I love chill games, but before I tell you why let me explain the difference between a chill game, and a casual game.
The casual gaming experience is a phrase used to describe games played by those either new to gaming or that have little time to dedicate to a game. The mother who never played more than an hour of super mario world in the 90’s, the dad who had played Pac-man on an arcade machine when he was still very young. The brother who would rather play football than a video game, but doesn’t mind trying to relax and shoot some First Person Shooter (FPS) zombie horde mode.
An unfortunately large number of people just don’t have the time to play video games. It’s a shame, really, as a lover of gaming I see the potential in the medium. Casual gaming describes games with a low skill floor. (You can find out more about skill floors and ceilings in a post I made just to describe them in length.) A child or at least novice gamer can play a casual game and enjoy it. Arcade games like Pac-man are very casual. Peggle, a modern arcade game, is at its core meant to be enjoyable to both adults as well as children with bright colors and fun sounds.
In order to substitute for skill, casual games tend to have plenty of luck built in. The bounce of the ball in Peggle, the orange ghost (Clyde) in Pac-man moves randomly (as opposed to the other ghosts which have particular patterns, even if they appear to be random.)
Hardcore games, being the opposite of casual games, are built for competition. They care less about how much fun you’re having than the casual games. They care less about making sure you enjoy the game if you’re bad at it. They care about competition. They care about bringing out the best and pitting them against each other. They care about you only if you want to become better at the game, otherwise go play Peggle.
Hardcore games penalize poor performance critically. They seek to tap into that negative feedback loop in your brain to teach you to be better. Stop making mistakes, stop letting your team down, stop playing the game in any way other than the perfect way. If fun, for you, is competing against the very best and winning because you were better — that is what hardcore games seek to bring out. That is the reward you get. You’re not handed your fun, because hardcore games are designed for the people that want to rip out the fun by force.
Hardcore games penalize poor performance critically.
I’ve been playing a lot of Stardew Valley recently. I heard it called a casual game, and that struck me as odd. The label of casual gaming doesn’t feel like it quite fits for such a game. The more I thought about Stardew Valley and games like it, the more I think the should get their own genre.
There’s something special about chill games that define them. It’s not about skill ceilings or skill floors, and it’s not about competition or the lack of it. What defines a chill game is simply the lack of punishment for stagnation. This defining quality is not concerned with how good you are at the game. Plenty of people have played Stardew Valley and made terribly large amounts of progress in no time at all. They research the optimal ways to get from point a to point b, they research statistics on how to make the most money (or progress) for every second of their time.
The Carrot and The Stick
If you’re not familiar, the carrot and the stick is a metaphor for the positive and negative reinforcement learning methods (respectively, carrot for a reward, stick for punishment.)
Casual games have a tiny stick and a huge carrot. Hardcore games have a huge stick and a tiny carrot. Chill games can have any combination of either. As I mentioned before what makes a game chill has no bearing on skill. Chillness (chillocity?) is not a measure of skill or the lack thereof.
Chill Games are not Casual Games
It’s not an casual game, those have very little depth to them. Chill games can be deep and complicated. The ease of learning them probably will help, but they don’t need to be 3-button-video-game easy.
The magic, is that enough a child won’t accomplish much, they also won’t be penalized. At the core of a chill game is that lack of penalty. If you hardcore-mode it and play it optimally there’s still no punishment for failure.
Chill Games are not Hardcore Games
Chill games, like hardcore games, can still have a high skill ceiling. I consider the Civilization games to be chill games. If you set the difficulty on the highest setting you’re going to have a hard time beating it. Some players may enjoy the challenge. Part of that enjoyment is because you have all the time in the world to make your decision. You can plan out every move, because it’s a turn-based game with no penalty for taking your sweet sweet time.
A chill game could still be played with a completionist mindset. Stardew valley could be played with the goal of getting all of its achievements, even if it’s at your own pace.
Chill games will allow the player to play at their own pace, adjusting accordingly. Intense games demand the player match the game’s pace.
A Different Measurement
I don’t see chillness as a measure of the same thing that makes a game casual or hardcore. Hardcore games punish you when you don’t play perfectly, casual games give you a pass. Chill games let you play at the pace you choose, be it playing perfectly or imperfectly. Intense games tell you that you need to get going, now. A game being hardcore doesn’t inherently mean it is hard to get better at the game, just that if you don’t get better at the game you will be punished severely.
Have you ever had sweaty-palm gameplay? Have you ever been trying to beat a boss for the 47th time and just barely managed to dodge its devastating attack to finally land the finishing blow? That’s not a chill game, that’s quite intense. It’s fun in it’s own way, but it does not allow you to take your time. There’s no telling that boss to wait there for you to have a breather, when the fight starts it’s on.
If part of a game is gated behind skill, that’s fine. The game can still be chill. The gate signifies that this game has depth, there’s more to explore and find. If you don’t have the skill to get past this gate, that doesn’t mean you’re still rewarded (which would signify a casual game) just that you’re not punished (which would signify a hardcore game). Also, and very importantly, just because you didn’t get past the game doesn’t mean the game stops being fun. A chill game without any unlocked gates should still be enjoyable.
Those players that like the challenge of skill can surpass those gates and find depth, being rewarded in the process for what they see as something very worthy of a reward — skill. If someone does not like that challenge, though, a chill game doesn’t just stop. The game doesn’t being bland or uninteresting if it’s chill. There is no “the game gets good once you unlock x” for any thing x in a chill game.