Let's analyze the problem.
Here is a funny definition of a Casual Gamer. If we consider it true, then there's simply no solution to your problem. That's why I'll define a casual player as:
A player who doesn't spend a lot of time playing.
You want a system that lets casual players interact well with hardcore gamers (players who spend a lot of time playing, opposite to casuals). By interaction you can mean one of either:
- friendly interaction - healing, building guild cities together, trading etc.
- hostile interaction - fighting, blocking a quest (like in Lineage 2 by guarding an NPC), capturing a flag or a different object etc.
- technically neutral interaction - chatting, guiding someone in a quest (like showing where some important object is located) etc.
or all of them. In most MMORPGs a casual player doesn't have a disadvantage only in third option - he can chat with others, role-play with them with a success, and guide a pro player on a low-level area that he already forgot. As for PVP, he has no chance to defeat a hardcore gamer 1vs1 and is likely not to be taken into a group PVP where he will weaken his party. I will focus on how to fix the hostile interaction, as it's easiest to compare possibilities of two players (a hardcore gamer and casual player) by letting them fight and see who won.
You can choose your target balance as one of these:
- A casual player has no chance to defeat a hardcore gamer. The chance may be not an absolute 0, but below 1% for sure. A good example is OGame.
- A casual player has a small chance to defeat a hardcore gamer. All agility and luck based games fit well here. You can shoot down Quake master. Even when you play for 1st time, you can win with a world champion in a Battleship game.
- A casual player has a nearly equal chance to defeat a hardcore gamer as to lose with him. This is possible to achieve by completely eliminating grinding (giving a player more strength as a reward for time spent in game), and basing player's efficiency on general attributes like player's intelligence, not particular game wisdom (a hardcore gamer knows game mechanics better than the casual). It can be also achieved by complete or nearly complete randomness, where even strategy doesn't help hardcore gamer to defeat a casual player (dices).
- A casual player has a high chance (>50%) to defeat a hardcore gamer. This is very hard to achieve, but is possible. Such game can't be agility based, because if a casual player has statistically more agility than some hardcore gamer, then, as stated in Urban Dictionary, he is just a hardcore gamer in denial. This situation can only be achieved if hardcore gamers are in some aspect weaker than casual players in the target audience, or if a player gets a penalty equal to time spent in game, and he somehow can't just create new account or doesn't want to. However you should really reflect on if you want to punish settled players for playing your game!
MMORPG casual-friendly: equal chances
Here are the advantages of hardcore gamers above casual players:
- They have more friends in game - friendship is like a flower, not watered will fade away, and it is rare to have lots of friends from real life in your favorite game.
- They have general gaming experience - should I maximize one attribute, or balance two? What is diminished returns?
- They know the game better - Chess players know openings, MMORPG players know if it's better to go in dodge or armor.
- They have usually more agility; not real agility, but perceiving 2D monitor view and using keyboard and mouse is easier for someone used to it.
- This may be a duplicate of first point, but they are inside better guilds.
- Not only they have all above advantages, but they also are further in progress, and therefore get a technical advantage: better gear, more skill-points spent, more waypoints reached, more abilities unblocked (e.g. riding a horse) are all devastating to already unbalanced hardcore/casual gameplay.
So how do we fix it?
- You can fight this:
- Creating forum signatures and similar gadgets will let your players advertise the game on forums, their blogs etc. letting them bring old friends instead of forcing to make new friendships in new game.
- Also fixing the casual-unfriendliness will help: a casual player who discovers your casual-friendly game will advertise it among his casual playing friends.
- No inflation - if I'm a casual player, and I need help of my friends, these who didn't play for 6 months won't be helpful if there's a technology inflation, making their leather armors obsolete against AK47 guns.
- Things like diminished returns are nice inventions. You want to use them, you just need to document them with tooltips and tutorials the way a new player gets it quickly.
- The solution to make the game friendly for new players would be to create a system that is simple, and different from known systems (like D&D that also isn't that simple), or known very well to casual players (like card games). I wrote about it a little here: Turn based battle and formula
- Here's where the very early design of the game (choosing a genre) is important for casual-friendliness. This rather can't be FPP, or a hard RTS game like Starcraft 2. Generally any game that you could imagine as an e-sport isn't friendly for a casual, unless you target your games to casuals that actually are computer-agile (then ignore this point). Best casual type would be a turn-based game without turn time limit (sometimes a casual player just goes on a trip and returns a month later usually it won't be longer than a day, though).
- Remove the guilds, or don't give advantages from guilds, or set penalties for guild sizes.
- And finally player's progress. It is obviously an unfair system for casual players:
- One option would be to completely remove progress. You just make your build, and play with it.
- Temporal progress - RTS style. You gain upgrades, but they are all lost when you finally win/lose/draw. Just like items and character levels in League of Legends.
- Server wipes - this solution is good for weekend or summer casual players. The point of the game is to achieve something in limited number of time a casual player can afford. Red Dragon works like this.
- Wealth inflation. Adding a possibility of lose, instead of only gaining. If you base a chance of negative events on player's wealth, he will progress slower and slower to the point of his skill. A new casual player who proves to be more skillful in a given game mechanic, will quickly overtake an old player who didn't learn how to deal with some difficulties. I don't know a good example of this mechanic, but every hardcore (death is permanent) game implements it partially (even if a player with more wealth has same chance of dieing as a new player, the former everyday loses statistically more than the latter). Of course this shouldn't affect offline players - I would suggest a chance of a negative event only after every player's action - therefore less active or inactive at all players wouldn't be a subject to the inflation.
- You really don't want to advertise your game with such limited progress as a MMORPG game! The phenomena behind new MMO success is the progress itself. People love to gain power, money and experience. Advertising a game that does otherwise is like creating a family car by a Ferrari company. In this analogy hardcore gamers would be people who like speed of Ferrari, and casual players people who like safe, cheap in exploitation and comfortable cars that Ferrari doesn't produce. In effect casuals who don't like other MMORPG games wouldn't try yours anyway, and hardcore gamers would go away with dissatisfaction.
Higher chances for casuals than for hardcore gamers
If we want to achieve an equality for casuals and hardcore gamers, we should probably aim higher or we will never achieve it, just like Achilles will never get to the tortoise in the Zeno's paradox.
I like to think of people not as better and worse generally, but with different talents. If hardcore gamers are talented in playing computer games, then casual players are probably talented elsewhere. If we want to balance these groups, we should give casual players an opportunity to use their other talents. I don't suggest to balance healthy players with blind in a FPP shooter game, but to give everyone an opportunity to gain some bonuses outside of game mechanics, and the idea is content created by players.
If players who are possibly talented in graphic arts, programming, writing, can create their mods or prepare content on forums for awards from developers, this is really a win-win situation that hardcore gamers for sure won't mind.
What a casual game is?
Once on a design stage of a game I decided this game's target will be casual players. So what does that mean? What requirements should it fulfill? That's what I figured out:
- You should be able to pause the game at any time. That's why it's easier to make a single player game for a casual player. Imagine someone plays at work and suddenly his boss arrives, or he 'works' at home and suddenly hears his dog fell from stairs and broke his porcelain bowl - how much time will you give him to pause the game? In games like League of Legends you just can't pause the game, and destroy experience of others if you don't finish the math that can take up to 90 minutes. If you have a small baby and your wife is not at home (or she is not cooperative enough) you just can't play LoL.
- You shouldn't be punished in any way for pausing a game. You may be forced to do some activities in a long period of time, like 2 days, but only if you ask for it, e.g. if you start a poker round, you should answer to every action of your opponent not later than 2 days from his last action.
- Your score should not be dependent on time spent in game, or there should be no score at all (you just fight with others for the eventual fun from winning).
- You should be able to install the game easily - that's why browser games are best for casuals.
- It's not the must, but a lot if not the most of casual activity comes from smartphones when the casual players simply don't have anything better to do. That's why it is a good idea to design your game as a touch friendly (there are also a lot of people playing on touchpads).
- Casual players often work, that's why casual games should be SFW: it doesn't necessarily need to look like Excel, but it shouldn't put players with muted sound at disadvantage.
- The game should not enforce you to be active at a particular time (like OGame does). Everyone, even most hardcore gamers have their life and awarding players who take the game as more important than their real duties is promoting "no-lifes".