The terms casual and hardcore get thrown around a lot when both insulting and promoting different play styles. To the hardcore crowd the word casual is nothing short of an insult. Calling someone a casual gamer throws their dedication and skill into question, while for the casual crowd calling someone hardcore is implying that they have no life and no social skills.
The annoying thing about this rivalry between the gaming world's equivalents of political parties is that the terms casual and hardcore are entirely fluid; completely defined by the person using them in relation to their own position.
So what is it that actually makes someone a hardcore, or casual gamer?
Most people's initial response would be playtime - If you spend more than say... 20 hours a week playing games, you're hardcore. While casuals would only play when the kids are asleep and the wife "has a headache".
I'm not really sure that this is the case. For example I have a friend, who rarely plays games, and they're borderline games like Civilization, but I would still consider him to be a somewhat hardcore gamer. What makes him hardcore in my mind is that when he does play games, he plays to win. Sure we all play for fun on some level, but to the hardcore gamers I believe that the fun comes with the victory while for casuals the fun is simply the act of playing.
That's not to say that the hardcore gamers don't enjoy the act of playing, but if there's no end game that allows them to really put their skills to the test, they will lose interest.
I have another friend who plays quite often, easily more than 20 hours per week, but I would consider her to be a casual gamer. She has no interest in the stress of direct competition or playing a level in a game over and over until she is able to complete it, she simply enjoys playing the game, and if it gets too challenging or frustrating she will move on to something else.
For a long time these two play styles could exist alongside each other with no real problems. If the casual gamer couldn't speed run through Mega-man, none of the hardcore players posting YouTube videos of them beating the game without taking any damage were annoyed by that. Both groups were able to enjoy themselves within the exact same game, and everyone was satisfied.
As games became more prevalent they had to start catering to both types of gamers, and this is where the gap started getting wider.
It was inevitable really, the hardcore gamers got better at games and so to give them a challenge that would allow them to enjoy themselves, games had to get more challenging. This was fine for a while but at a certain point games became so challenging that they started to require more time to complete. Hardcore gamers had to play more often because they had to in order to get good enough at a game that they could get satisfaction out of completing it. At the same time the casual players were feeling left out. If the game was too hard they wouldn't bother putting in the extra hours to learn and improve, they would simply go play something else that allowed them to have fun immediately, which for obvious reasons wasn't good for the developers of the harder game.
I can't really pinpoint when it started, I don't think any of us can, but this was around when we started to see difficulty levels in games. Mario or Altered Beast didn't have difficulty levels; there was no easy mode in Space Invaders, but somewhere along the way without anyone really noticing it, every game suddenly had options to decrease or increase the challenge. It seems like a decent enough solution really; the casuals can play on easy and enjoy their game, while the hardcore can play on hard and enjoy the challenge.
It is a system that is still in us in almost every modern game except for a few, like Demon Souls that are designed to cater specifically to the hardcore.
It was difficulty levels that really separated the casual and the hardcore. If you beat a game on hard, and your friend beat it on easy you would immediately feel superior, while at the same time your friend would wonder why you would bother wasting your time to have the exact same experience they had. Neither one could understand the other, but we all still managed to get along. That is until the Internet arrived.
The Internet really changed everything about games. I won’t go into too much detail here because that's another topic entirely, but as it relates to difficulty there are a few important points.
For starters, it immediately made games easier across the board because if you were ever stuck at any point, chances are you could simply look up the solution or strategy online, and continue on your way. This one fact really exasperated the hardcore/casual rivalry because now the casuals could keep up with the hardcore by simply looking up solutions online for the problems that the hardcore would spend several hours trying to solve on their own.
As games started to integrate Internet connectivity to share high scores and progress the dynamic changed again. For the hardcore it was no longer about simply being able to overcome the challenge of beating games on the highest difficulty setting, but about being able to do it better or faster than anyone else. Suddenly it wasn't so easy to define who was casual and who was hardcore. If you finished the game on hard the first week it was released, and I finished it on hard a week later, you would still consider me casual compared to you, and the actual casual gamers would be completely dismissed for being noobs.
Because the hardcore gamers were now effectively only competing with each other, the actual casual gamers who were still only interested in playing the game and didn't much care for getting the highest scores were able to band together and laugh as the hardcore burned themselves out in competition. It's sort of a tortoise and the hare story, because the casual gamers were still winning by getting exactly what they want, but on a world stage it was almost impossible for any hardcore gamer to really ever win, due to constant one-upmanship in the hardcore community online.
And now I find myself back at the topic I always seem to be rambling about, massively multiplayer games.
MMOs entered the scene when the hardcore/casual dynamic was at this point, and they made it so much worse. We were almost at a point where the hardcore and the casual had completely separated and were competing in entirely different arenas, but in MMOs everyone was playing the same game - we were back to square one. There were no difficulty settings, the information online was rarely up to date, and to make things worse the two groups were now directly competing with each other.
Initially it wasn't so bad, as usually the hardcore players were so far ahead of the casuals that it didn't matter too much, but the same things that forced games to change before would come up again. As MMOs became more prevalent, the hardcore players were clamoring for more challenging and competitive content, but since all of the content existed in the same world, developers hesitated to make things too challenging for fear of alienating the casual players. MMOs are a weird genre because there are many more measures of success than simply completing all the available content; having the most money, having the best equipment, being in the best guild. It's as if there are ten different high scores and you have to be competitive in all of them - this takes a lot of time.
The hardcore players had no problem committing hours and hours to getting the job done, that's just what they did, and in games that were built to reward time invested they excelled, leaving the casual players far behind. So in this case, the hardcore’s were able to compete and enjoy the game the way they wanted and the casuals were left out in the cold. Sure they were able to just enjoy playing the game as they always did, but there were so many different avenues of progression in an MMO that they did not have the desire to put in the time to "play through" all of them. They were effectively locked out of completing all parts of the game due to the time requirement to get there, and since they couldn't just switch it to easy to lessen that time requirement and allow them to "finish" the game, they were just going to play something else.
What ultimately changed things, as before, was money. Since video games were created, the casual segment of the audience has grown much faster than the more hardcore, and at this point in time the casuals made up around eighty percent of the population of these games. Realizing this, the developers were effectively forced to do what they had done before and create difficulty levels in their games in an attempt to cater to both segments of the gaming population. It had worked for single player games for many years, why not MMOs? I can understand the logic, but it just doesn't work out the same way.
What most people consider to be the real measure of your progress in an MMO is your equipment - if you have better gear than anyone else, you are winning.In order to make it easier for casual players to win, the developers just had to make the best equipment easier to obtain. The obvious downside of this is that it removed the challenge for the more hardcore players. Trying to create a game that was both challenging and easy at the same time has proven to be nearly impossible and so we're left with the current state of MMOs - a constant fight between hardcore and casual.
The more hardcore an online game gets, the less friendly it is to casual players. The more casual a game gets, the less rewarding it is to the hardcore. This is what has segregated the casual/hardcore population more than anything else. Both sides feel entitled to their own enjoyment of their game, and take it as a personal attack when the other side is catered to and still neither side has developed the ability to understand the opinion of the other.
If a new area is added to the game that only the best equipped players can complete, the casuals will cry foul. If an alternate method is introduced to allow more casual players to obtain the same rewards as the hardcore players with less challenge, the hardcore players kick and scream. It is a non-stop back and forth but it's at the point now where the scales are consistently tilted towards one side.
Hardcore gaming is dead, and Farmville killed it.
The bottom line is that casual friendly games make more money, and the video game industry has become so close to being Hollywood that nothing else matters. Maybe I'm just being naive and it never did? MMOs have proven that if you leave hardcore gamers with no option but casual games, they will still play them, sure they'll completely dominate them, but the casual players never cared about that to begin with. So when you're trying to make a financially successful online game and have a choice between making a challenging game that 10% of the gaming population will absolutely love and play every day, or a casual friendly game that 90% of people will play now and then - the choice is obvious.
If it hasn't become apparent thus far, I consider myself to be one of the hardcore gamers and casual gamers annoy me. I have tried to explain the situation as honestly as I could but as I said a few times myself - I really just don't understand their point of view. I am incapable of enjoying a game just for enjoyment's sake. If I don't have to push myself to win, or if I'm not challenged I just won't enjoy it. In the end I can't help but feel like hardcore gamers are getting the short end of the stick.When games were a new technology they were made for gamers - because there was no one else playing them. But thanks to Farmville and the Nintendo Wii, gaming is now well within the main stream. Hardcore gamers are now the definite minority and I can't help but wonder if this is just a phase that the industry is going through, or if we're actually becoming obsolete. Are we really doomed to a future where the best we can hope for is the video game equivalent of High School Musical 3, with Facebook games being the dominant source of revenue for publishers?
Lately it certainly seems that way, and while I still have some hope that this trend will stall, that casual gamers will get tired of being hand fed and join the hardcore in rallying for more challenging games, I can't help but be skeptical about the ability of the industry to turn it's back on the money associated with casual games.
Ultimately only time will tell, but no matter what happens, even if hardcore gamers are pushed out of gaming entirely, everyone stops caring about Starcraft and Street Fighter competitions and we're left with only the Farmville World Championship to watch - you'll all still be noobs to me.