Two Buttons OR Redefining the Casual Gamer [Designing Gamer] Jun08

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Two Buttons OR Redefining the Casual Gamer [Designing Gamer]

The number one thing people tell me when they find out I design video games:

“There are too many buttons now. I liked Mario Better. I liked the two buttons on Nintendo.”

Two buttons, huh?

Yeah, the Super Mario Brothers games of the 1980s were played on a controller that (besides the control pad) had two primary buttons.

If you’ve said “I liked two buttons,” are you banished to the non-gamer front of the school bus while the cool Xbox players sit in the back?  Actually, not at all. You are driving the current rebirth of the game industry.

In the old days, it was really easy to define who was a hardcore gamer, and who was a casual player (or non gamer). Let’s talk about how, in 2011, these lines are hard to define.

Pretty little well-defined boxes

Marketing people play a big part in defining things. Marketing people love terms and little clean boxes in which to place products. I imagine them as little kids that neatly kept their gravy from mixing with their cranberry sauce on Thanksgiving. Lest they throw that fancy plate at grandma. They describe games with phrases like, “this is a casual game that is socially networked.”

If you said Two Buttons, marketing people at game companies call you a non-gamer, or a casual player. It’s not that simple. But they hate gravy-flavored cranberry sauce.

Traditional definitions say that a casual gamer is someone who plays games that are quick in playtime, easy to pick up and play. Hardcore gamers play console games, or games that have a high learning curve and a high investment of time.

It gets messy

Here’s how modern games make things so messy. Traditionally, a casual gamer plays phone games or web games. A hardcore gamer plays First Person Shooter games (like Halo and Gears of War). Well, now there are serious shooter games on iPhones (and on web browsers), and we can only imagine the capabilities of the next round of mobile tech.

Remember when we used to go to arcades and play the games that could never, ever run on a home system? The arcade machines were light years ahead of home games. Why are most arcades extinct now?  Because game consoles caught up. It got to the point that you could play a better-looking game at home than in the arcade.

Well, now the same thing is happening with your phone. You can play Farmville on your phone or on Facebook. Well soon, the games that you can only play on consoles will play just fine on phones. Not a second-rate version, but a real, full-fledged game. Just like arcades moved to more physical games (like boxing or riding a motorcycle) to differentiate themselves, we see home consoles doing something similar now.  So we can’t define a non-gamer by the mechanism they used to play. Thanksgiving dinner is getting all mixed together.

If it’s a casual game, it’s easy, right?

A common pitfall is to say that a non-gamer, or a casual gamer, is someone who plays “easy” games. Do you play Angry Birds?  This is considered a casual game.  Angry Birds, in its later levels, becomes a very, very hard game. There’s no defined grammar of where you should aim your birds. Even if you do find the perfect angle, because this game relies on physics, you can still get it wrong.  You may have to do the perfect thing several times in a row to “win” a level because of the unpredictability of physics. So let’s forget about difficulty as a way to draw the line. That’s not gonna work.

But I have a life!

Let’s try something different…

I use the investment of play time per session to define what type of player someone is. In layman’s terms, I call it “I got shit to do.”

Let’s take my current experience with Castlevania: Lords of Shadow. It’s an Xbox 360 game. A big production. And this game boasts an average of 85% good reviews on Metacritic. That’s great!

So, I boot it up. Xbox asks me to download an update. Ok. I’ll wait 5 minutes right?  It’s a Friday.

I start the game. I watch a cinema. Keep in mind, movie folks, that this consists of the game barfing a story on me about the usual video game subject matter:  elders, the end of days, magic, monsters. And there’s a few minutes of it.

I try to start playing. A little box pops up and says something like “Press X to attack, Press Y to do a ranged attack, Press A to jump.”  What? Ok I’ll try it. I like kicking the asses of things. Let’s kick ass.

After practicing my new awesome moves, in about one minute, it tells me about how to do yet another set of things (I haven’t really learned the first chunk).

In games, that last part is what we call a tutorial. It teaches you all the little skills of the game. That’s just fine and dandy, but I just invested 25 minutes. That can also be fine. But here’s the kicker; I’m still not into the meat of the game. I’m not into the part of the game that earned it an 85% review.

This is common in any large budget game. 25 minutes of learning is the price of entry. And that’s just the beginning. Expect sprinklings of this every time you get a new weapon:  “To use beef whip, hold A, then press Y when whip glows red.” You get the idea.

But Angry Birds, which is the prom queen of all “casual” game marketing rhetoric, and which we described above as being “not easy,” is quite a different story. It asks you to do a very intuitive thing at the start. You pull birds back on the slingshot and let them go. Hit the pigs. Hit whatever the hell you want. In the first level, you’ll accidentally hit the pigs and accidentally win. You’ll get it. Then you’ll finish waiting in line for Taco Bell or whatever horrible thing you’re having for lunch. Come back later and kill more pigs with birds. Bird, Pig, Slingshot, Physics.  It gets harder as you play more, but you still only play for 5 minutes at a time. Maybe 30 seconds sometimes.

Yummy little bite size chunks

So I don’t draw the gamer/non-gamer line on difficulty, and I don’t draw it on subject matter. Casual gamers and hardcore gamers are really better defined by the time you invest per session.

If you’ve said Two Buttons, then you don’t play games that require you to trudge 30 minutes into a session to have fun.

You may play a total of 6 hours of Angry Birds over a month’s time, while your nerdy little brother plays 3 hours of Castlevania or Halo. So you’re just as much of a gamer as he is. But you have bills to pay. At night you want to see humans. Even though it doesn’t feel like it, you do have enough free time to play games, but that time is only available in little 5 minute chunks, not a big block (unlike your little brother who has no life).

We aren’t in the 80s anymore (I know, I miss the fashion too) but we live in the future.  A land of 3d TVs, flying electric cars, and even video games that bridge the gamer/non-gamer gap.