Thursday, January 13, 2011

Hardcore gamers making bad games

I read a post by Tobold yesterday talking about how hardcore gamers end up making games for hardcore gamers and casuals for casual gamers.  His point seemed to revolve around the idea that if you hire hardcore gamers you often end up with extremely deep games that take a ton of time to play and learn but which have limited appeal to most of the market.  There are hardcore gamers out there who will buy it but his idea seems to be that you hit a much bigger market when you build a casual friendly game.  I think this is partly right and partly overly pessimistic.

It is true that casual games outsell hardcore games by a substantial margin.  Appealing to those who want to play a game that is quick to learn and play is important if you want to make money, but the problem comes when you make the assumption that hardcore gamers can't make those games or when you think that games can't appeal to both sides.  It is easy to make a game that casual players find utterly unappealing - see Advanced European Theatre of Operations, which is a game with a rulebook that could be used as a blunt object for subduing ones enemies and certainly would require dozens (hundreds?) of hours  to learn all the rules for.  I remember playing a wargame with The Gentleman years ago that took us about 6 hours to get through; 3 hours to skim the rules and 3 hours to puzzle through the simplest of scenarios.  By the end we were still pretty clueless about the rules and had concluded that we needed to take a day each to read over the rules a few more times to be able to play the game reasonably at all.  I don't think anyone would consider this a good game for the mass market and yet certainly there are a few hardcore war gamers who play and enjoy it.

Thing is, you can make a good game that is both appealing to casual players and hardcore gamers alike.  The trick is you have to actually take both into consideration and do a good job to achieve this.  When people make wargames with 500 page manuals they aren't considering casuals at all and when Farmville was conceived the creators weren't trying to get game geeks to play, but rather just people who like to click on pretty things.  Just because a game can fail completely to attract one portion of the audience doesn't mean it has to however.  Scrabble, Chess, Texas HoldEm and Plants Vs. Zombies are good examples of games that are played by both casual and hardcore gamers alike.  It is entirely possible to explain and understand the rules of the game in very little time and still find a tremendous challenge in mastering all the subtleties of play.  The key is in Blizzard's mantra, "Easy to learn, hard to master."  To make a game that has simple rules that are quick to learn but yet has tremendous competitive complexity is not trivial but we should not give up on doing so.

That was pretty much exactly what I tried to do when I built FMB.  I wanted to have a game that I could teach to my family (who are generally pretty smart but aren't hardcore gamers) and also be one where really serious math/game geeks could sit around and argue about the optimal play for hours.  I think I achieved that, and if you look around you can find games all over that manage to be quick, fun, simple to learn and incredibly deep strategically.  It takes more effort and most importantly it takes a creator who genuinely wants to achieve both those things but it isn't a function of hardcore gamer or casual gamer but rather skilled game creator vs. unskilled.

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