Gaming species (New Gaming, part 1)

 Games are art (not only, but also), and as such they're seen differently by the critic, historian, designer or budding artist than they are by the players.
While a botched game can still be worth the attention of a critic or game designer, who may spot the promising new feature or hidden gem amidst the debris of a production or artistic train wreck, the player who paid 5 movie seats or good paperback books worth of expected fun may not be so well-inclined toward a game that crashes, doesn't play well, or sports glorious-yet-ultimately-illegible graphics.

Because video gaming started as a niche hobby chiefly dominated by obsessive teenagers and early twenty-something, it used to be that the critic and player culture largely overlapped, in ways that made many players tolerant and supportive of ambitious-yet-failed attempts, as they knew to focus on the potential for the genre/platform to forgive or overlook flaws in a product that pushed the envelope.

Kids these days…
Most critics nowadays are gamers with soda-induced ADD, who grew up on games with a very high ratio of shiney/gameplay, while the player demographic has broadened to such a point that the gamer genus now encompasses uncounted species, many of which have never heard of each other.

More and more people are new to games, regardless of their birth date: the broadening of game demographics and the multiplication of platforms types (cell phones, browser games, cross-generation consoles) is bringing (back) new consumers to the games market every day. As all players before them, their tastes and expectations are shaped by their early experiences, and the near-instant availability and variety of today's offer mean they don't have to spend any more minutes than they feel like on games that aren't satisfying to them.

The emerging majority among this 'generation' of players share only one characteristic: they will settle for what they perceive to be the best in the current readily available crop when deciding where to put their time and money. They won't seek out promising monstrosities, or stroll a forum in search of a rare indie game that sports a unique feature or gameplay style — they game surf like they channel surf or watch DVDs: from the top 20 sellers in their favorite genre/shop.

New Gamers vs 'Real' Casual Players.
This trend has been widely acknowledged by the industry, and identified as the 'rise of casual gamers', which I believe to be a fallacy.
New gamers aren't inherently different from old-school gamers, many among them crave deep, challenging, involved gaming experiences, while casual players will never commit more than 15% of their brain's bandwidth for cycles longer than a few minutes to an hour at a time. What has changed is access and expectations.

The 'Real' Casual Players, who are only interested in 'light', non-committed playstyles now have more readily-available games that cater to their tastes, thanks to increased accessibility (notably via new platforms): this demographic is less growing (in absolute head count) than it is discovered and reached out to by a suitable offer, which wasn't the case before.

As for the New Gamers, even though they started video games in the current century, and can take internet for granted as their shopping mall, playground and grapevine through which hearing what's worth playing now, they have the same hunger for immersive, compelling fantasy worlds and alternative realities the two earlier generations of gamers had — except they won't eat their delicious gaming marmalade if it's spread on a burnt toast, even if served on a day-glow plate …which we were willing to do, because that was the only way we knew 'serious gaming' could be.

The intarweb ate my homework !
New Gamers and Casual Players both are raised on games that are instant-on, don't crash, come cheap or free (at least during the demo/trial/early play), can be jumped right in, unencumbered by arcane instruction manuals, clunky control schemes and configuration requirements, and provide a satisfying experience from minute one.

How come they get to enjoy such a carefree player career, compared to us who had to rebuild entire PCs and hunt down *custom* video drivers on BBSes to get a single game to run, hopefully without setting our study/dorm on fire in the process ?
Curiously, not because games nowadays taste less like burnt toast on average (although arguably, they do), but simply because New Gamers will dismiss games who fail those basic usability and enjoyability litmus tests without a second thought, a luxury they can afford because they have alternatives we didn't. It may not be 'better' games in your or my eyes, but they are humanly playable games, which is more than can be said about many of those responsible for most of my all-time fondest gamer memories.

Picking targets.
From the above, today's gaming market basically breaks down to three categories of potential customers: 'Real' Casual Players, old-school hardcore nerds, New Gamers. Platforms and RL demographics distinctions are largely irrelevant to that breakdown, although there may be more natural affinities between some than others.

To have any reasonable hope of a headshot, any game project can and should aim for only one of those groups at once.

  •  'Real' Casual Players are both the most numerous and fickle, in theory.
In spending power, they may not be the strongest group, as they are raised on free (as beer) games, leaving you with nothing to get revenue from but ad-placement and possibly micro-transactions  — both of which I personally think are largely doomed models for this, but that's beyond the scope of this article.

On the plus side, real-casual games can be made for reasonably cheap, are typically low on art assets and coding complexity, and make easy to itemize and derivate new products from a single codebase. They can potentially support a low-overhead business model in its own name, or act as gateway drugs to lure in potential New Gamers toward more ambitious products.

  • Old-school hardcore nerds are a stable niche.
Due to increased life expectancy and the OCD type of most hardcore gamers, they are in for the long haul, and won't stop playing and buying games as long as they can afford the time and money.

Capturing the attention of those players is a good way to build up ambitious game designs that take years/lots of sequels to reach their full breadth. Hardcore gamers play a game (series) as much for its development potential as for today's game as is, if not more.
The high barrier to entry that comes with games that are almost certain to never fully deliver on their overambitious promises (and player expectations) means they are not for the faint of heart, however: players and game makers alike who sign up for these projects must be ready to enter a world of pain and frustration, only redeemed by the occasional moment of pure bliss and ecstasy when things accidentally fall in place just right.

Because of the opposite aims of OSHN games compared to 'Real' Casual Players games, almost no  bridging between the two groups is possible inside a given game, and if it was, it may not be beneficial for either party to allow anyone to cross over too easily.

The ranks of OSHN can be replenished to make up for those who fell to diabetes complications, by tapping the pool of New Gamers: provided a OSHN game offers some desirable features that can't be found in more user-friendly titles, and the game look'n'feel is not too much like a smelly shantytown, a fraction of New Gamers can be enticed into taking the leap in OSHN-land. Once there, they'll start growing bellybutton lint with their new brethren, soon to morph into proud OSHN forever, after they've alienated all relationships dating from their former New Gamer life.

  • New Gamers are not exactly sitting in the middle…
New Gamers aren't 'Real' Casual Players, by a long stretch: although they may occasionally play those, they don't consider real-casual games are 'true' games, as they expect more from theirs.
This doesn't make them OSHN, either, as they don't subscribe to the notion that poor gameplay and ergonomics, ugly graphics and show-stopping bugs are an acceptable and worthy price to pay for a richer game experience, which sets both groups apart, divided by fundamental values. …at least at first.

Designing for New Gamers requires the game to be accessible and easy to enjoy from the first moment in, yet to also hint at hidden depth and complexity early on, without making it overwhelming or angst-inducing. The second-to-last thing a New Gamer product should do is have players worry about making irrecoverable mistakes during their learning phase of the game, the kind that will only become obvious hours or days into it, forcing them to re-roll/re-start (hint: they won't, and will quit in frustration instead).

To an extent, successful design for New Gamers can be achieved without ever venturing further into complexity and depth than a lap-dance: the mere tease of flirting with deep gameplay can be enough to capture most New Gamers' attention for a long (and paying) time.
Good examples of this can be found in many modern CRPG, where the save-everywhere and 'rewind' mechanisms ensure no drastically unforgiving consequences can result from player choices, while still imposing some sense of loss/worth through the penalty imposed on 'wasted' playtime by the 'rewind' option.

In multiplayer games, New Gamers are looking for deeper and meaningful experiences, where their decisions do have lasting consequences and manifest impact on the gamestate and others, but where 'losers' always get a chance to bounce back and at least catch up with the head of the pack.
Although they will be welcoming high amounts of content if it is diverse enough, they usually care more for variety and emergent gameplay potential than for sheer quantity of features or size of the map.

Animals Crossing.
To a large extent, RCP, OSHN and NG don't mix well inside a same game: the antagonistic expectations about what makes a game worth playing (or dropping) mean it's rarely possible to reconcile them in a common environment.
What is true of individual games isn't of individual players, however, and just like many New Gamers can occasionally enjoy some RCP-aimed games, they can be lured into mainly OSHN-flavored titles that offer extra depth at not too steep a toll on accessibility.

'Real' Casual Players will usually not cross over into NG territory, because of the insurmountable time and attention commitments required by more involved styles of play — when they do, they're possibly budding New Gamers who didn't realize it before, and are likely to spend most of their  play-time on NG games after they've taken the leap once.
Barring serious blows to the head, RCP obviously never slip as far as OSHN-land, and run away tearing their eyes out if they mistakenly do.

As for OSHN, they're savage, smelly creatures living in caves, jealously guarding the entrances of their basement dwellings and spiteful of anything that roams the earth in the sunlight — don't expect them to  waste any time on n00bt0yz: their games are srs bzns.


[In the second part of this series, I'll have a look at how to make games that cater to New Gamers. 
Stay tuned.]

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