There is no such thing as a "casual game". Firstly, I want to discuss what we think the word means to begin with. Wikipedia's page for Casual Game says:
"A casual game is a video game or online game targeted at or used by a mass audience of casual gamers."
Well, firstly, what game wouldn't like a mass audience? There are probably some, but they are so few that it's basically negligible. Also this doesn't seem to separate it from what people consider "hardcore" games - are XBox FPS games going for a small audience? And the second part, "audience of casual gamers" is just using the word in the definition, so that doesn't help us.
"Casual games can have any type of gameplay, and fit in any genre."
Still no information...
"They are typically distinguished by their simple rules and lack of commitment required in contrast to more complex hardcore games."
Here's where we get to the crux of my argument. Simple rules? Lack of commitment? I think this statement is completely false. "Simple rules" is a design goal for any game - you always want your game to be as simple as it can possibly be for whatever you want to express... sometimes this may end up being somewhat complex, but you still strive for simplicity as much as you can. An example is Civilization V cutting out the religion mechanic, or Team Fortress 2 cutting out the armor mechanic - whether or not you agree with these decisions, they were made in an effort to keep it simple. Some of the greatest, and most hardcore games ever made have some of the simplest rules you will ever find. Look no further than the game "Go" for a prime example of this. It doesn't get any more deep and competitive, and it doesn't get any more simple than "Go". So simple rules is not something we can use to define "casual games".
How about this "lack of commitment" thing - it means that you don't have to invest a lot of time, money, or effort in order to get playing. Again, isn't this a design goal of ALL games? What developer would ever be like, "Well, we want players to have to jump through a bunch of unnecessary hoops before they can really start to enjoy themselves". You may be thinking "I feel like a LOT of developers do that" - but they never intentionally make their games boring. If you play a game and feel like it's making you jump through hoops before you can get to the fun part, then that is simply a poorly designed game. A well designed game should be easy for all players to get into. "Easy to learn, difficult to master" is the mantra. No game developer intentionally places obstacles between his players and his game. Publishers and hardware developers - they do create obstacles in video game consoles, but their goal is never to create obstacles, their goal is to make a good platform that will make them money.
Maybe your argument is "well, a casual game has only a few buttons you have to press, whereas a hardcore game has like 20 or more different buttons and combos that you have to learn." My counter to this would be that those games with 20 or more button combinations are more than likely not as well designed as they could be. I am a huge roguelike fan, for instance, but could the interface for Nethack be improved upon? Hell yes it could. Dwarf Fortress also comes to mind!
Another popular idea of what defines a casual game is difficulty - specifically, lack of difficulty. It is said that a casual game should be easy, whereas a hardcore game should be hard. I believe that both of these are incorrect. Again, the goal is to make a good game, and a well designed game has what I call "balanced difficulty". All games, in order to be fun, require a good level of challenge. Without the real, honest threat of failure looming, there is nothing to create tension, and nothing for the player to feel good about once he has mastered the skill required to overcome the challenge. In short, all games need to be at least "somewhat hard" - I'm not any more a proponent of brick-wall difficulty than I am of Kirby's Epic Yarn, in which failure is completely impossible.
In short, we need to get rid of this idea that there are "casual" and "hardcore" games. We need to shoot for something that everyone who likes games at all will like: good games. Tetris, Super Mario Brothers, Chess, Soccer - these are all both "casual games" and a "hardcore games". And that's what we should all be aspiring to.
My name is Keith Burgun. I'm a game designer, artist, and composer primarily, but I also like to write about various topics regarding games. I've been writing for many years for other sites and a personal blog of my own, and in that time I've established some themes, which tend to recur in my writing. In this post, I'll share with you some of these themes, and you can be the judge as to whether I'm the kind of blogger you'd like to read regularly.
1. Games (computer or otherwise) are defined by gameplay, and therefore I think gameplay should come first when creating a game. Some games coming out these days should have been books or movies or something else entirely; they would simply have been better had they been created in a medium that supported their goal. Designers should think hard about what their idea's goal is, and figure out if "game" is the best medium for it or not.
2. Games should have a strong design philosophy behind them. Games should have a direct purpose, and all of the elements and mechanics in the game should be there to support that purpose. Also, all of the music, artwork, UI and other assets should be there to serve the game's purpose. Less is more - a mechanic which does not support the primary goal of the game is noise. Game Design is as much an art and a craft as music or visual arts or anything else.
3. Games don't get worse over time. All the time, I hear nonsense like "Galaga was really good for its time!" and "Mario 64 still looks good!". These sorts of statements are totally absurd, because Gradius and Mario 64 are exactly as much fun and look exactly the same as they did on the day they were released. I've worked in the retail industry and I can tell you that this idea is nothing but irrational consumerism. "The Sistine Chapel was really beautiful, for its time." That's what you sound like to me. Also, if you look back at a game from the past that you used to love, but now you see very clearly that it actually isn't good, it was never good, you were wrong.
4. We need to separate "games" from "technology". All games require some level of technology, but we need to be able to mentally distinguish the game from the media it is on, and that's not something we've been very good at with computer games. A good game is a good game, whether it's on an Atari 2600 or an XBox 360.
5. Formal game reviews do not exist. If you look through sites found on MetaCritic or on the newsstand, you'll find only catalogs. You might not realize how many people think that Game Informer is actually a legitimate publication. You're better off reading the opinions of random people (like myself) than you are reading a review for Kirby's Epic Yarn on a site that has Kirby's Epic Yarn banners all over it. These companies are nothing more but the media arm of the industry.
6. The video game industry is currently in an artificially bloated, non-sustainable state. We're already starting to see cracks forming as the industry sees more and more losses. For the longest time, they were able to keep the echo chamber loaded with hype, and they could rely on people not remembering what happened even a year ago so that they can sell you the same game, over and over and over again. Due to the rise of independent teams and the Internet (full of sites like Destructoid), I am positive that this will change, and I think it will change soon.
7. Games are not a new thing. Games are not only an art form, they are one of the oldest art forms that exist. Computer game designers need to start realizing that the history of games goes back as far as that of music. Just as a good composer studies everything he can from the beginning of recorded music, a game designer should study everything from Go to Chess to Badminton. Especially Go.
Thanks for reading this list! I welcome discussion about these issues, and look forward to talking to you people more.
[i]If you want to know a little more about me (or if you hate everything I've said but rather than refuting it you'd rather go ad hominem on my ass), look up my first commercial game, 100 Rogues.