Thursday, May 28, 2009

Casual vs. Hardcore

Welcome to my blog. I will be discussing “A” list Massives aimed at the American and European market, such as EverQuest®, Dark Age of Camelot®, World of Warcraft®, Lord of the Rings Online®, Eve Online®, Warhammer Online®, etc. I will be discussing game design from the abstract to the specific. Today I will be discussing a very misunderstood concept Casual vs. Hardcore.

You can go to any game forum and you will find a discussion between “Casual” and “Hardcore” players. Their discussion centers on whether game content, such as quests, raids, gear, etc. should be aimed at Casual Gamers or Hardcore Gamers. The forum’ers try very hard to parse exactly what Casual and Hardcore are. Some believe it is the total number of hours played per week, some the number of hours played per session. In this case the forum’ers have it wrong. What the discussion they are actually having is: Entertainment vs. Challenge.

Entertainment............................ Challenge

The debate actually goes to the heart of why gamers play a particular game. World of Warcraft® would rate a 2 on this scale and EverQuest® would rate a 4.

In short, Entertainment-players or fun-players play to have fun. They do crossword puzzles in pencil. They are leaning back in their chairs, with perhaps a beer and pretzels nearby. They may accept that a new game encounter may have a bit of a learning curve, but once they learn the encounter, and perhaps advance their character a bit, they want to repeat the encounter without any difficulty. They want to play the game.

Difficulty over time

A challenge-player does his crossword puzzle in ink. He leans forward in his chair, headsets on, tunnel-focused on the game. He wants the game to constantly challenge him. He wants to win the game.

It is very hard to describe this concept using Massives as examples, since even a beginner Massive like World of Warcraft has multiple sub-games and systems, and in WoW most content might rate a 1, but end game WoW content might be considered a 2 or 3.

Although I am tempted to illustrate this concept using geeky details from existing Massives, I think there is a better way to get at the heart of the matter.

Back before the Internet and Amazon I opened a science-fiction bookstore, Chimera Books, to ensure I had access to all the sci-fi in print. At one point I had three arcade games in the store:
· Pac-Man
· Asteroid
· 4-Player Football

Think about these arcade games when exploring the topic of Entertainment vs. Challenge.

Pac-Man. This would rate a 1 on our scale. From Wikipedia: “Despite the seemingly random nature of some of the ghosts, their movements are strictly deterministic, enabling experienced players to devise precise sequences of movements for each level (termed "patterns") that allow them to complete the levels without ever being caught.” So there is some challenge in learning a new level, but once learned, the pattern can be played with no change, or challenge.

Note: Dungeons in WoW have linked mobs. That is if you pull one mob in a group, the entire groups comes to get you (or aggro). A large part of learning dungeons in WoW is learning which mobs are linked and which are not (the pattern).

Asteroids. This would rate a 5 on our scale. The asteroids, saucers and bullets need to be avoided, while simultaneously targeting and hitting appropriate asteroids. Asteroids rewards a player’s focus and situational awareness. There are no patterns to learn. The game rewards good decisions, such as breaking apart the large asteroids one at a time. Decisions, or tactics, can be learned, but the actions that need to be taken can not be memorized.

Note: Dungeons in EverQuest are not linked. Each mob has an individual patrol path. Mobs aggro on players based on proximity to players. A large part of playing dungeons in EverQuest is being situational aware of where mobs are and where they may path. The key difference between WoW and EverQuest in this regard is that in WoW dungeon pulls can be memoried, in EverQuest they can not.

4-Player Football. Where we would rate 4-Player Football on our scale depends on the skill of a player, his partner and their opponents. If your team has played with each other before (pre-made) and the other team has just met (pug or pick-up-group) your team’s experience might rate a 1 or 2, while your opponent’s experience might rate a 4 or 5. That’s the thing about player-vs.-player (pvp) games is that the experience depends primarily with the people you are playing with and against as opposed to the experience a game designer wants for a player.

An additional consideration with pvp content is that players bring different expectations to different content. For example, WoW has a pvp subset where small groups fight each other called arenas. Playing arenas generate arena points for a character, which can be exchanged for gear. Additionally character titles and special gears are available for the top 0.5% of arena players. A large percentage of arena players, play simply for arena points. They are looking for an entertaining experience as they gear up. A smaller group, but way more vocal, are looking for a competitive challenge. Forcing these two groups to play together is guaranteed to make one side unhappy.

As much as I try to avoid talking specifics about game features, I can’t help a quick comment. A better arena system would be a tiered arena system. The Fun tier would grant less arena points than the Challenging tier. The challenging tier would be the only tier with titles and special gear.

Playing vs. Winning, is another way of looking at a player’s game experience. World of Warcraft® is made up of a number of systems, including:
· Player vs. Environment (pve)
· Dungeons
· Raiding
· Battlegrounds
· Arena
· Crafting
· Auction House
A player may want an entertaining experience for most of his game play. However, he may desire to excel or win at one particular system. In WoW to win at crafting a player must participate in pve, dungeons and raiding. So on the one hand he will want pve, dungeons and raiding to be more entertaining or easy, on the other hand he still wants crafting to be challenging so his winning at crafting has some meaning. In WoW it is almost impossible to make this guy happy unless the crafting system itself is made challenging.

Random vs. Non-Random is another concept related to Entertainment vs. Challenging. In WoW, the damage done during fights is modified by random numbers. Entertainment players are happy with this as it spices the game up, you never know exactly what’s going to happy. There is a subset of Challenging Players that are also Winning Players that hate randomness. These players are usually found in pvp systems, and are acutely unhappy when a player they deem less skilled than they are, beat them due to randomness (even though the bulk of these player’s skill was proper selection at the character generation screen).

Challenging vs. Difficult is the last vs. concept I’m gonna talk about, promise. Vanguard: Saga of Heroes® positioned itself as a Hardcore or Challenging Game. Vanguard launched with 120,000 subscribers, and very quickly dropped to 40,000. To me this shows that the market was ready for a Hardcore or Challenging game, but that Vanguard did not deliver the experience the market expected. In Vanguard leveling up or grinding took more time than comparable games. The problem was that there is very few choices in where to grind, what to grind on and very little variance in the grinding experience. EverQuest®, in contrast, had lots of different areas and mobs to grind on, with the more riskier ones offering more experience (a quicker grind). EverQuest and Vanguard are both difficult to grind up in, but EverQuest was very challenging in finding the right places and mobs to grind up on.

To Sum Up
People play the same game for different reasons. Furthermore they may approach different systems of a game with different expectations. Realize that the main divide between players is those wanting entertainment and those wanting challenge. In an entry-level game such as WoW, both these types of players are thrown together making game design challenging. Designing with Entertainment vs. Challenge in mind makes it easier to find a niche and design a game for it.

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