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The useful distinction between casual and hardcore

Dawn Moore

Earlier this week, WoW Insider's Matthew Rossi argued that there is no point in distinguishing between hardcore and casual players, and that doing so actually detracts from the game. I, however, don't agree and will be presenting a counterpoint in this article. So, if you haven't read Rossi's side yet, be sure to check it out first.

Now before I explain why I think the distinction between hardcore and casual is useful, I think it's necessary that we all be on the same page as far as what hardcore and casual actually are. I found Rossi's argument against the usage of these words particularly flawed because he was working around an assumed and rigid definition of what a hardcore player and a casual player are. Toward the end of his article he pointed out that the casual/hardcore metric doesn't work when you consider the various ways in which some players are engaging with the game. Not every player raids, he explained, but that doesn't mean they can't be hardcore.

Now, I agree with that for the most part, but I disagree with his understanding of hardcore and casual. You see, hardcore and casual are not and have never been part of any metric. It's actually impossible for them to have ever been since the definition of casual and hardcore is subjective. Ask any two people what kind of behavior distinguishes a casual player from a hardcore player and the answer will be different in some way ... And if the definition of something varies from person to person, it can't logically be used as a standard of measurement.

So what is hardcore and casual, then?

There was a time when, if you asked me, I would have told you I played WoW hardcore. It was a time when I raided for 25 hours a week, played for even more, and had the pleasure of watching bosses drop dead long before they were nerfed. Regardless of how much time I put in though, I still knew there was more I could have been doing, and that there were thousands of other players actively doing just that. And not other raiders, other players. Whether they were playing the auction house or stacking up mounts was irrelevant to me ... I knew that there were many aspects to the game that others took seriously, even if I largely ignored those features myself. In my mind, I always thought of those players as being hardcore too, but they usually opted for more descriptive labels like altholic or achievement junkie.

So when someone asked me for the first time to define hardcore and casual, I concluded that hardcore and casual were mentalities -- schools of thought, even -- that players could adopt when playing the game. Not the whole game (though that's certainly allowed, too) but the various aspects of it. So just as Rossi said, you can have a player who is hardcore at the auction house, but casual at raiding. Or a player who is hardcore at leveling up alts but casual when it comes to gearing them past 5-man dungeons.

This more flexible definition of the term hardcore is what allowed me to keep calling myself that, even when I went from raiding five days a week in A-Team to raiding three days a week in Arathian Knights. Both guilds were hardcore -- in fact, Arathian Knights was higher ranked despite raiding less hours -- because both guilds decided to take a serious approach to raiding. So when it came to membership, both guilds used performance as the determining factor, not veteran status or friendship. When facing a boss that no other group in the world had killed, both guilds chose to bang their heads against it even though there was no realistic chance of us killing it until we had another guild's kill video to work off of. These things are just what hardcore guilds do, just as most hardcore pet collectors will charge head first into the game's most horrendous reputation grinds to acquire a single pet.
The useful distinction between casual and hardcore
The value in the distinction

With a more functional definition of hardcore and casual, let's consider why these distinctions have value. First of all, one has to consider the discourse that has come out of all of this. For years and years, players have been arguing on the forums about hardcore raiding vs. casual raiding. From a game designer's standpoint, this could be frustrating to observe, but also very insightful. When held alongside the raw data collected from servers, game designers can better understand what players want by comparing what they say and what they do. That in turn can be used to better develop the game's features in ways that support all players.

[I actually feel like this is why raiding is where it is right now. I'm of the opinion that raiding in Mists of Pandaria is better than it's ever been because it caters to all types of players. LFR is ideal for the player who wants to log on for an hour or two on the weekend. It's also much more refined than it was during Dragon Soul in that the difficulty scales appropriately as you progress through the various parts of Throne of Thunder. The normal modes are well-tuned for players who play just a few days a week, offering a mechanical challenge without demanding absolute perfection every second of the fight. For players with the time or skill to advance into heroic ToT, fight difficulty scales nicely as you progress through the raid. Finally, heroic Lei Shen presents the main course for raiders in the top guilds like Paragon and Blood Legion, as it's a truly brutal fight designed with the best of the best in mind. In this tier no group has been left out, which is pretty amazing if you consider where we were a year ago or three years ago.]

The useful distinction between casual and hardcore

But far more important than the design benefit, is the social benefit that comes from distinguishing hardcore players from casual players. In most walks of life we seek out people like ourselves to enjoy hobbies with. So let's say you like Magic: The Gathering ... You're going to want to find people to play Magic with, right? But what if the people in your immediate social circle aren't the right people to play with? Maybe you get bored playing against them because there is a skill gap you can't seem to close through instruction. Or maybe you're perfectly happy playing against lesser skilled players, but they get upset because you're so much better than them. And for those of you familiar MTG, maybe it's something more specific ... Maybe your friends prefer drafts and you want to play constructed.

In a situation such as this, I think most people would find it completely reasonable for you to seek out other players whose interest and skill level matches your own. It's easy to understand that for you to enjoy Magic: The Gathering, you need to be able to play it with people who are similar to you. Well, that's exactly how it is in WoW when it comes to finding friends to play the game with, whether you're raiding, PvPing, battling pets, or controlling a server economy with an in-game hedge firm (that last thing really does exist, believe it or not.)

And this is why having terms like casual and hardcore are so important. It helps us find players similar to us in a massive online game with millions of players. Whether you're tracking down a new guild in the recruitment forums or the in-game guild finder, those keywords "casual" and "hardcore" are going to help you filter the results. The value in having the distinction comes from indirectly allowing us to enjoy the game more. And sure, some players might take those distinctions too seriously and refuse to interact with players of another group, but how is that any different than real life?

What do you think?

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