Like most terms, this one does have a useful origin. It started in the early days of online gaming, days when someone thought that it would be great fun to have a game in which you have to take four weeks of real time to build a pretend house with pretend things, or equally often, that it'd be neat to have a monster that spawns once every 12 hours and drops the best staff in the game if you can kill him.
These times were comparable to the Wild West. Not in the sense that they were filthy, dangerous, and quickly pointless, although that's all true too, but in the sense that some people looked at this and said "that sounds totally cool" and entered a life that revolved around these crazy virtual worlds. But there was also another voice, a group of players who said "Hey, wouldn't it be cool if we could just log in and play these games without having to deal with all this insanity?"
At this point, "casual" was a meaningful distinction. These were players who didn't have the time to devote to these activities, or at least decided that they weren't going to take part in any such tomfoolery. (Whether that's due to a lack of discipline or a desire to live a normal human life is in the eye of the beholder, since any such discussion inevitably will involve the father of five who works three jobs and volunteers at homeless shelters while still finding time for a rotating progression raid schedule of seven hours a night.) Of course, at this point there were also about two games out that could be called an MMO, so comparisons were pretty stark.
Fast-forward to, well, now -- a time when the label of casual is used for pretty much every single group of players, sometimes to indicate the Other Side, sometimes as The One True Group. And in either use, it's meaningless because "casual" as it's used in these debates means virtually nothing. There are so many different playstyles now that casual is at best an indicator of degree, and most of the time not even that.
Rather than use a hypothetical, I'm going to use myself as an example. I play, on average, about three hours of games a night. I hit max level in pretty much every MMO that I play, and usually I at least start sinking my teeth into the endgame. I don't usually go very far, however, mostly because that's the point when it starts to get boring for me. Frankly, I'm more interested in character building, roleplaying, and challenging solo content than big large-group endgame activities. I'm currently subscribed to several games, and that's not counting the single-player and multiplayer stuff I play outside of MMOs.
So am I casual? I mean, I don't like the big-group endgame fiesta you can find in a lot of games, but I also know enough to get started and do well when I take part. I certainly play a lot of hours. I've played a lot of games. I don't consider myself casual, but I don't consider myself to be a hardcore player in a lot of respects.
The thing is, I know players who consider themselves in the "casual" range who have an entirely different set of priorities. I have casual friends who love grouped content and loathe roleplaying but don't log many hours in. I have friends who love PvP but don't really get competitive about it. And there are more variations on the formula, people who want more options for casual raiding or casual progression or casual almost anything else.
How can any company -- ever -- hope to meet those demands? There's not even a firm definition of what casual is. Back when there was a minority of player types and a minority options, sure, it meant something. That was roughly forever ago in internet time.
"Casual" usually means "less time-intensive," but even that sounds vague. To me, two months of work at 40 minutes a day sounds like a perfectly plotted casual progression path -- it's a little work each day, so you can do it without having to really sit down and grind. But for some people, that's the opposite of what they want. They don't log in often, but when they do, they want to be able to just grind. They'd rather have a straight match of eight five-hour sessions to progress, even if the net amount of time taken is identical.
In other word, it's a term that becomes actively harmful. It dilutes any message that players have. Saying "We, as casuals, want more character options!" could mean anything from "I'm casually doing raid-type content and want more possible upgrades" to "I like to roleplay and don't care much about the actual level aspect, so I want more chances to visually distinguish myself."
If you think casual players are ruining your game, you're wrong. There isn't a group of casual players. There are players who fit certain profiles that are similar to being casual, but there's no group of casuals that is saving, ruining, fixing, damaging, or doing anything to the game. There are just players, and the labels really don't work any longer with the breadth of gaming available these days.
And as long as we're rewriting gamer vocabulary, let's get rid of "mob" as well. OK?
Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!