I talk to a lot of indie game developers through my game marketing discord, I consult, I review funding pitch documents, I do lots of Q&As, and one weird thing that I see a lot of indies do is say they are making a “casual” game.
I hear the pitch all the time. “We are making a casual strategy game.” “We are making a souls-like but for a casual audience.”
I was afraid it was just some weird recency bias infecting my brain so I consulted my oracle: Video Game Insights. It turns out my hunch was correct: 42.8% of indie games have the casual tag.
While only 12.5% of AAA games do that.
I think trying to target a “casual” audience is a mistake for small indie game developers. In today’s blog post I want to explain why.
But first let me define casual vs hardcore
In my conversations with Indie devs I always try to suss out who exactly they picture when they say they are trying to appeal to a “casual audience.” The composite of their responses is something like this picture:
This picture comes from the Nintendo Switch announcement commercial.
Indie Devs who say they make “casual” games do so to appeal to people who aren’t 100% consumed by games and who aren’t self-identified gamers. They want their games to appeal to a crowd that would probably be more happy spending their Saturday evening at a golden-sun-dappled rooftop party among folks clad in well accessorized outfits holding solo cups (why are there so many in that picture?). These people seem nice! In fact, I want to hang out with them!
Chris Zukowski speaking here… I personally identify as them! I don’t think of myself as a hardcore gamer despite my full-time job is in the game’s industry. The people in this picture are “casually” consuming a game. Good for them! Yes I want these people to love the games I make.
By targeting “casuals,” indie devs think they can broaden their appeal away from the platonic “hardcore” gamer. When I ask these indie devs what they think about a hardcore gamer, their composite description is something like this:
Or like this
And hardcore gamers wear shirts that go hard like this
The fear is that if you were to ask a theoretical “hardcore gamer” to buy your boutique indie game they would blow vape smoke in your face while they shadowban you on Reddit for posting about your game that doesn’t support 10240×4320 resolution. This platonic “hardcore” gamer is intimidating and I think is one of the big reasons many indies say they would rather target their game towards a theoretical “casual.”
My theory is that the casual tag is a defense mechanism, almost a talisman, to ward off that hard core gamer who will yell at you for not being a “real gamer.”
But I think this perception of the hardcore gamer is wrong and that targeting a “casual gamer” is hurting your chances of successfully selling your game. In today’s blog I want to make sure you aren’t making this mistake.
But first here is my definition of hardcore vs casual.
My definition of what a hardcore vs casual player
The definitions I build here come from the customer research I have done for clients and my own profile of gamers and how they shop for during Steam Sales and how they evaluate steam pages. I also gave a GDC talk about this which you can watch here.
- Play at least 20 hours of games a week
- Learn about new games by reading and researching the industry either through social media or news sites or Discords or watching streamers
- Follow game studios and anticipate their upcoming releases
- Know their preferred genres, play multiple games a year in each of these genres and know how it has evolved and what the trends are
- Recommend games to their friends and wish they had more people who shared their passion as much as they do so they try to get their friends into it
- Own a LOT of games mostly by buying games at every steam sale, or by going through bundle sites like Humble Bundle
- Regularly 100% a game if they like it
- Have strong opinions about what they like about a game. BUT that doesn’t mean all hardcore gamers are edgelords who are going to flame you for not knowing the deep history. They just care about their hobby
- Don’t care whether a game is Indie vs AAA and think a good game is a good game
- Love LOOOOONG games with lots of content and depth that they can sink their teeth into. They don’t want simplified mechanics unless it is simplifying a tedious mechanic that doesn’t bring them joy.
Side note: A hardcore player doesn’t mean they only play Call of Duty. They may be hardcore about obscure Japanese visual novels or actual classical rogue games (and have very strong opinions about -like or -lite)
The stereotype of a hardcore gamer as a competitive shooter fan is incorrect and ignoring them is drastically reducing audience potential on platforms favored by them like Steam.
- Buy only one or two games a year
- Typically buy AAA because that is all they ever hear about
- Don’t really follow industry news
- Don’t follow studios or gaming personalities on social media
- Get their game recommendations from their friends who might be hardcore gamers
- Don’t know the history of the game and their genres.
- At one point played a lot of games – typically as a kid or when in college but have since turned away from the hobby.
- Occasionally deep dive a single game. For instance they might absolutely fall for Elden Ring and 100% it. But after that, they don’t go on to be a connoisseur of souls-like.
So here are my 10 reasons why you should ignore the casuals, ditch the “casual” tag, and target the hardcore audience on Steam.
#1 Steam is a platform for hardcore players
Just owning a dedicated PC to play videogames and installing Steam usually moves you out of being a “casual” fan and into the hardcore. It is a choice. It is a hobby. In fact, if someone was “casual” they would be on mobile or possibly own a Nintendo Switch.
So the moment you say “I am going to release a game on Steam” you have already decided to target a hardcore audience.
If you just look at games that try to go “casual” by simplifying gameplay you will see reviews like this:
Hardcore Steam players just like depth.
Look at this list of the most played demos during the latest Steam Next Fest. Only Food Truck Simulator has the Casual tag in the top 5 tags
Trying to pitch a “casual game” on Steam is like trying to sell vegan burgers at a butcher shop. The target audience just isn’t there.
#2 Hardcore gamers are easier to reach
When a person plays a lot of games they are much easier to market to. They are always on Reddit looking for games. They watch a lot of streamers play games. They join discords and follow developers on social media. They read blogs about games. They are super engaged. When you market your game on twitter / tiktok / youtube, hardcore gamers are likely to be the ones to like and retweet it.
The casual audience doesn’t do that. They just play whatever is in front of them. Which leads to my next point …
#3 Casual gamers are very expensive to reach
Because the casual audience doesn’t care about games that much, they do zero research. They just pick whatever they see on the mobile app store or what they saw an ad for while browsing facebook. Casual fans are passive, low information consumers. Information about games must be figuratively shoved down their throats in the form of ads that are show up where they actually do consume media.
Nintendo as a brand markets to “casuals” so they had to buy a Superbowl ad to reach them.
This is called “cost of acquisition” and it is very very high on mobile and for a broad audience. Only big companies like Nintendo have the budgets to carpet bomb ads on them. We small indies don’t have millions of dollars to spend to reach “casuals.”
#4 Casuals take more work
Many indie devs make the mistake of saying “we are going to make a casual version of <genre x> that is simpler for the non-fan of <genre x>.”
This is commonly called the blue ocean strategy. It was made famous with the Nintendo Wii. But it is a very very very hard thing to do. I know Nintendo was successful with it but remember that they are a multi-hundred year old, global, publicly-traded company with a dedicated marketing team spending millions of dollars on advertising to get it to work for them.
It is so hard because when you make a “game for the non-fan” you actually just doubled your marketing effort. Let me explain…
FIRST you must do marketing to teach some casual person that a genre exists or you have to convince them that their preconceived notions about that genre is wrong.
SECOND you have to market to them to convince them that your game is the best version of that genre that you just taught them about and that it’s so much better than all those other games that they didn’t play.
You end up spending much of your marketing budget and effort just convincing a casual to pick up a new hobby.
Think about it, how many times have you started a new hobby? It isn’t very often and when you do start it you usually start by buying the biggest brands in that space. Then when you become more adept at the hobby you start to niche down and buy the more specialized smaller brands.
On the other hand, when you are marketing your game to a hardcore fan of that genre, it is actually easier. You have one marketing job which is to say: “Hey I am making more of that genre you already love.”
#5 Casual gamers don’t spend money
Think about your favorite hobby. You spend a lot of money on it right?
My hobby is gardening and I bought 5 different tools that basically probe and poke soil in slightly different ways. Here is my collection of stabby gardening tools.
On the other hand, my anti-hobby is cars. I hate them. I literally bought the cheapest car that met my minimum requirements. I never spend money washing it, I don’t buy car accessories like cool rims or seat covers. I spend the minimum I have to.
The same principle applies to the hobby of games. The casual audience doesn’t really invest in games. That is why the mobile space is full of free-to-play games. Most casual fans on that platform think it is ridiculous to spend money on a game.
However, a hardcore gamer loves the hobby. I was consulting for a publisher once and I did a customer interview with their most active Discord member. The guy was literally trying to buy and play every single PlayStation 5 game – and he was close to completing his mission.
For their favorite genre, a hardcore fan will buy every new game the day it comes out so that she can tell her friends whether it is good or not.
Hardcore players spend a LOT of money on games.
They are much more likely to take a chance on a game they don’t completely love. They are much more likely to buy your game than a casual player is.
#6 Hardcore gamers are taste makers
Hardcore gamers buy and play everything. One of the reasons they do that is they love to recommend games to their friends. So if a hardcore player likes your game, they are more likely to turn to their “casual” friend and say “I know you don’t normally like Metroidvanias, but you are going to like this game, I just bought you a copy.”
This is what we like to call “word of mouth.”
You must appeal to the hardcore players who will try everything, then they will tell their friends what is worth playing.
#7 Hardcore players know what they want and will tell you
Feedback on your game during development is vital.
Casual fans don’t care about games enough to tell you their opinion. If they don’t like it, they just play something else or do something else. They also don’t have the vocabulary or the cultural knowledge to make references.
Hardcore gamers do have strong opinions and they can tell you which games do it right and which games do it wrong. I have run beta tests and the hardcore gamers sent me 3 page writeups of everything that needed to be fixed with annotated lists of which games did it better. Yes all that feedback was intimidating but It was so clear and helpful. A casual fan would have just said “seems kinda fun.”
#8 Appealing to casuals can alienate both audiences
I think indies have this view in their head of how a strategy for casual audience works:
“If I make a casual game I am attracting non fans AND I am attracting fans of the genre. 100% market share.”
However, that is not true. By simplifying your game to reach the casual audience, the Hardcore gamer is going to say “this is too simple, not for me” and the casual fan says….
… they don’t say anything because they don’t know you exist because they don’t randomly play games from tiny boutique indie studios. They only play games that have been forced down their throats through multi-million dollar marketing budgets.
This is what will happen to your “casual and hardcore” marketing strategy.
#9 Hardcore players can be advocates
Hardcore players are connected. They spend a lot of time on Steam so they have a lot of friends there. They will recommend your game more if they like it. Their friends are also hardcore and see their friend is playing a new game and ask them about it and they will start playing it too.
#10 Hardcore players are more forgiving
I think the branding of “Hardcore player” make it seem like they will yell at you if you don’t have the most eXtreme eye-bleeding graphics. But in fact, hardcore gamers want to try every game in a genre. If the graphics are a little rough, but the gameplay is good, they will play it. On the other hand, casual players typically play AAA games so expect only the best. You have to work really hard to get a Casual player to forgive your non-AAA graphics and play a pixel art or low poly game.
Making games is hard. And it is emotionally wrenching because you are putting yourself out there creatively to be torn apart by strangers. It is a scary proposition.
Let’s look at these pictures again.
So when indies are looking at the casual vs hardcore fan, instinctually it seems like a safer choice to make a game for the “casuals.” You might think “Casuals seem nice, they won’t be so mean to me!”
But, Ironically, making a game for a casual audience is much more difficult, and expensive, than making a game for a hardcore audience.
Casual gamers will disappoint you. They won’t show up.
So please, assess the risk of saying you are making a “casual” game that will appeal to “non-fans” because you are most likely making a game for an audience that doesn’t exist and will never buy your game. The Hardcore audience doesn’t automatically mean they are a bunch of edgelords. Instead think of them as ravenous superfans. They want more games. They are begging you to make them something fun for them.