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The Big Question: How do studios cater to a casual audience?

Posted by: Alan Dixon
08/02/16

In the second edition of Develop’s monthly feature, our very own mobile specialist Alan Dixon discusses the continuing rise of the casual gamer and their impact on the industry.

With the rise of the casual gamer showing no signs of stopping, how can studios make sure they are catering to this audience?

If you ask a dictionary what ‘casual’ means, you will get a lukewarm list; - everyday, irregular, nothing special, low-effort. Check out the revenues from the likes of Candy Crush, however and you will see how special they are far from casual.

When casual games first exploded in scale a few years back, it became popular to divide people who play games in to separate camps of core gamers and casual gamers. But has this turned out to be the case?

The word casual does not always refer to the way you play the game it’s about the style of the game. Sure, some people who play core games don’t play casual games and vice-versa. However there are many people who play both. So a more up-to-date take is that core/mid-core gamers and casual gamers are sometimes the exact same person just doing different things.

Bethesda explored this blurring of game experiences with Fallout Shelter, the free-to-play mobile game evolving out of the mid-core Fallout series. Metacritic accused Fallout Shelter as having “no heart or soul” and perhaps it would not be the choice of every studio, given limited resources (and established artistic vision) to dilute a mid-core title this overtly. It’s worth saying that heart and soul is more than possible in a casual game; you only have to look at the exceptional The Room from Fireproof Games to prove that concept.

For any studio asking how they can cater to a casual audience, there are some useful features of successful casual games that we have observed to consider as a starting point:

  • Playable in bursts; easy to pick up, put down and come back
  • No time barriers; play for 30 seconds or 30 minutes
  • An approachable art style
  • Rapid speed of engagement, simple game loops and ideally addictive
  • Continual refresh of gameplay features
  • Level design on an epic scale
  • Balance of effort versus tangible, meaningful rewards
  • A clear, commercial monetisation model
  • A clear target audience
  • Optimised appeal for as broad a demographic as possible
  • 24-7 availability and robust technical scalability and security
  • Detailed localisation
  • Created by people with a passion and belief in casual games
  • Portability; your game needs to be as accessible as possible
  • Shareability on social media and interactive features
  • Marketing strategy – the best game in the world will flop if no-one can find it
  • Adverts – many mid-core titles gain exposure by advertising within casual games

The Big Question this month has become something of a loaded term. Sensationalist headlines like "Has Casual Gaming Killed the AAA?” or “Death of the games console?” could be seen as fear-mongering.  A more balanced view suggests the casual gamer does not mean that the mid-core audience is going to die. Why would it? They are like chalk and cheese offering entirely different games experiences.

Casual games developers have opened up new audiences rather than stamped out existing ones, and in our experience in terms of hiring they have opened up new skills demand areas too. We believe it’s a growth area for games rather than a replacement.

It remains that casual games is a huge and growing market and if you are not already a casual developer, it always makes sense to seriously consider new audiences you want to attract to your game. The underpinning question for mid-core developers is not only how to cater for the casual audience but considering their strategic objectives, whether they want to.

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