Sometimes, I feel badly for my little sister. For years, she’s had to endure a constant barrage of gaming jargon from her older brother and her boyfriend, both hardcore gamers. At this point, many people would have either thrown up their hands in defeat or invested themselves fully in gaming. Lindsay, however, opted to take a middle path. While she’ll never reach the upper echelons of Halo players or sink forty hours into Dragon Age, her Wii and DS are never far out of reach. Rather than casual games like Bejeweled or Farmville, her staples are The Legend of Zelda and the Just Dance series – which she takes very seriously.

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Lindsay represents a new kind of hybrid gamer: one who plays “hardcore” games in a “casual” manner. Instead of viewing games as passive diversions, she sees them as skill-based challenges. At the same time, a game with a deep narrative or a complex gameplay system will elicit only a yawn.

When I asked Lindsay what she wanted from the industry, she replied without hesitation, ” [I want] a game that challenges me mentally more than Wii Sports or Mario Party. I play videogames very sporadically, so I can’t follow in-depth storylines.”

While there will always be a place for narrative-driven experiences with deep gameplay like Mass Effect or God of War, hardcore gamers would be unwise to look down their noses at the rise of the online shooters, the rhythm games, and the handheld market. Sooner or later, they too will want a game that’s easy to pick up and put down, simple to learn, and just challenging enough to hold their interest.

Let’s get a few definitions cleared up. Many gamers throw words like “casual,” “hardcore,” and “mainstream” around with such haphazardness that their definitions can be hard to pin down. The simplest explanation of casual vs. hardcore games comes from The Escapist‘s own Bob Chipman. “‘Casual’ isn’t a proper description of any game, only of how a game is played,” explains Bob in Episode 47 of his popular web show, The Game Overthinker. He goes on to explain that the key element of “casual” vs. “hardcore” play is an investment of the player’s time. A casual game does not demand much of the player’s time to experience its narrative or gameplay mechanics; a hardcore game does.

What, then, is a mainstream game? Is it casual or hardcore? The Oxford English Dictionary defines “mainstream” as “belonging to or characteristic of an established tradition, field of activity, etc.; conventional.” In this case, “mainstream” describes the games most people play, and the manner in which people are playing them. Based on current industry trends, the future of mainstream gaming may well belong to the hybrids.

Hybrid gamers use games primarily as a way to connect with friends and family. The hybrid is a distinct breed from the “hardcore” gamer, who invests time in gaming for gaming’s sake, and from the “casual” gamer, who views games largely as a diversion.

Take Bruce van-Schalkwyk, a coworker of mine and another hybrid gamer. Bruce grew up in arcades, when gaming was still almost exclusively a social experience. Although he’s not a hardcore gamer, he’s spent many recent weekends playing Call of Duty: Black Ops as a way to spend time with his brother – both on and offline.

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“The first-person shooter is currently my favorite [genre],” says Bruce. “It presents a series of challenges controlling the character, being aware of maps, and there are obvious rewards the more I practice – while it’s a steep climb, I really can get better at it.”

This may sound like the rhetoric of an up-and-coming hardcore gamer, but Bruce knows his limits. “Playing more … would make me a better player, but … I’m going to get better slowly,” laments Bruce. “I only have so much time each week for the things I’m interested in.”

The fact that both Lindsay and Bruce mentioned time investment as a limiting factor is telling. Like it or not, as gamers get older, more of their time gets devoted to work, friends, family, and other hobbies. This is not a bad thing, but it does mean that suddenly, an 80-hour console RPG might seem more daunting than inviting.

Does this mean that the future of gaming lies exclusively in the online shooter, rhythm, and handheld markets? Not necessarily. Any game can be played casually, which means that every genre is a viable candidate for a hybrid market. Shooters and rhythm games dominate this demographic right now because of their intelligent blend of skill-based gameplay and frequent rewards. Even getting in a few rounds of Call of Duty: Black Ops can net a player persistent character-enhancing “perks.” Completing a single set list in Rock Band can pay for a shiny new digital guitar, or at least some outlandish virtual clothing. Compare this with the typical mid-game doldrums of any RPG: Gaining a single level can take hours, and a player may need to do this many times to defeat a certain boss and advance the plot.

With some effort, even slow-paced, methodical genres can appeal to a hybrid demographic. Take the portable market as a case study. If you consider the DS, PSP, iPhone, and Android platforms, gamers have literally hundreds of role-playing options. These numbers do not bespeak an ailing genre. Level-grinding becomes considerably more tolerable if a player uses it as a means to kill time during a commute. Furthermore, developers can deliberately design games to be less grind-intensive since portable games tend to be more condensed than their console brethren.

Real-time strategy has made some impressive forays into the hybrid market as well. Many PC gamers will remember 2010 as the year that Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty finally graced their systems. While it did not take long for series veterans to tackle the campaign’s toughest difficulty or devise mind-boggling online strategies, their involvement is only a small part of the story. Starcraft II‘s campaign was much easier than its predecessor’s even on the “Normal” setting, and the missions were much shorter. With the addition of a “Casual” setting, new players could digest the entire, epic campaign in bite-sized chunks. Even better was the addition of a Practice league and skill-based tiers for multiplayer. Starcraft II‘s match-making does a great job of providing players a real challenge to build their skills while rarely subjecting them to challenges beyond their means. Its generous “achievement” system also ensures frequent in-game rewards (such as new avatars) for both newbies and veterans alike.

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If hardcore games can be played casually, surely there must be a way to increase hardcore appeal for casual games. The fitness game genre is a great contender for this innovation, as it can help hybrids combine multiple hobbies into new experiences. While Wii Fit and Dance Central are not necessarily deep games, they can get fairly complex and require real skill to master. Imagine a fitness game with a narrative, or an in-game reward system. Bruce, as an avid cyclist, likes this idea. “The concepts of interactivity and strategic challenges have moved over into other areas of interest for me,” he says, explaining a new system that allows amateur cyclists to mimic professional races with a stationary bike and a PC. “That’s not a game, per se, but the concepts are the same, and I think there’s an interesting bleed over from one to the other.”

Whether or not developers realize it yet, hybrid gamers have opened the floodgates for a new philosophy in game design. They want something deeper than a casual game but more accessible than a hardcore game. Hybrids want games where they can hone their abilities, but a lack of time or dedication will not make the experience impossibly hard or unapproachable. So far, the best ways to hybridize a game have been through scalable difficulty settings, social play, in-game rewards, and short-but-meaningful play sessions. As the hybrid demographic matures, so too will the industry’s gameplay innovations.

When the industry fully embraces this paradigm, both gamers and developers will do what nature has been telling them to do for the last three-and-a-half billion years: hybridize. Hybridize, survive, and evolve.

Marshall Honorof is an eBook editor for a large publishing company in New York. Check out his pop culture blog at http://chronologynut.tumblr.com and his website at http://www.marshallhonorof.com.

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