Casual vs. Hardcore – Settling the Score

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There’s an idea that’s been haunting video games for years now. It permeates every corner of gaming culture: you can see it on news sites, reviews, conventions big and small, community forums, design discussions, and of course in the games themselves. It’s a specter that silently and insidiously manipulates the way we make games, the way we play games, and the way we think about games. Sometimes it even makes people go crazy and storm forums with internet torches and pitchforks. And worst of all, it creates artificial divisions between people who could otherwise coexist and enjoy themselves.

The ghost? The hardcore vs. casual narrative.

There’s this idea that on one side you have unskilled, nonchalant players who don’t care at all about winning, and on the other side you have these elite warriors who thrill at the thought of dominating their opponents. There’s a spectrum that’s implied, but don’t let that fool you – there’s a war going on between the two factions of gaming, and everything done to appease the casual comes at the expense of the hardcore. Lines have been drawn, and games are either for one or the other.

But the good news is the narrative is a lie! Games don’t have to cater to one of the two camps, and neither games nor people need to carry either of the labels. If a designer doesn’t put himself into a box, he doesn’t have to put his game or his players into a box either. So don’t believe in the narrative. Don’t do it! Even as a player, such thinking can warp your view of a game system and make you believe strange things about it. Take, for example, a self-identified “casual” who took one look at the ranking system in Auro and assumed it meant the game was for “hardcore” players, that he was an outsider, and that the game was for someone else. I mean, games with ranks in them are for hardcore people, right? To prove how tough and badass they are?

The hardcore vs. casual narrative is not a truism. It’s merely a perspective, and it’s a poisonous one that can bring out our worst ideas. Because actually no, ranks aren’t just for hardcore players. In fact, they help to make the play experience better for everyone, “casual” and “hardcore” alike.

In Auro, Match Meets YOU!

Let’s quickly talk about what exactly Auro’s single-player ranking system does. When you play Auro, you play a self-contained game at a difficulty level prescribed by the system. The difficulty level determines the types and quantities of the enemies that show up, as well as the score required to win, and is referred to as a “rank.” If you win a match, you fill a progress bar that brings you closer to the next rank – lose and the bar decrements. Filling the bar entirely will cause you to rank up and be presented with a harder challenge, while if you lose enough, you’ll drop to an easier difficulty. If your win rate is 50/50, you’ll hang out in the same rank until you start to trend one way or the other.

Now, to start talking about how this ranking system improves the game, we need to talk about another hardcore myth: that games need to be punishingly hard. This is particularly relevant to Auro since punishing difficulty is a common trope of single-player games. The most common form of “punishment” by far is “go back to the beginning,” and that goes back as far as the NES days. Have you ever played an NES Mario game and thought “Man, I’ve played through level 1-1 a hundred times, I wish I could just skip it!” One of the aspects of the Mario series that elevated it over other platformers of its era was the very practical warp zone concept – thanks to the ability to skip levels, you don’t have to slog through the simple stuff you’ve played a hundred times. For those who remember, can you imagine playing Super Mario Bros. 3 beginning to end – without skipping levels – in one play session? Every time? SMB3 is a loooong game!

Even more relevant are roguelike systems. Not only does Auro draw some inspiration from them, but they also exemplify the “go back to the beginning” issue more than any other kind of game. Why does it feel so punishing when you die in a roguelike? Because when you start a new game, you spend an obnoxious amount of time playing through the early levels you’ve already mastered. Maybe those early levels are fun for a while as you bask in how well you’re doing and how much you can breeze by. You don’t need to be a “hardcore” to enjoy that! But over time, you start to sigh and say, ”Looks like I gotta go through that early part again…” It’s not wrong to be annoyed! You’re not giving up your “hardcore” status! The game is literally wasting your time by sending you through the same old content that you can play in your sleep.

To see what I mean, imagine if all the different skill ranks of Auro look roughly like this:

 

Skill-o-Meter

 

What would it be like if these skill ranks were instead played in the manner of a traditional roguelike? Here’s how it would go down: instead of playing a game at just one level, you play the game by starting at Slime level on the far left and going through each and every stage until you defeat Argo at the end on the far right. The game takes about two hours to play front to back (a tremendously conservative estimate for a roguelike). But that’s a terrible format for learning this game! The difficulty of the game ramps up much faster than your ability to learn it. So on your first few tries, you inevitably land yourself in a situation that looks unwinnable because you don’t even understand what’s going on anymore. Say you got past the Slime and Rat levels, but got to Trickster and lost. It’s probably because you made some mistakes at Rat that set the stage for your loss later. But how were you supposed to know? You’ve never seen the game at Trickster, and it’s probably too complicated for you this early in your play experience.

So you start a new game back at Slime level. It’s probably not that bad at first because at least you understand the game at that level, and it’s kind of a relief after getting completely trounced by Trickster. You play a few more games where you more or less figure out how to succeed at Trickster, but then you immediately lose at Foxy level. Okay, the game is getting more complicated and difficult, but you’re learning it, and you’re getting there. But wait, no, back to Slime level. By the time you get to Bat and Brute levels, Slime level is really starting to grate on you. “Yes, I get it!” you say. “What I’m really having trouble with is Brute! Can’t I just practice at that?” And back to Slime you go. Some people are so turned-off by the “back to the beginning” aspect of roguelikes, especially long ones, that they won’t even consider playing them.

Auro throws “back to the beginning” out the window and instead uses persistent skill ranks. Every time you play the game, you play at your current rank. So if you’re skilled enough to play at Foxy level, you play at Foxy level, and if you win, you start to rank up toward Bat level. By taking levels of difficulty and treating them as skill ranks to be attained instead of a collection of stages that all need to be played, Auro lets you skip right to the spot where you’re having trouble. It uses a placement match to put you in the right spot right away. Then the game uses your win/loss data to figure out where you’re having trouble and adjusts your rank accordingly. The ranking system thereby puts you in the best possible place to learn and improve. You get to play the game where it’s most relevant to you personally. Ranking you down isn’t about “punishing” you, as the hardcore vs. casual narrative would have you believe. It’s about saving you the frustration of stuff that’s (as of yet) too complicated for you. On the flip side, it also avoids frustration by not making you play Rank 1 in every game forever.

We can even take this a step further: ranking systems in “hardcore” multiplayer competitive games are the exact same way. Ranking up on a competitive ladder can be satisfying, yes, but it’s a gross error to think that stroking the egos of alpha-male hardcores is its primary purpose. Separating everyone by skill level benefits everyone who plays – you learn more from playing against people at your skill level, plus the matches are more exciting! So the next time you rank down in your competitive game of choice, maybe take some solace in the fact that your matches are going to get a little less frustratingly crushing. Yeah, it’s disappointing, no doubt about that, but try not to translate a rank-down as the game yelling, “YOU SUCK!!” Try to look at it instead as the game dialing things back a notch to allow your skills time to catch up. See it as the game doing you a favor rather than taunting you for getting REKT. And maybe consider how silly it is to play unranked matches in order to “protect your ranking.” Sure, a number somewhere doesn’t go down, but in a very real sense what you’re actually saying is, “I don’t want good matchmaking!” All you’re doing is interfering with the game’s ability to place you properly and give you the best play experience. Ladder anxiety may feel natural, but overcoming it can help you to have a more positive attitude and more fun when you play.

A Note on High Score

One suggestion that came up as an alternative to ranks is the traditional high score model. Can’t we bypass all the ranking stress by having a high score thing going on in the background that you can just ignore if you’re not feeling it? Unfortunately, using a high score model completely dismantles the improvements Auro has been trying to make. And when you think about your average high score game, it’s not hard to figure out why.

Let’s go back to the rank progression from above. If your goal now is to get the highest score you can, that has a really detrimental effect on the whole design. Now people who start at Brute level are at a severe disadvantage: they skip all the free points they could’ve gotten in the first half of the stage progression. That means we basically can’t start people right at the skill level where they’ll learn best – to do so cuts off their potential score. No, now we have no choice but to make them slog through the early levels and a bunch of boring stuff they’ve already figured out – the very thing we were trying to avoid! Players aren’t choosing to go through the easy and boring bits because they want to – they do it because in a literal sense the high score model is incentivizing boredom. A game that should take five minutes – just Foxy rank, say – now takes an hour or more as players play through every single rank from Slime to Argo, every single game. And this only gets worse: as the player increases in skill and gets better scores, his games get longer and longer to accommodate the time he needs to build on that score. This phenomenon culminates in games that last seven and a half hours! If that’s not hardcore, I don’t know what is.

But it’s those unreasonable aspects of the hardcore narrative that are the true problem here. Auro’s ranking system isn’t meant to fix a problem with games being “fair” or trying to find the “best player EVAR!!!” It’s meant to fix the problem of making good use of players’ time. And that’s every player’s time, not just the “hardcore,” not just the “casuals.” EVERYONE gets a good play experience. And from this perspective, we start to see how damaging the hardcore vs. casual narrative can really be. Maybe you can classify hardcore players as more dedicated than casuals, but designers need to be careful not to abuse that dedication. Players who are willing to self-label as hardcore are also willing to go to great lengths to prove it. Knowing that, designers should respect their dedication by not creating scenarios in their games that ask players to do ludicrous, even unhealthy things. If players are trying to prove they’re the best at your game, you, the designer, are responsible for what “best” means in the first place and what behaviors signify that. Design something that’s fun, but also remember to design something that’s humane.

And if you’re a player, don’t feel obligated to alter your entire lifestyle just to play someone’s game well – or at all. Don’t worry about whether that makes you hardcore or casual. If you want something to excel at, there’s no shortage of things to try, both in and out of games. Don’t be afraid to ask yourself if what a game asks of you is even reasonable, and definitely don’t be afraid to say no! Don’t let the hardcore image and its overinflated sense of ego cloud your judgement. Why choose to see things through those glasses? Take them off, enjoy games on your own terms, and you’ll have a much better time playing them.

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5 thoughts on “Casual vs. Hardcore – Settling the Score

  1. Jamie January 6, 2016 / 6:15 pm

    The spelunky link seemed out of place.

    • The Ludite January 10, 2016 / 3:12 pm

      The reason for the link is that with the way that games of Spelunky are structured, you get to the point where if you want to get a better score, you have to play longer and longer games to even get close. High score games are extremely prone to this phenomenon – Donkey Kong is another famous example where the best players had to play incredibly long games to improve their score. Check out the film King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters to get a sense of the grueling play sessions players had to endure.

      The Spelunky link is no different: in order to get the high score at the time, Bananasaurus_Rex put in a seven-and-a-half hour session where he ghosted every single gem of every single level and broke every single brick to squeeze every dollar out of every stage. On top of that, the run was predicated on countless hours of seed combing, where he repeatedly abandoned games until he randomly generated what he wanted: a plasma cannon on level 1-1 and a jetpack on level 1-2. Without those two items, whose chances of appearing in that sequence are astronomically low, the run would never have happened.

      So the 7.5 hour run is actually kind of deceptive, because you have to add onto that number untold more hours where he basically didn’t get to play – the seed just wasn’t worth playing. You can read more about the problems with Spelunky’s scoring system (and high score in general) in my previous article on the topic. The point is that players who want to improve their skill shouldn’t be asked to set aside a whole day just to play a single session, nor should they be asked to bore themselves to generate the perfect random seed. The reason is because they’ll do it. The Spelunky link is evidence of that.

      The point is that as hardcore as these players may be, and as commendable their dedication, it’s also a huge problem that they had to go to such lengths to do it. It’s a problem that is completely within the game designer’s power to fix, and it’s a problem with a solution! The Auro ranking system is just one way we can fix it, and I’m sure we’ll come up with others. But in order to fix the problem, we have to state it AS a problem first, and right now I see too many voices mired in how amazing it is that these players are putting in these inexcusably long, marathon sessions.

      The point is that we need to allow players to distinguish themselves without asking them to endure that kind of punishment. The hardcore narrative has elements of players who care about their performance as well as elements of players willing to put up with unreasonable demands that games make of them. How about we keep the former and ditch the latter? Because encouraging people to miss sleep over a game seems unhealthy.

  2. Dasick January 13, 2016 / 1:28 pm

    The problem with “auro’s punitive high-score system” was a lack of elasticity combined with safe options. The multiplier system eventually got shafted in favour of the bonus points, which kept getting nerfed and nerfed. The tension the game was always trying to set up was “spend health for lots of points vs get a few points safely”. Those were never equal payoffs, and they still aren’t. For this thing to be a non-false decision, you need to be able to get 1/7th of the ‘target score’ per health point. But the points-per-health trade-offs have a very hard cap. It’s kinda better now, but at the cost of severely limiting the game’s possibility space.

    If you want to see a scoring system done right, see Puzzle Pirates. Most of their minigames (which are variations of abstract score-attack games) give huge score payoffs for big chains (it’s uncapped and scales more or less exponentially) AND you can lose progress if all you do are basic combos. The format is a little different and would need adjusting for a match-based game, but that is what score-based games should be going for in the first place.

    • The Ludite January 13, 2016 / 7:04 pm

      From what I remember, one major reason for the combo-meter cap is to limit just how much the player can benefit from a particularly favorable setup. If monster generation causes things to line up just right on their own, it’s kind of a gimme boon, but the combo cap limits how much of the game was just handed to you. I worry about uncapped, exponential combo scaling since it can sort of give the designer a “blind spot” where one big combo can win the game unexpectedly, thus bypassing the whole arc of the game. In the wrong game (see: Candy Crush) it can even leave winning and losing to pure, random chance.

      I’m sure that’s not the case for Puzzle Pirates, but I think it’s interesting to note that you WILL lose games of Auro at high skill ranks if, as you say, “All you do are basic combos.” It seems like the same end is achieved without the design liability of uncapped score explosion. I’ll definitely check out Puzzle Pirates, though, to see exactly what you mean.

      Thanks for the comment!

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