GDC Online 2011: BioWare's Damion Schubert takes a wrecking ball to the casual vs. hardcore model

GDC - Damion Schubert
"I'm trying to finish a product, Star Wars: The Old Republic, which I am not going to talk about today." Thus began BioWare's Damion Schubert's seminar, Double Coding: Making Online Games for Both the Casual and the Hardcore, at this year's GDC Online. "This is more of a weary man, sort of stream-of-consciousness design theory talk."

Schubert wanted to call the talk "Moving Beyond Double Coding," which is a term that comes from cartoons, of all places. Double coding is content that reaches two different groups of people at the same time. Looney Tunes, for example, would entertain both adults and kids because the writers and animators designed it so.

With MMOs, Schubert says that devs are often trying to double code the games for both casual and hardcore players. This is where the well-known slogan "easy to play, hard to master" originates. He held up Blizzard as a primary example of this model. Blizzard's "donut," as Schubert calls it, has a casual outer ring and a hardcore center for both types of players. By double coding, Blizzard ensures that casual players can invite their hardcore friends to experience the game and vice-versa.

However, this model is faltering, and Schubert pinpoints why after the jump!

Star Wars: The Old Republic
Shades of gray

Even though the double coding model is proven to work in MMOs, Schubert thinks that it's high time the industry moves past it due to its cut-and-dried one-or-the-other approach. Things are, he says, much more complex than "casual" and "hardcore."

Almost anybody can be hardcore in her hobby, no matter her time commitment or number of games played. Seemingly casual activities, such as scrapbooking, do attract hardcore fans, and these hardcore fans, while passionate, may only be involved in one or two aspects (i.e., games) in that hobby.

Likewise, hardcore and casual gamers can be broken down by genre (FPS, social gaming, MMOs) with little to no cross-over between the genres at times. Even the most hardcore of MMO gamers, Schubert says, tend to settle down in one or two "lifestyle" titles instead of spreading their interests across a broad range.

"The more demanding an activity is, the harder it is to have alternatives within that same genre, so you have to focus on just one," Schubert explained. He looked at the frequent discussion that pops up before MMO launches, which is how many subs are players willing to have at one time. This is why hardcores are great for MMOs, since they'll settle down and be loyal longer. Hardcore players not only help subsidize the game but do a wonderful job evangelizing it as well.

World of Warcraft
The path to hardcore gaming

However, he pointed out that nobody is really hardcore on Day One, and game companies have to earn gamers' investment of time and money as they make the transition to a more hardcore focus. Casual gamers become hardcore, and the two are not exclusive; Schubert urged the crowd to get it out of their minds that you're either one or the other with nothing in-between, but instead every player is on a continuum that flows from one style to the other with many incremental steps along the way. As players become more invested, they take emotional ownership of the game and feel more inclined to return to it again and again.

The progress along this spectrum isn't just in one direction; players can and do find their interest and investment in titles waxing and waning. Lack of challenging content, breaks between expansions and patches, and external situations (such as the shutdown of SOE's services following this past spring's hacking attempts) can send a more hardcore player sliding back toward casual-hood. Schubert offered World of Warcraft as a title that's proven remarkably easy for players to put down and pick up as their interest shrinks and grows.

As a developer who's trying to urge players down the path toward a hardcore lifestyle in his game, Schubert says that the most influencing element that he and any dev team has control over is fun. However, fun depends on novelty and surprise. This is why we see fun "front-loaded" into MMOs, as devs are trying to urge players along that path with an increased amount of novelty before they have to back off and slow things down with exponential leveling curves.

"Effectively we're playing a game of chicken with our customers in that regard," he said. "We want to get them to a place where they're invested in the game and where they're seeing different features."

Unfortunately, players who think they're hardcore already want to bypass the hand-holding early stages of the game to get to the deeper content immediately. Schubert says that devs are still wrestling with the problem of hardcore players being unwilling to wade through the casual stages of any MMO.

SWTOR collector's edition
Pain and pleasure

Schubert's theory of game investment -- of progressing down the path to hardcore -- is that it is vital to retaining players when they hit "pain." He defines pain as any moment that gives players cause to re-evaluate their standing with the game. If the pain is greater than the sense of investment, then there's a much higher chance the player will simply quit. Strangely enough, some types of pain can increase investment, such as a player who's stuck at a hard boss for a length of time -- and then beats it, feeling a sense of euphoria as that challenge is overcome.

Conversely, developers need to be careful not to introduce pain early on in the game experience before an investment takes root. One element of pain that's receiving a lot of focus lately is the up-front cost of box sales, as players are asked to make a substantial financial investment before they're able to experience the game. While it is a barrier, Schubert notes that players who do get past it are already invested somewhat in the game and more likely to give it a better chance. Free-to-play eliminate that pain at the cost of a much lower sense of initial investment by players.

Endgame presents a whole new batch of potential pain points, such as a player hitting a progression wall or a feeling of extreme repetition. It's here, Schubert argues, that devs need to give players as much variety as possible so that choice can relieve these instances of pain instead of forcing a confrontation between the pain and that player's investment.

Another danger is for developers to try to reduce the pain by reducing challenge and making the content easier. This alienates the hardcore, who are there to tackle obstacles and prove themselves. Schubert says that developers should instead be looking for ways to "smooth" the ramp for casual players looking to access these endgame challenges.

Hardcore players aren't always helpful in reaching out to casuals, he said. Sometimes they grow too cliquish and elitist, pushing away the players whom developers are hoping to rope in. Instead, Schubert wants to see more incentives given to hardcore players to help casuals, inviting them in and strengthening the bonds that serve to form a stronger investment all around.

This article was originally published on Massively.