I play a level for an hour, have one member of my squad go down and immediately just have to start over.

That was my life that just went down the drain, there, and what did I accomplish? Nothing. What if that’s at the end of the evening and I don’t have time to play it through again? That just leads to a disappointing night, a frustrated work day and a chance I just won’t pick that game up again.

Positive steps: We’re seeing more checkpoints and auto-saves, and fewer failure conditions. Team members can revive each other and keep going. Downloadable games keep experiences short and sweet.

Wrong turns: The free-to-play arena is built around the grind-away-for-free, play-normally-for-cash model. It’s sick, and it’s horrible game design to boot. If you make money with in-game purchases, it shouldn’t be holding our time hostage. It should be silly hats.

It’s nice to be social

As humans, we’re naturally social creatures. By adulthood, we may not have gotten over our crippling social anxiety, but we’ve certainly found a few ways to work around it and enjoy the company of others.  We like this in our games, too. MMOs are the most obvious, here, but they often consume entirely, becoming your entire social life rather than an aspect of it.

When playing games, it’s nice to hang out, work together or just have fun with your friends. There’s certainly a place for the single-player epic, but most games don’t need to have you isolated in a dark room with a TV for hours on end. What’s more, the interaction doesn’t necessarily have to be cutthroat the whole time, either.

Positive steps: We’re seeing a move toward co-op experiences, and this allows for some talk with friends that isn’t complaining or bragging. The Wii brought about a resurgence of the living room party game, and the Kinect has kept it going strong. Taking turns looking like an idiot in front of a room full of people can be the best of times.

Wrong turns: Being social doesn’t mean spamming friends with invites and making me do that to be successful in the game. Also, being social is best in the same place, if you can manage it. Online modes are an increasingly-viable stand-in, but don’t scrap local multiplayer in the process. Also, friend leaderboards? They’re nice to have, but they’re not magnificent thing companies like EA think they are when they build the whole experience around them.

With the huge backlash against games becoming more “casual,” it’s important to keep in perspective that most of that bad stuff is abusive and not what people really want. (Oh, and if you’re against this kind of thing anyway, remember that there are many more games than there used to be. There’s still much for you.)

What do you think? Let us know in the comments!