Storms on Cloud Nine #5:
The Casual Cow
by Scott Holliday
March 7, 2003
One of the biggest buzzwords in almost every single upcoming online game is "casual players" and how each new game is designed for them. You can't really blame the industry for being so set on it. The current base of online game customers is pitiful compared to the masses of people who own computers. Why aren't they all playing? Furthermore, the cost in design, bandwidth, and service to keep a "hard-core" player entertained is several times greater than that for a casual player. If a new release could catch even a percentage of the casual market, it would beat out every online game to date.
It's the biggest cash cow the industry has ever seen, but they don't know how to lure it in. Naturally, they turn to advertising. What's a marketing exec to do? Write a memo! "All advertising will now bubble with how much casual players will love this game." This is a simple marketing ploy, "if you talk about them, they will come." It doesn't usually work, but can you blame the marketing folks? They hardly know how to attract the gamers they've got, not to mention the casual sort. In fact, if they do any research into the matter, they quickly realize that they've been given an unreasonable task.
Why? Well... what IS a casual player? We've become so accustomed to the buzzword that it has taken on its own meaning. Regardless, I'll break out the dictionary. There are a bunch of definitions here for "casual," but the best choice seems to be: "occurring without regularity." So, I guess the full definition would be something like, "A player who does not play regularly." In fact, from a business standpoint, the less they play, the less resources and bandwidth they use. However, from my perspective, the definition should be, "A player who does not want (or need) to play as much." Hehe... maybe I'm warped. Of course, I'm sure some of you would define a casual player as "someone who also has a job." In fact, my guess is that the alternate buzzword, "mainstream," ends up with about the same meaning.
The problem should be blatantly obvious at this point. The goal is to attract players who don't play as much. However, most online games charge a monthly fee. Pay the same, play less... seems like a bum deal. Regardless of money, like any other designer (or gamer), my opinion is that more players are better. So, with all of that said, what can be done?
- Charge for time played: In short, this is old news. In fact, I bet many of us remember when this was the standard. At several dollars per hour, this method was wildly successful. However, that was a long time ago (in game years). In the present age, since almost everyone is using a business model with a monthly charge, you'd have to fight your way out of the public opinion cage. Also, in its favor, a monthly model is simple to keep up with and easy to understand. Less confusion up front translates to less time and money lost on customer service.
In any case, this is probably the most important part of catching the casual gamer. As long as they pay the same for less use, it's not going to be a friendly relationship. Perhaps someone should try a "phone-card method" where players buy 100 hours up front, and then buy more as it is used up. The hardest part will be proving to players that the cost is the same (or less). On the upside, if the servers are down, players will have some satisfaction knowing that the admins are just as desperate as they are!
- Advancement: With today's obsessive leveling treadmills, a casual player will of course be left behind. Naturally, this tends to discourage them from continuing to play. Who wants to be left behind? For an online game, the main attraction is supposed to be player interaction. Otherwise, why pay the monthly fee? Unless casual players can still interact on a fair basis with the addicts, they are going to feel left out. There are several ways to approach this, and I've written about this subject in previous articles so I won't repeat myself.
- Accessibility: The nature of a casual gamer suggests that they have a limited amount of time to play. As a result, they expect to be able to jump right in (and out) without wasting a lot of time. I've seen games where it takes almost an hour to perform the simplest quest or mission. I've seen games where it takes almost an hour just to travel to the 'combat' zone! I have no objection to involved quests or worlds. However there must be smaller offerings available for those that don't have time for such things. Likewise, if the gamer must travel back to a "safe point" before they can log-off, the casual crowd will be the most affected. For them, every minute is precious.
- Spiffyness: I'm firmly opposed to the continuing sacrifice of content in favor of graphics, sound, music, physics, etc... Unfortunately, for the casual player, this is what they will be most likely to notice. They won't have time to get involved in the epic quests or deep role-playing. It pains me to say it, but eye-candy counts. As a result, since every minute counts, every moment must be amazing.
- Involvement: The beauty of online games is the opportunity to interact with other players. However, one of the key factors to this is getting the players involved. Each player wants to have some influence over the world/plot. However, most games limit this level of power to the highest level (or longest running) characters. What better way to leave casual players out in the cold? One way to get the casual player involved is make sure they are needed by the rest of the society. There should never be a question of "what am I supposed to be doing?" In a perfect world, when a new player appears, veterans should swarm him with offers since he is a valuable commodity.
Without doing something to fix the first point, I don't really see the casual gamer ever falling for online games. If they only play a few hours a month, it's cheaper to go see a movie. However, the remaining points apply to more than just casual gamers. Improvements on these points will also please many other types of players too... and might even bring a few of the casual cows into the pasture.
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