All of you are such casuals…
Oh boy do we have a bit here. Today the Inverseman will dissect the “recent” phenomenon of casual gaming that has emerged over the past five or so years, and does he have a bone to pick.
With the onset of the Wii, years ago, Nintendo had bottled lightning at the time. The simplified controls, familiar design, and the Apple-esque aesthetic all did something revolutionary; it got mom and dad to pick up a video game. But when one of your showcase titles are Wii Sports Resort something is going to bite back, the “hardcore” gamer cried out that the Big N had forsaken them for the “casual” crowd. While I do think later in its lifespan, the Wii had so much more potential to offer and is by no means a failure (I’ll let Tarabisu field this one), I want to get to the issue at root, the “casual phenomenon”.
What is casual gaming anyway?
At heart, I’m a mathematician. I need good, clear, concise definitions so things like the political grandstanding of an average college undergrad and the fine print on coupons just grind my gears. We need good definitions to build a case against “casual gaming”, so let’s observe some examples and make generalizations. Think back to the beginnings of video gaming. What comes to mind? Tetris? Donkey Kong? Pac-Man ? Ahh… Classics, the cradle of some golden years until the Wii ruined it forever. Wait a minute, those mechanics, those objectives, the lack of a story to tell, these games are casual games! “Casual” gaming has been the foundation of video gaming, the true old-school and real pre-mainstream. Sure, many may respond how video gaming has developed and so forth, but that does not remove the problem at hand and does not apply for a general case (by that logic your precious CoDfish is a casual game in 2021). However, for argument’s sake, let’s let all those old Atari and NES favorites slide.
We’re going to be here all day with so many definitions flooding some forum full of people with the mentalities of twelve-year-olds, so how about I lay down my own debatable definition of casual gaming. A game is casual if these three criteria are met:
- Mechanics are “simple” and the game needs no foreknowledge to play and remain simple. (Button-presses, flicks, touchscreen swipes, no manual to read)
- Objectives are singular and generally linear for all stages of the game (Kill the pigs, go right to win, don’t get hit, etc.)
- The game, upon inception, is low level complexity and escalates only vertically, not horizontally. (e.g Playing Q-Bert at a high level only uses a refined version of the skill set needed for playing the game at a low level, no new skills. Playing Pokemon competitively needs knowledge of the IV/EV system and as such implies horizontal escalation of complexity.)
Now as a matter of personal taste, I’m not too big on most casual games, besides maybe a few that have nostalgic value, niche genres like visual novels, or those that make good time-killers, but this is far different from the “menace that is ruining video games”. Already we see a perfectly fine niche and none of these elements are bad inherently. As a game designer you want players to be able to pick up your game and play, preferably right out of the box (because who reads manuals?). You want players to understand a clear objective whether it’s run to the goal or follow the storyline. And of course, you want players to invest themselves in your game in some way shape or form.
As to what ways the designer wants to accomplish these three factors or to what degree is part of what makes video games so varied. Your favorite RPG starts you off with “Attack”, “Fire”, and “Cure” where battles are simple, you’re in the start of the story, and you’ve yet to dive into the complex mechanics of the battle system. When you’re at the endgame, you made big plot decisions, have the big moves, and you’ve invested yourself into mastering the growth and battle system. This goes for any genre. Your favorite FPS starts with simple controls that are near standard, easy to know objectives, and starts with basic almost standard mechanics. But with casual games, developers tend to use those three elements but in the ways listed above. Starting simple isn’t a vice for developers, it’s actually a virtue, and where you take them to is a matter of what you want your game to be. Unless you want to play Cross Edge… Ew…
I can hear it now. “The Inverseman haets teh competitive core gaemer!1!” As someone who enjoys his fair share of fighters, I hear it all. Simple controls and mechanics are the devil, but you honestly shouldn’t have to do research to sink in at entry level to a game. (Persona 4: Arena does this very well). Simplicity is never an inherent evil, as complexity can always breed out of the most innocuous things, like a rock-paper-scissors championship. Then again in almost any game a duality or trinity of forces always seems to be the foundation. Attack-Guard-Throw, types of weapons, light-shadow-anima, etc. Smart developers don’t hand complexity on a silver plate, they let their players explore and coax it out of hiding to really get them playing every time.
Another one of the main complaints I hear from the competitive crowd is the “reduction of skill” or “increased randomness” by the casual phenomenon. By this logic, the ideal game must be such that the players must learn a complex amount of content and that the more skilled player wins every time, eliminating all random factors that could impede this objective. Though I will petition that a good fighter or FPS is somewhere between these two forces, only approximating the former of the two elements but never touching it. If a more skilled player is to have an absolute guaranteed win every time, then you may as well have the competitors take a test with a quantified numerical result. Highest grade wins. I promise you, tournaments would last mere seconds, be boring as hell, and show’s over folks, see you all at the next EVO or MLG.
Competitive games promise something more than the better player winning at the end of the day, they promise spectacle, a show where nobody knows who is going to end up at top. You have a good idea of who might, but it’s never over until the fat lady sings. Think of good times you’ve had at a soiree and someone pops in a competitive game. Case in point, I was at a get-together with a friend of mine, he pops in Dead or Alive 5, and since 3D fighters are so alien to me, I get my butt handed to me many times. Yet in a mountain of matches, those two or three victories I snatched from him using Kokoro were one of many elements in a rich evening full of fun. The matches were never over until one of us was the only one standing, excitement was through the roof win or lose. If the game was focused only on testing one’s skill at learning it, those close rounds would be nonexistent and it would be a curb stomp rather than a battle. Winner or loser, either party or both parties are going to get bored very quickly.
While some games are far more suited to competition than others, a good competitive game borrows a few notes from “casual elements” to make a riveting display and stories you can tell. If we consider this lens, games that are too random, as if flipping a coin would decide the deathmatch, logically become bad unfulfilling stories where the win is cheap and the game is pointless. Conversely, we have seen the opposite to be predictable and equally pointless. You want depth, you want balance, you want people to learn the game, and you also want fun for everyone. The human factor and the unknown factor are catalysts to scaling the enjoyment of a game as far as it can, how far depends on how good the game is. “Casual elements” are not at fault here but…
Houston, we still have a problem
The first problem isn’t casual games it’s bad games. Who seriously wants to play Imagine: Family Doctor when the Trauma Center series is exponentially better? This is no passing craze. Back when Mario and Sonic were duking it out for top dog in the pantheon of platformers there were plenty of downright awful platformers released by other companies looking to usurp the rivals, all with their own cartoony mascots. When RPGs were the in-thing we saw a flood of devs trying to be the next Squaresoft, Enix, or Atlus, but to no avail. In a Google Play shop, for every Punch Quest, there exists at least three games you’d regret wasting MB on.
The second problem is over-saturation. Too much of one thing on the market is kind of a bad thing so backlash is inevitable. So I was glad when Nintendo of America’s Wii U promos had a wider collection of games to feature from Nintendo Land, to Super Mario Bros. U, to ZombiU, and even Assassin’s Creed III. When your niche feels marginalized, you tend to start waving your hands in situations where you really wanna say:
“You know guys, other kinds of games exist too…”
But that, my friends, is another story for another day. Join me next time when I will show you how to literally beat monsters into next week.