This article originally appeared in Dev.Mag Issue 16, released in August 2007.
Put yourself in this situation: you’re an enthusiastic gamer, you’ve played your fair share of the latest releases, you humbly proclaim yourself supreme overlord of Counter-Strike, and you regularly peruse your copy of the latest ‘zines. For all intents and purposes, some may call you a hardcore gamer.
One day, you stumble into your friend’s room and find him sitting in the corner with a Gameboy Advance, hunched over it like a guilty teenager caught reading Playboy – except the hunch isn’t inspired by guilt. In fact, your friend hasn’t even noticed you entering the room. He’s completely absorbed with the little machine’s electronic antics. You begin to wonder what the heck is going on. After all, this friend is not a gamer.Not by a long shot. He doesn’t even know how to play Quake. In fact, you’d be surprised if he even knew that the game existed. Yet there he’s sitting, enthralled by a Gameboy.
Surprising, but cute. The poor bugger’s trying to dabble in a world he has no idea about! At this point, a strange paternal instinct kicks in (either that, or a subconscious urge to go laugh at him), so you go to see how he’s doing with his foray into gaming. Then comes the next surprise.
“Oh, this old thing? I’ve had it for ages, play it every day.”
Turns out he loves Gameboy. He also shows you his collection of bookmarked web games, puzzle titles and miscellaneous gaming doohickeys. All this time, he’s been gaming even more than you had, and you never had a clue. You’ve sat with your AAA titles and large-scale LAN events for all that time without a hint of what lay beyond your own small gaming world.
Ladies and gentlemen, the truth is that gaming as we know it is only the tip of the iceberg. Sure, the big titles out there receive the press attention, the rave reviews and the competitive events, but in the eyes of the industry, our world is but an afterthought – a sugarcoated entity which garners attention but is ultimately shallow. Under the radar, an estimated 60 million people are heavily involved in the world of casual gaming, an industry which is already worth about $350 million.
These numbers are set to increase radically in the next few years as gaming becomes even more accessible and appealing to the mainstream. And game developers need to cotton on to this idea.
Why casual gaming?
More realistic scope
As much as most new or hobbyist developers are hoping to create “the next big thing”, the casual gaming market is not only far more accessible, but a far more logical target. In bygone eras of game development, a one-man team could go ahead and code a masterpiece – nowadays, the industry is dominated by… well, the industry, which leads most indie developers to believe that the noose is tightening around their necks. Yet a quick look on the Internet will provide an alternative – a ripe playground free of hundred-strong teams and gigantic budgets. Developers, your niche calls!
A common trait of casual games (particularly that quick “puzzle” brand of games that people can play in 5-minute sessions) is that they rarely fuss with such concepts as storyline, mid- to long-term user goals, variation or continuity.
Yes, there is the consideration of replayability value, but when your aim is to keep somebody occupied for five minutes instead of half an hour, your task becomes a lot easier in many respects. A good game designer with a solid and fun concept can go about putting it into action without being burdened with most of the worries that plague most “large” game developers.
Even if you have your heart set on building the bigger games, a common aspect of your work that potential employers ask about is your portfolio of functional prototypes and completed works. In this respect, the ability to use pixel shaders and create epic storylines is sometimes secondary to the merits of having an extensive showcase of original, bite-sized and fun-to-play games which have received exposure and commendation. Not only is casual gaming conducive to quick and easy prototyping, but it’s far easier to finish a game with few resources demands beyond the central gameplay dynamic.
Continuing on the previous idea, the big WWW is the perfect spot for showcasing casual games. However, not enough people realise that there are different manners in which this showcasing can take place. Flash portals are amongst the culprits – places like Newgrounds are great for quickly uploading masterpieces that can be accessed by a lot of interested people. Taking it one step further, sites such as The Great Games Experiment aim themselves at linking gamers and game developers. From the moment you load up the front page, you have access to a wide variety of blogs, flash games, game downloads and many other handy resources that are ready and waiting for any interested parties.
Even the big guns are doing it
Biggest-publisher-ever-ever (known to most mere mortals as EA) recently announced that it was going to split itself into four development divisions, one of them committed solely to casual games. Ubisoft is also hopping onto the casual games bandwagon, putting its weight behind a game called “Word Coach”. Konami is doing something similar with a beauty care game on the DS console. Even episodic gaming (pushed by notable developer Telltale Games, amongst others) is a reflection of this more-than-viable market concept.
Half-Life 2 Episodes and the new Sam and Max series of games are testament to the fact that the public have just as much fun with gaming in more bite-sized chunks. The big boys are getting quite serious about being casual, which further questions the perspective of indie developers who stick their noses up at doing “2-bit titles”.
Considerations for casual game design
It’s a sprint
As a rule of thumb, casual game sessions tend to be far shorter than those of their triple-A counterparts. A far cry from the hours spent grinding in World of Warcraft, the casual game designer often has to cater for an individual who will sit in front of their computer and play a game in half an hour. Most good game design involves the designer catering for short-term, mid-term and long-term goals. For example: in some generic FPS game, the player may be given a long-term goal of blowing up the enemy space platform. Their mid-term goal is finding a lever to open the door to the main engine room. Their short-term goal is to survive an encounter with the monsters in the next room.
With shorter games, these goals are either compressed or in some cases eliminated, leaving only the short-term gratification to be catered for. Thus, a “long-term” goal may in fact be fulfilled within 30 seconds, or may even be considered as non-existent.
If your game hinges around the short-term, it’s all the more necessary for every single one of the player’s actions to be justified and interesting. If a player needs to shoot a helicopter, then immediately shoot another helicopter to further boost score, it goes without saying that the action of shooting should be a satisfying one, or at least satisfying enough to keep the player going at it for however long he or she needs to.
Goals should be easily attainable, and if it’s technically possible to win a game, it should be easily done in a short amount of time (provided that players know what they’re doing).
Some “casual” games can actually get very long and involved, but it may be a good idea to build up a bit development experience before attempting these sort of projects.
There’s a lot of casual games out there that you can only really play once. Perhaps they’re detective stories or linear platformers. On the whole, however, casual games are notable for their replayability – consider Tetris, Bejeweled, or even Solitaire. The whole idea behind these games is that you play them for as long as possible (or win as quickly as possible) then hit them again with renewed gusto. This changes the developer’s goals considerably – now, it’s no longer a matter of sustaining player interest with feature creep or plot development. There’s less concern of getting a player to explore your
game fully – chances are, if they put it down after five minutes, they’ve still gone through it. Instead, you need to be able to offer an experience that a player will want to repeat. Variety and true replayability are very important – at the most basic level, you’re going to need an element of randomisation in your game so that no two experiences are the same. Additionally, it’s important to consider the “easy to learn, impossible to master” trick – online leaderboards and score accolades are a great way to challenge a player even after they’ve made it through the game the first time.
Casual gaming is a brilliant arena for checking out new avenues in gaming, seeing what works and what doesn’t. Most players will try something new at least once, provided it’s easy to get into and brings rewards timeously. Concepts that would be too difficult or unsuitable to implement in full-length games are perfect for the casual environment. Want to create a game centred around the player’s ability to randomly turn into a sandwich (with all the masticatory superpowers that being a sandwich would naturally grant you)? That’s great! Instead of sitting down and puzzling out 30 stages around the concept, burning your brain out and eventually realising that such an idea is simply not going to work in the long term, you can put your hero in a single arena with a bunch on constantly spawning enemies and work on designing a single good level that simultaneously incorporates all the design goodies that you were trying to stretch out over the long term.
Casual gaming is quickly gaining ground, and not enough indie developers are latching on to the idea that it’s actually a viable plan to base your game design career on a title that gives as little as five minutes of joy to any given player.
Too short? Not “big” enough? If these are really our complaints when it comes to the idea of games that are by now “beneath” our development skills, perhaps we need to shed some collective pride and realise that the player on the other end is going to thank us far more for a few minutes of awesomeness than any amount of wasted time blundering through a tech demo that reeks of incompletion and an overextended developer whose good intentions were marred by some very real constraints. A lot of game developers advise newbies to start small. My own advice is to keep small.