The Casual Gamer. A now derogatory term used to pigeon-hole the vast swathes of gamers that have dared to show a fleeting interest in an industry previously reserved for the dedicated, committed and knowledgeable “few” that pursued it before it became “mainstream”. Or some such elitist bollocks.
Now, I could write an entire article exploring the separation of this industry, but instead this piece focuses more on accepting the diversity that tablet gaming, motion controls et al has brought the gaming industry, and how this has shaped the strategy and fortunes of one of its biggest players – Nintendo.
Before we get too far in, it's worth me just clarifying what I will be referring to as a casual gamer. For the purposes of this article when I say 'casual gamer' what I mean is the group of people who wouldn't list gaming as one of their top hobbies or interests, it is instead a minor method of enjoyably passing the time in between other activities. As such they have no need to know the industry in depth, and similarly may not know a lot of what others familiar to gaming may know.
These variances against a more "normal" (or indeed hardcore - shudder) gamer are crucial when you apply them to Nintendo - arguably the company now most synonymous with the casual gamer tag thanks to the overwhelming success of the Wii. No one can deny that the performance of Nintendo's previous console didn't do a lot of good for the games industry. It increased it's potential and target audience massively, and gaming is enjoying a boom as a result. It gets much more exposure and recognition nowadays, and that is partly thanks to the Wii's success in bringing in an additional audience.
But this success has been a bit of a double-edged sword for the gaming behemoth. And they've fallen on it quite a lot in recent years.
First off, let's discuss that synonymous relationship I mentioned earlier. Because of its success of the Wii, Nintendo became the casual gamer company. As if Nintendo didn't have enough stigma against its brand - the 'kiddy console' idiom because their mascots and games aren't covered in varying degrees of brown and grey paint - they now have this additional tag as well. And it's caused a few problems. For starters it creates a negative connotation for developers. Cue the shovelware and quick to market cash-ins to Nintendo machines. It wasn't rare towards the end of the Wii's life (and indeed the current trends on Wii U) to see the console's charts filled with dancing simulator games and Disney or Pixar's latest movie tie-in games.
And then it's a downward spiral of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because gamers see these charts, and what games on the system are given the shelf space in game stores, and it helps reaffirm the image of Nintendo and the "casual" tag it has been given. And it means that they look to other consoles for their less casual games. Couple this with the egotistical mechanic at play where gamers that have been around before the creation of the "casual" gamer era, do not want to be seen to have regressed to this lesser group, they have to make sure they distance themselves from such games and consoles, which again hurts Nintendo.
Developers then look at Nintendo machines, and how the games on it are selling, and it becomes less and less of a decent return on investment to develop games on a Nintendo console. There's no point in developing or even porting a game if you don't think it will sell, and again this hurts the catalogue on Nintendo's consoles and so the spiral continues.
But not all of this is everyone else's doing. Nintendo aren't necessarily innocent bystanders in this shift. Unfortunately for them they are actually in a bit of an unenviable position. The success of the Wii demonstrated to them and to the industry what could be achieved if you tap into the market effectively. And it's clear that this strategy has been evident in how the company has been thinking. It is aware that these new users aren't as competent at games, or have the experience that others may have. But it also knows that it has a core loyal, and experienced fanbase. It's a tough spot to be in, and Nintendo unfortunately has ended up not really pleasing either party.
Take arguably Nintendo's greatest ever game - Ocarina of Time. When Nintendo decided to remake this game on the 3DS, they didn't do much to change the core gameplay, because when you have the highest rated game on Metacritic, you probably don't need to tweak it too much. But even to this title, they felt the need to tweak for the casuals. And so they included visible hints of what to do next if you were stuck on any particular part of the game. Because apparently the best game ever was too hard for millions of teenagers (and younger children) who completed it the first time around, and realising their mistake Nintendo felt the need to provide additional hints. More recent examples are the Luigi walkthroughs on New Super Mario Bros U after you failed a level a few times, and an idiot's guide to the level was presented to you just in case Nintendo thought abject failure wasn't enough humiliation for you.
But it's not even just the games, Nintendo's insistence on reminding me that I should probably take a break every 30 goddamn minutes of playing a Mario game is exhausting. I dread to think what the big wigs with the kid gloves would think if they knew I've gone through many a 5 hour stint solid in the dark, repeatedly dying whilst playing Dark Souls. Most probably in my pants. I'm sure it keeps them up at night - and yes I'm sorry for that mental image.
And on top of that they have released a console in the Wii U that smacks of middle ground uncertainty. It's looks and plays like a tablet game machine but with none of the accessibility or huge gaming catalogue. You see in their effort to create the Wii 2, they've tried to accommodate the newcomers, by making the console easy to use and straightforward - and it is. But so is a tablet, and in fact it's much quicker, you've probably already got one, and you can play Angry Birds on it. But these concessions for the casuals have hurt Nintendo's more loyal fans. The touchscreen controller has pushed up the cost of the machine, and can sometimes create a frustrating point of difference for developers rather than an intriguing one. This leaves the loyal fanbase dwindling in the vain hope of the sparse AAA Nintendo titles they have come to know and love. And that's enough to cause a lot of people to question that loyalty. Some will and have already cashed out for newer, shinier machines, with more promise.
So why throughout all of this do I stay loyal? Why through all of these missteps do I stick with Nintendo? Because believe it or not Nintendo has shown with the emergence of casual gamers exactly what they are all about. And that steadfast belief has paid off in certain areas.
So what has the casual gamer given Nintendo? Well to understand that you need to consider the full term "casual gamer". All of Nintendo's above mistakes have been when they have been focussed on the "casual" part, but their biggest successes have been when they've focussed on the "gamer" part.
For all it's criticism, Nintendo has always stuck to it's guns on a very simple principle. It is a games company. It makes games and games consoles. For gamers. Those priorities have always been there since the days of the NES, and it's that unrelenting philosophy that has given birth to some of the most memorable gaming moment of the last quarter of a century or so. The difficulties it has faced have always been when it's tried to please too many different types of gamers, and this is no more prevalent than when we consider the rise of the casual gamer during the Wii era.
And a philosophy like that should not be overlooked. It can be very easy in today's gaming world to be a sheep, go for the easy buck, and not dare to be different. Nintendo could have gone this way, and their latest console would be more a multimedia machine with bells and whistles, and less about gaming. But Nintendo believes that the reason we all play games is because of the games and nothing else. They are constantly looking for ways to innovate not only the games they produce, but the way we play games as well. Sometimes they win, and sometimes they lose, but for my money, a company with a goal and vision such as this should be applauded in our industry. As Peter Molyneux says, you can't write Nintendo off, because they have a proven track record of bouncing back with something new and exciting which is 100% gaming.
So whilst I belittle the Wii U a lot of the time (despite owning one myself and playing it frequently) it is a symbol of Nintendo doing what they always do - trying to appeal to gamers, be they casual or otherwise. Not even a vast swathe of different gamers halted Nintendo steadfast principles. It means their direction has become a little muddled of late, as pleasing everyone becomes an almost impossible balancing act. But the casual is proof that Nintendo will always hold the gamer in the highest regard.
And let's not forget of course that Nintendo have done a few things right in this respect. Securing unique hotly anticipated titles for Wii U like Bayonetta 2 and X is again Nintendo trying to appeal to gamers at large, and realising they can't rest on their laurels any more. And then of course we have the phenomenal success of the 3DS. Arguably the casual's handheld on the face of it. More gimmicky and less multi-functional and powerful than it's rival the Vita. But the reason it has worked? Because of the games - because of Nintendo putting gamers and their experiences first. Its a lesson Nintendo have taught themselves on how to make themselves popular and relevant in a stage in the company's life where their brand image is at one of it's lowest points. Whether of course they can turn around their console success will be a very different matter entirely.
So on the face of it the birth of the casual gamer, despite bringing remarkable success to Nintendo in terms of profits from the Wii, has been a curse on their success ever since the console launched. It has plagued their brand, which has caused them to lose customers, loyalty and developer interest. All of which are hurting their bottom line business. However when you look a bit deeper, the rise of the casual gamer has also been the acid test of Nintendo's nerve on their gaming philosophy. And it is a test they have passed with flying colours. This approach should be commended, and it's success can be seen in the likes of the performance of the 3DS - but it remains to be seen if this can be passed onto the Wii U
But what are your thoughts on the casual gamer? How else do you think they have impacted the gaming industry, and where do you see their future? Let us know your thoughts below.