Gaming: The casual divide

Last week, Nintendo announced that it would cut the price of its Wii console by $50 to combat slumping sales numbers.

The move says a great deal about the financial success of the Wii, given that this minor price-drop is the console’s first price reduction since its release nearly three years ago.

Contrast the Wii’s relatively consistent price point to its competitor, Sony’s PlayStation 3. Since its launch in 2006, the price of the PS3 has undergone a cumulative $300 price drop and the release of a cheaper-to-make offshoot, the PS3 Slim.

The PS3’s predecessor, the PlayStation 2, sold nearly 140 million units and was the best-selling video game console of all time. Today, the Wii is outselling the PS3 on a two-to-one basis – so what changed?

Shifts in gamer demographics are central to understanding this transformation in sales. Video game players can generally be divided into two groups: “casual” gamers who prefer games with straightforward concepts and “hardcore” gamers who are more invested in game competition and depth.

It is incorrect to compartmentalize all individuals who play video games, or even attempt to find a concrete definition for a casual or hardcore gamer.

That being said, there is a generally agreed-upon division between those who view video games as an informal hobby and those who have a more in-depth investment in the video game medium.

The PS2’s success laid in its ability to simultaneously appeal to hardcore and casual gamers. A look at the top-selling games for that console reveals a diverse list of titles, ranging from the lighter EyeToy and Madden game series to more complex series like Dragon Quest and Metal Gear Solid.

A single, unifying console is nowhere to be seen this generation. Video game players are increasingly polarized by consoles, with casual gamers tending to prefer Nintendo’s Wii, and the more hardcore crowd gravitating towards the PS3 and Microsoft’s Xbox 360.

This polarization, combined with the global recession, has had a profound impact on the gaming industry. Gaming companies are willing to pander to casual gamers because, simply put, they are far less picky.

In cold cost-benefit analysis, a casual game thrown together by some junior programmer is far more cost-effective than a multi-year, blockbuster hardcore title.

But it is clear that video games are quickly approaching a casual ceiling, and that the ability of casual gamers to sustain the industry is rapidly diminishing.

Gaming companies have grown complacent in the ability of casual gamers to buy cheap-to-make titles; this has allowed the market to become saturated with truly awful games.

“So what?” you may argue. “Just because you’re not interested in Hannah Montana: Spotlight World Tour doesn’t mean no one else is.” Though that argument is valid, it is a short-term observation.

Casual gamers are characterized by their lack of brand loyalty and passive attitude towards the gaming medium. When the next flashy technological innovation comes along, the casual market may very well take their money elsewhere.

If and when the well of casual support dries up for those games, companies will be left with their core support of hardcore gamers who have been ignored.

Though game companies may succeed in fostering a sustained loyalty from casual gamers, they are ultimately too shortsighted for the loyalty to persist.

And when the day comes that the casuals have fled, the hardcore crowd, like myself, will remain waiting to be pandered to yet again.

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