Design for the Hardcore
One of the many things I heard this year at GDC that stuck with me goes something like “design your game for hardcore players first, then make it accessible for casual players.” I’m probably butchering it a little bit - I heard it from my friend Mark Johns, who attributes it to Blizzard. Who knows? Maybe the original saying was “Anchovies are the best pizza topping.”
In any case, I like it. The implication, to me, is that if you start with a shallow game you’ll end up with a shallow game, no matter how many doodads you stick onto it. Instead, start with something deep, complex, and satisfying, and then polish it up. Makes sense.
It also answers simply the question that is on every game designer’s mind: “who should I be designing for?” Other than “myself”, the answer is not “hardcore” or “casual” (or the nebulous “core”), but “hardcore first, then casual”.
Defining hardcore: to me, these are the players who will enjoy your game at its deepest level, who will discover things about your game that you never knew existed, and who will champion your game and give it life for years to come. They’re also the players who might turn off casual players by calling them “scrubs”, or telling them that they just aren’t good enough… or that they “don’t get it”. But I think the benefits of having a hardcore fanbase far outweigh the consequences, and for every asshole who wants to shut new players out you’ll have a knight who wants to spread their infectious enthusiasm for your game far and wide. (See: the Street Fighter and Dwarf Fortress communities)
As a game creator, I like the idea of converting casual players to the cause, rather than conceding things to them, or “dumbing down” my game for them. I’ll enjoy the game more, they’ll enjoy the game more… everyone will enjoy the game more. In game design as in anything else, I believe that win-win situations do exist and we should be seeking them out. This idea - ”design your game for hardcore players first, then make it accessible for casual players” - seems to me like the best way to approach a win-win situation.