Before we start, let’s get one thing straight: Don’t blame Casual Gamers for wanting to have fun. You don’t blame an invasive species for flourishing, and consequently ruining an ecosystem, you blame the vector by which it invaded. In this case, the vector is super publishers throwing Gamers under the bus to chase the casual dollar.
“Casual Gamers are not real Gamers!” is something you’re likely to hear around the internet. Some brush it off as elitism, others trolling, and more still fully believe it. Well I’m here to tell you that it’s true: Casual Gamers and Gamers are different species entirely, similar to how Red Pandas are not related to Giant Pandas. There are two primary, irreconcilable difference that separate Casual Gamers and Gamers:
1) Reasons for investing in hardware/software.
2) Source of fun.
Casual Gamers, on average, do not (directly) spend as much money on their hardware or software. The vast, vast majority of Casual Gamers are playing mobile games, and free to play ones at that. They don’t want to invest $460 + tax to play one game, but they have a smartphone already and just want something to kill time or talk to their friends about.
However, since Casual Gamers have been revealed as such a powerful market force, there has been a large movement to pull them into the traditional gaming sphere, starting with the 7th gen of console gaming. The Wii was most successful at doing so, but most modern HD consoles now advertise themselves as multi-purpose entertainment platforms to some extent. Look at the Xbox One, the Complete All-in-One Games and Entertainment System. Sure it was a misfire, but the idea rings true: Casuals won’t pay $400 for a game console, but an entertainment centerpiece that plays Blu-rays, Music, YouTube, Netflix, Hulu, Crunchy Roll, etc. plus games on their TV is a different story.
Software has skewed towards attracting Casual Gamers as well, with the largest franchises and new IPs reflecting this change. They’ve become “streamlined,” and/or heavily feature social elements. Compare your annual CoD releases to older military FPS games, or CS:GO, and they sacrifice depth for pick up and play Rambo funsies. Cinematic set pieces that look cool and require virtually no effort from players other than holding the joystick in a certain direction and performing a very forgiving QTE, or “pressing the murder button” as I like to call it, have become the norm in the ever more Casual-focused AAA gaming scene. Look at 7th gen Tomb Raider and The Last of Us, as opposed to Devil May Cry 4 or Ninja Gaiden, to see what I mean.
That’s not to say streamlining or cinematic experiences are bad, but it does result in games losing the mastery aspect, and by extension an aspect of competition, that many Gamers enjoyed. Players used to have to get good at a game to be rewarded with awesome looking scenes, but that same flair can now be achieved by pushing X when prompted to do so. This brings us to the more important of the aforementioned distinctions between these classes of gamers: The source of fun.
Back in my day, video games were all about having the “Skillz for the Billz” and bragging rights. Most games were made challenging on purpose, and had a major focus on acquiring skills or knowledge of how to manipulate game systems. If you acquired the skills and succeeded in winning, you felt a tremendous sense of pride. On the flip side, if you failed to acquire said skills, like how to handle a Hammer Bro or Metal Man’s attack pattern, then “F%*k you, start from scratch!”
It was a school of hard knocks upbringing for Gamers of old, and it instilled a focus on skill acquisition that I personally feel to this very day: When a new character action game, which I consider to be the height of single-player skill based games, comes out, I head straight to “the lab” and spend up to 20 hours learning how to rock enemies in style before I make a serious attempt at the game. While I readily admit that I’m on the extreme end of the spectrum, most traditional Gamers want to improve their skills to some extent. That’s why games like Dark Souls, Bloodborne, and Nioh have made such a splash in recent years: In today’s market, they’re some of the few large scale games with an old school focus on skills and punishments.
Casual Gamers on the other hand, become discouraged easily. They just want to have fun with their friends and don’t want to “waste” time learning inputs or dealing with the hassle of not being good enough to succeed or contribute. This isn’t a bad thing inherently. With today’s technology we’re more connected and feel busier than ever, so no one should be blamed for wanting to enjoy their time with friends, especially now that we have less “me-time.”
However, this trait of Casual Gamers is being manipulated for gain by AAA publishers, and it’s killing the gaming industry for Gamers.
Since Casual Gamers derive more fun from just interacting with their friends or enjoying stories than actually building new skills, they have no problem dropping some money on pay-to-win perks to remain competitive. While Gamers almost universally complain about pay-to-win aspects, Casual Gamers greatly outnumber them and are more than willing to drop money on micro-transactions, which also exposes them to the risk of gambling addiction in the form of Lootboxes. AAA publishers now see Casual Gamers as their target audience, not Gamers. That’s why they’re even forcing micro-transactions into singleplayer games, because the complaints of Gamers don’t matter, and they want to establish micro-transactions as the new universal standard.
Soon, all AAA games will be visual spectacles with less unique gameplay than ever before. Just pretty facades covering toxic, micro-transaction-laden products, designed to milk money from Casual Gamers that want to feel powerful without having to put the work in. Simply drop $5-$100 into the electronic Skinner box to get an exotic weapon or unit that can lead you to victory! It’s much more preferable than spending unjustifiably long hours (that the developers made that way on purpose) trying to grind the funds up via gameplay. It’s a lot more profitable than meeting the demands of picky Gamers, and the front-loaded cost of appealing, high-end eye candy prevents smaller developers from getting in on the action.
Gamers will be forced to either accept micro-transactions or the fact AAA games are no longer designed for them. While some may cave, the majority will subsist on smaller AA budget games like Nier Automata, Persona 5, and Mario Odyssey (Mario games are AAA in quality not budget, because Nintendo is great with limited resources), or indie darlings like Cuphead, A Hat in Time, and Shovel Knight. Regardless, a time will come where the current AAA publishers will split from Gamers entirely.
When that day comes, new studios will rise from the AA and indie ranks to meet a demand that is no longer being filled by the likes of EA, WB, or Activision. Until then, Gamers will have to endure shitty micro-transaction practices diluting the games they love.