Lately I’ve run across the term “hardcasual” or “hard-casual” to mean a game that appeals to a gamer’s sensibilities (rich and original game-play, not just another match-3 or time management clone) but offers the accessibility and limited commitment of a casual game.    .
In the original context, this referred to the idea of a game made to AAA production values, but paced for a busier lifestyle. In practice, what I’m seeing is something less dramatic: increased attention to ambitious indie games that are promoted on some casual game review sites but that go beyond the average/obvious.
This is a gaming audience ideal for IF to target. (This is not to say that IF shouldn’t also target readers, students, and other niches that we’ve sometimes identified. But in the gaming landscape, I think there’s more of an identifiable market than there has been for a long time.) Consider:
- Hardcasual gamers expect their games to be free to play, or supported by advertising or pay only after an initial demonstration. The fact that the game isn’t charging $60 isn’t a sign of amateurishness; it’s a sign that the game is in a different bracket. ($19.99 is a typical price in the download casual game market, with steep discounts for repeat buyers, but there are lots of games that are available entirely for free.)
- Hardcasual gamers expect the game to be available online, not in a box. The absence of storefront is not a problem.
- Hardcasual gamers want to be able to save at any time and come back later. Almost all IF offers this by default.
- Gamers who might be used to trying indie and experimental games are likely to have fewer built-in expectations about the interface of the game.
Jay Is Games reaches part of this audience, I think, and their responses to the kinds of IF posted so far are fairly instructive about what we need to do to reach this audience. Some of these things are things we’ve speculated about on RAIF for years and years, but it’s useful to have some actual data about the reactions of a specific kind of audience, so:
- Online play, including an online save option, is important. Many HC players will only try IF if it is not a bother to do so, and they perceive a download of any kind as a bother; these players may be gaming at work, on a lunch break, etc. Jay Is Games itself offers a Flash Z-machine interpreter, but if we want to attract this audience more, we as a community need to be able to offer more of our IF in this form. Parchment and Flaxo are really encouraging developments, but we will also need interpreters that handle Glulx and TADS 3. (I know there’s Jetty for TADS 2, but TADS 2 seems not to be used nearly as much in developing new material.) Edited to add: apparently zarf is working on Glk/Glulx as well. Yay!
- Built-in instructions are important. HC players are often not familiar with IF, and do not want to have to go outside the game to look for manuals on how to play.
- Built-in hints are important. HC players do not want to get stuck. They’re not looking for the month-long immersion of banging their heads against a hard game; they’re looking to play, enjoy, and win, all in a relatively small space of time.
- Parser and world-model responsiveness is valued. Guess-the-verb should be minimized — as, in fact, it is in most quality modern IF. But this goes further: the more juicy a game is, in the sense of having lots and lots of unique responses to unusual input, the better it seems to go over.
- Humor goes over well. Not a requirement, but games on the lighter side seem to be especially popular.
Things that, on the other hand, do not seem to matter too much:
- Lack of graphics.
- Lack of audio.
- Lack of hyperlink doodads.
- The failure of the parser to recognize full English sentences, as long as the correct grammar is explained.
- Mild injokiness: as long as the references to Infocom et al. aren’t overwhelming, they seem not to ruin the value of a game.
I don’t think this profile describes our only possible target audience, and doubtless there are other things that we would need to do to win over other audiences; and in any case it’s not worth casting aside the characteristics of the game we want to write in order to appeal to some hypothetical marketing contingent. (Or we should go into the industry commercially.) With all those caveats, though, maybe this is worth thinking about when planning new work.