Guest Column: “Is Casual Killing the Core?” PAX panel

Infendo was lucky enough this morning to hear from a reader who attended PAX last weekend, and his on-the-scene reporting is pretty timely, given the gaming landscape today.

“El Hajjish” attended the “Is Casual Gaming Killing Core Gaming?” panel, which featured Start Trek actor and uber geek Wil Wheaton, no less. If anyone can guess how the panel progressed before you read this column, congrats, you’ve probably been reading Infendo for a while now. For the rest of you, take a read. It’s a good way to start your morning.

I was lucky enough to attend PAX this year and I couldn’t resist attending panel discussion called “Is Casual Killing Core Gaming?” that I think sheds a some light about the fears that some core gamers have. I have a quick summary and some thoughts on the content that relates to this casual/core thing.

Sorry if this reads a bit like a rant, but the session got me all riled up and I needed to write my thoughts down even now, a few days later.

First of all, Wil Wheaton was a panelist! There was also representatives from Microsoft, Co-optimus, and others. …but Wil Wheaton!

The panel discussion was broken up into four questions, which I honestly felt missed the point. Here they are:

  • Should achievements be a trophy or a participation ribbon?
  • Should controls be simpler?
  • Do high end 3-D graphics still matter?
  • Should the focus of multiplayer be cooperative or competitive?

I feel that these questions do not get to the heart of the issue, and I would have gone with different questions. The answer to all four of these questions is “it depends on the game.” …and that was pretty much what the panelists said.

However, I do think that these questions illustrate that those core gamers who hate casual fear that their hardcore games will get watered down so that companies can appeal to the growing casual market. The sense I got is that they feel that for every casual game sold, that sends a market signal that companies should make more casual games and fewer core games. One audience member talked about something being nerfed in Splinter Cell Online – I had no idea what he was talking about, but he saw this as a sign of the game being ruined to appeal to a more casual audience. A panelist responded by suggesting that perhaps core gamers should be prepared to pay more for the very “hardcore” titles, as games that aren’t accessible to a larger audience will have to make more profit per sale if it can’t sell in high volumes, especially with rising development costs. This gets into the questions I thought should have framed the panel discussion:

What is a casual game?

First of all, many hardcore gamers can’t define what it is that they are so upset about. If the definition of a casual game is a moving target, how can you worry that it is going to ruin your hobby? Also, many people seem to confuse a “casual” game with a “bad” game.

Are core games at risk?

There seems to be a misconception that casual and core games can’t co-exist, and that every dollar spent on a casual game is a dollar taken away from a core game. Casual gaming, however, is about market expansion. I don’t believe that many people buying Nintendogs or Imagine: Babyz are giving up Grand Theft Auto to do so. These are new gamers who are bringing more money to game developers. On top of this, there seem to be loads of core games coming out for all systems and the PC. One trip upstairs to the PAX exhibition hall would reveal that there are loads of core games on the way.

If core games are “sick” are casual games a symptom or a cause?

This is perhaps the most important question for people to ask. If core gaming is getting less hardcore, is casual gaming responsible, or is casual gaming a response to that decline? There are loads of stories about rising development costs, the difficulties of selling games to an aging gamer population who now have mortgages and families and other challenges that traditional big budget core games face. Big budget games are riskier and can sink a company if they fail, and many companies are going with low-risk projects that bring in profits to buffer against the risk of a big budget title.

Does a casual gaming future mean a greater variety of games or just simpler games all around?

This is what I think the four questions that were asked at the panel discussion were trying to get at. There was not that much discussion about the impact of a glut of casual games but moreso on the fear of watering down cherished franchises to appeal to that broader audience. From what I’ve seen, it seems that we can expect that there will be more variety of games. I saw so many core titles at PAX, I honestly don’t see any watering down of core titles on the horizon. Improvements for accessibility, sure, but I don’t think Gears of War is going to have go casual any time soon.

A number of questions were fielded by audience members and the Wii was discussed. One panelist made it very clear that he felt that the Wii was ruining core gaming by diverting resources from games he likes to “a bunch of games using that waggle wand to flail around like a monkey”. Ouch.

Generally, I felt that it was a very interesting discussion, but it didn’t really address the topic properly. I had hoped to ask my questions at the end, but alas, I ran out of time. Maybe next year.

Best line from a panelist: “These angry core gamers are on the forums ranting about the casuals, but the casual gamers – they’re just playing some games and having fun.”

Here’s were I would continue to to rant about gamer elitism and territorialism, but I’ve gone on long enough.

— El Hajjish

Blake’s Thoughts: Casual didn’t kill core gaming, your mom did. In other words, casual isn’t killing anything, it’s just that insecure insiders and long-time gamers who want to exclude the “new” are a dying breed and they know it. So they hold panels and forum discussions like this to cope.