Vague Patch Notes: Casual no longer means anything in MMOs

It's a tiny little sprout thing. It might kill you.

Every time I see someone write something about casual players – including me because heavens know I’ve done it too – I feel a knot tighten in the back of my throat. Because it’s an awful term.

I’ve talked before about how there are bits of MMO terminology that rub me the wrong way. Some of them are purely pedantic (“mobs” comes from Mobile Object Blocks, and it’s an understandable term but one that belies a mismatch of terminology) or just personal (“toon” is a terrible term for your characters) while the term itself is still functional. But there are other terms I dislike because they don’t actually do what they’re supposed to do, like “pay-to-win.”

“Casual” is one such term. It had a meaning and a use at one point, but that has been buried now under years and years of misapplication. We desperately need better terminology than “casual,” especially since most reasonable definitions of “casual” include nearly every single person playing MMOs. And maybe some cats.

This is casual content.Putting together a dictionary and an etymology of fan terms is often difficult, especially when you’re dealing with things like forums that have proven remarkably ephemeral online. But the term “casual” wasn’t new when I was getting into MMOs back when Final Fantasy XI launched in 2003, and at that point, it had a pretty clear meaning. Casual players were the dilettantes, the ones who popped in and played a little bit but had little to no idea about the game. They were weekend players at best.

This is worth noting because at the time, I remember that most people also wouldn’t label themselves as hardcore players, either. Hardcore players were the ones who would camp specific NM spawns for days or weeks on end, not your average person who played the game. A lot of what we now consider hardcore content in MMOs was, by FFXI standards, pretty much normal.

It’s also not hard to point to what changed, which could be glibly called World of Warcraft. More realistically, it was WoW but also Guild Wars, City of Heroes, EverQuest 2, and a general unrolling of MMOs that rejected a lot of more timesink-based gameplay. Instead of designed downtime, you had games that expected you to log on for four hours of play and actually be doing something engaging for all four hours, games that were playing with what could be done in the shared online space.

Getting to max level in FFXI required a high degree of dedication to the game, often to the exclusion of others. Getting to max level in WoW at launch wasn’t a picnic either, but it was in no way, shape, or form the same thing. A casual player could do so in a few months, whereas a casual player in FFXI would probably just give up long before reaching max level.

The slow shifting of the norm meant that a lot of people were playing these games for the first time. And “casual” as a term didn’t really do the lifting required to evolve with the time. Whereas it was once as much of a separate term as “hardcore,” we gradually came to see “casual” used for literally anyone who didn’t slot into the “hardcore” demographic.

It’s not even a term being used solely from the outside; I know lots of people who happily label themselves as casuals, even players who spend more time playing MMOs than I do. One of my friends in Final Fantasy XIV referred to herself as a casual because she has no interest in raiding and high-end progression, despite the fact that she’s an intensely driven crafter who literally runs up against the maximum quantities of gil allowed in the game. She’s more hardcore than I am in that arena!

Actually I'm not sure if CoH had any non-casual content.This gets even more strange when you realize that the “casual” crowd in this discussion – the group of people who aren’t interested in, say, Mythic raiding in WoW – is the majority of the playerbase. “Casual” covers everyone from the guy who logs in a couple of times a week for a one-hour play session to the player who clocks in three or four hours on a nightly basis but will never do a raid above Raid Finder difficulty.

And this is where the problem comes in. Because talking about designing gameplay for casual players covers a huge swath of different play styles and different interests, and just using a blanket “casual” cover provides almost zero information. These things are wildly different and require wildly different approaches.

Let’s pick on WildStar, specifically because it worked so hard on labeling itself “hardcore” (and also because apparently everyone loved hearing me rant for like five minutes straight about it last time). Clearly, that game had something in mind for hardcore players. But it also seemed to not understand what casual players were, that casual players did not simply consist of players who would play the whole game solo. It was also people who liked queueing up for fun dungeons or adventures or shiphand missions, people who liked questing and crafting, people who loved exploring the story.

And yes, also players who will want to play the whole game solo. But the discussion of “well then why are you playing an MMO” can wait for another day.

If I had to pin a specific misunderstanding down for this problem (which I do for these purposes, sort of), it’s that idea that “casual” players will take a long time to see that the game stops having anything to do at the level cap. In reality, lots of people not in the “hardcore” banner were up at level cap as fast if not faster than some of the “hardcore” players. There is no monolithic mass of casual players.

So the term no longer actually describes anything. It described a playstyle that was at one point very much on the outside edge of normal, but the baseline for “normal” has shifted over time and the term hasn’t shifted with it. My lack of the time and patience necessary to organize 40-person runs in an MMO no longer marks me as an outlier but as the norm.

In other words? We need to be rid of it, or we at least need to push it back to what it originally meant. Right now, it doesn’t really illustrate much of anything.

I'm not sure if Wildstar had any casual content, by extension.

The obvious follow-up is to ask what we’re supposed to use instead, but I think that in some ways the terminology split we used to have works better. Back then, you had hardcore players, you had casual players, and you had the vast majority of people who were just… players. The cutoff point between “normal” and “hardcore” may have changed, but the core idea is still sound.

It also helps reframe requests and where the majority of players are going to fall. When you assume that “hardcore” players are the only ones putting significant time and effort into the game, you devote more stuff to that vanishingly small percentage. When you assume that most of your players will be neither casual nor hardcore, devoted but not unreasonably so, you design content that requires time and effort to unlock the rewards instead of luck and constant attendance. You expand the middle where players exist instead of the top end into a narrowing spire.

There was a time when “casual” meant something very important. It no longer does. And when a term is no longer pulling its weight, you need to either reframe it or get rid of it. We’ve had a long time to do better than blithely re-using “casual;” it’s high time we got on that.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.

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I mean, take it as you want but I wouldn’t say it “no longer means anything” simply due to landscape changes. I would however say that using it as an insult has long been a trite practice employed by those looking to lord themselves over others in the gaming sphere, which always made me laugh “Yes good job johnny, I’m glad you’ve decided to turn your gaming time into a second full time job you spend every waking non work hour on. Good for you.”.


Mobs bugged me for a while, though I’ve heard it so much that it just seems normal to me now. I understand that it’s a term left over from early text MMORPGs online.

Toons still bugs me. I really dislike the term “toon”. It basically stands for Cartoon as far as I know? That one’s origins are that it blossomed somehow from a single game (The Realm Online) where I guess people thought the character looked like their own little cartoon. How it pushed it’s way into all other games and stayed around this long is a bit odd to me. Maybe it’s odd to me because I dislike the term.

And last – casual. Casual is a fine term to me because I’m a casual player. Of course, there are levels of casual. If I play 30 minutes a day, or a few hours every few days or week, that’s pretty casual. If I play a few hours a month that’s also casual, though to a whole other level. It doesn’t just go from Hardcore to Casual, there’s an Average in between there.

We may all be gamers, but we do play a lot of the games we go on casually, even if the time ends up more than casually by adding up all the games we play. Like I may play 4-5 games all casually (15-30 minutes) but the amount of time it adds up to is more along the average play time. Still, I’m in each game a casual amount of time.

There definitely is a difference between casual and average, let alone casual and hardcore, so I’m unsure why the definition irks you.

I hate the term “carebear” – it’s derogatory and is trying to make out like somehow the PvP players are big fighting tough guys (if they fight people in real all the time, they can tell me how much of a tough guy they are, but not if they’re playing video games against others). Yet some co-op and PvE players for some reason actually think the term is okay. I find it offensive and it’s not said in a nice way at all by those who prefer PvP playstyle.

But casual isn’t derogatory as far as I know. Anything can be said in a derogatory way, but it doesn’t have its roots in a put-down or insult.

I still get it a bit, since Toon bugs me. I don’t really feel Toon fits all other games outside of its origin, but I guess you don’t feel casual fits people as well either. I still do feel that casual has it’s use and place, even if we are just gamers, the amount of time we put into a single game can be measured and it’s nice to know if it’s casual play friendly.


Casual has no meaning in terms of MMOs anymore. The amount of people who claim to be casual but spend more time in a game than at their job is huge. Casual means relaxed, unconcerned, doing something irregularly. The vast majority of so-called casual players are nothing of the sort.

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My such word is “nerf” which is shouted from angry gamers for any downward adjustment made in the game.

-We’ve reduced the DPS of this gun by 0.3.

-This ultimate item was performing ahead of others like it, we’ve adjusted it to be in line with the others.
-Yuu will still oneshot most..
-You can’t kill a thing twic…

Nerf = reduce usefulness into that of a nerf gun, i.e. rendering it pretty much useless.

Raph Koster

I apologize for giving nerf common currency in MMOs. Pretty sure it spread from UO House of Commons chats, though it was in use before that. :)

Brown Jenkin

I get where Eliot is coming from generally, but I think there is still some use in conveying casual as “not hardcore” and in some ways WildStar is my example. I was initially one of those folks who might have loved WildStar, but honestly the marketing alone made it clear that game wasn’t for me, I didn’t even try it. Still I don’t think its a bad thing that they pitched it as a game for hardcore players, I think it is really positive to present different types of MMOs for different players, since when they try to cater to everyone we all end up disappointed.

Adam Russell

If a mob is perma-rooted, is it still a mob?

Sally Bowls

Is someone who spends less than an hour a week playing Star Citizen but averages spending $100 a week on prerelease ships a casual?

I think of it as relating to the game norm: if most people in the game/guild are spending 60 hr/week and you are spending 40, then you are casual in that game, but not a casual gamer since you are spending triple the time of an average/typical gamer. My first thought is to time spent, but attitude and money spent probably should be included in the official definition of Casual. Maybe the UN and WHO will define this for us.

Tee Parsley

I find a good sense of humor is the best asset in a team member. ‘Casual’ or ‘Hardcore’. Uptight rules lawyers or obsessive fotm gear score aficionados just aren’t worth putting up with, regardless of the event.

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Aren’t we all casuals to some degree? I mean there sheer volume of games we have to play almost guarantees I can only spend a few hours a week on one game which would be defined as casual.

Peter Reynolds

I started reading this article, because I thought it had something to do with FFXI and the gameplay, but after about 2 paragraphs in to the rant I stopped reading…. after all I am a casual reader and this just plain became very monotonous and boring real fast. I am going to go play some MMOs casually now!