The other useful way to define casual vs. hardcore is by how long a game session is. A good rule of thumb is that a “casual game” can be played enjoyably in a 20 minute window or less.
So although I set out to define “casual” and “hardcore”, I’ve actually created four quadrants of game style:
- Challenging with Short Time Requirements: the most obvious example of this category is the old arcade game. Pac-Man, Galaga, Pole Position: these games require short amounts of time but are usually pretty challenging. (We often take for granted how hard these games were, back in the day.) Some games on casual portal sites fit this area, such as some Arkanoid clones. The Nintendo DS and Sony PSP also have a large number of games in this section.
- Challenging with Long Time Requirements: many of the most popular console games fall into this category: God of War, Prince of Persia, Madden Football. These are games that have a long per-game session and are unabashedly difficult to play. They appeal to lots of people, but it should be no surprise that competitive males with lots of time on their hands tend to prefer these games.
- Engaging with Short Time Requirement: this category contains most of the games on portal sites. Bejeweled, Diner Dash, Bonnie’s Bookstore. They are just difficult enough to be engaging without actively challenging the player’s abilities. They also have a brief time duration: you can finish a session in 15 minutes, usually.
- Engaging with Long Time Requirement: a smaller number of casual games on portal sites fit this bill. A good example from the real world is a jigsaw puzzle. These are games that don’t actively challenge the player — they just require attentiveness. But they also require a long expenditure of time. One could argue that RPGs like Fate or Dungeon Runners also fit into this category, though then you have to quibble about “sessions”: you can play Dungeon Runners for 20 minutes, but in order to feel like you’ve actually accomplished something with your character (such as leveling up), you’ll need to invest an hour or two.
Why bother categorizing games this way? The reason is that you need to know who your target audience is so that you can make a game that appeals to them. Even big companies seem to miss this simple premise a lot of the time.
This grid is just one of many ways to categorize audiences, of course, and your mileage will vary, but even if you don’t use my categorization, please, use some categorization. Don’t just make a game you like and assume it’ll sell to everybody.
Actual human beings don’t fit neatly into any one category; many gamers tend to slide between two or even three of these. But when they’re in the mood to play a game, it’ll be a game from a certain quadrant. If I want to play some God of War, then playing Diner Dash instead isn’t gonna cut it.
One other thing: a good game hits ONE or at most TWO of these groups. Don’t try to make a game that appeals to all four quadrants at once; we’ve yet to see anybody make anything successful that way.