Anyone still here?

Life got in the way of this blog. Life and a self consciousness about posting massive rants about my half formed design opinions 🙂

In the meantime, I’ve started a new project, turning my 24 hour game ‘Thomas Was Alone’ into something bigger. I’ll be documenting it here. For the moment, this blog is going to stay dormant, hope to see you over at my new digs soon.


Keeping it Casual

guitar‘Casual Game’ is a dirty word. Two dirty words in fact. It’s a term which sends most videogame fans (myself, I admit, included) running for the hills. We think they’re rubbish, cheap, and massively shallow.

And yet they sell, and real people apparently love them.

So how do you design a good casual game? It’s a question that interests me at the moment, as I’m working on one. I’m going to try (via a bullet point list that may remind you all too much of my last post) to work out some of the traits which successful games (both critically and commercially) feature.

  • Originality – With the sheer amount of shovelware out there, it’s easy to miss the bigger picture, that the only casual games which actually make money and engage an audience are those which are substantially original in their design, or that are sequels to pre-existing casual games. Copycat casual games don’t sell nearly as well as the original game, as name recognition is key. That’s why Wii Fit outsells all other fitness software, and why Rockband is dwarfed by Guitar Hero (yes, i know it’s a pseudo sequel, but the average joe buying these games wouldn’t know what an Harmonix was). It’d be nice to believe this was because of great taste on the part of the casual games market. But it’s probably more to do with price. If I look at my game shelf, I can see several games which are unashamedly similar. I bought them because I was a fan of the genre, or wanted more of the same. This cost me a lot of money. Casual players seem to only want one game of each ‘kind’.. so they’ll have one sports sim, one fitness game, one quiz game. They seem to be far more interested in smaller, itterative add-ons than altogether new products (hence the success of downloadable songs for GH, and questions for buzz). To design a truly successful casual game, it looks like you’ll have to do something really innovative, more so than in traditional hardcore genres.
  • Challenge – I’ve heard casual games described as easy. That’s the wrong word to use. Succesful casual games are accesible. We take three dimensional movement via twin analogue sticks for granted. We understand the abstract way in which combos are achieved, or the concept of inventory management. That’s thanks to years of learning. More so than any other entertainment medium, ‘normal’ games put up enormous barriers to new players. Portal is a stellar game, but put someone who never played Halo, Goldeneye, Half Life or Unreal in front of it, and watch it fall on its arse. Think about rival entertainment mediums. Film is eminently accesible to anyone who can see and here (the only barrier to entry being language, which is why film companies have come up with not just subtitles, but the costly process of dubbing). Music is a visceral and emotive experience which requires no investment from the user. Books are probably the media which requires most work from the consumer, but we have years of state sponsored education to prepare us for that. Until schools start running mandatory lessons in reticule management our work will continue to leave potential new players out in the rain. So how do casual games create this accesibility? Usually by sidestepping videogame grammar altogether. This can be software led (find me a camera control or resource management mechanic in a succesful casual game) or hardware led. A controller is a strange and varied beast, but give the player a plastic guitar, a buzzer, or in the Wii’s case, a TV remote, and they’ll be fine. Barriers to entry are removed, and play can begin.
  • Actual, legitimate challenge – So if we get past control mechanics, and look at these games, we see that they’re not actually easy at all. Guitar Hero is a pretty challenging pattern recognition game, which is just as hardcore as Tetris. Buzz is a quiz that tests you in proper, hard, general knowledge. The difference here is that the casual player is testing real world skills, but in an entertaining way. Also of interest here is the lack in a lot of these games of an AI opponent. It seems that more traditional gamers are far more understanding of competing against a stooge than a casual audience. Maybe they would feel like an AI was ‘cheating’? Or maybe a casual player is happier to compete against friends, or their own high scores, rather than personified computer opponents. Chance is also not a massively common element in good casual games, except in cases where it is made really clear to the player that that is the case.
  • Aesthetic tailored to intended audience – I’ll finish with an obvious one. Successful casual games play for a specific crowd. They target a group of users and go for it. They aren’t controversial, or particularly nuanced in their approach. That’s fair enough. Mainstream traditional games are no better, they mostly target the hero fantasies of young men. In both cases, these games do well because they know their audiences. We’ve found that playtesting the look and feel of a casual game is massively helpful, as inevitably the team making it will not be within its target audience. Sitting down a group of non fanboys in front of a casual game is brilliantly informative. Things we all take for granted are immediately demolished, and new solutions can be found from the instinctive play style of the testers.

I’m not a casual games apologist. There is a lot of crap out there. My feeling though is that this crap can be overtaken by using some of the qualities and ideas above. I find casual games a fascinating emerging genre, one I look forward to seeing evolve.

Oh, and Wii Fit is bloody brilliant, I lost 2 stone playing that. Game mechanics applied to weight loss, genius.

Cheers for reading 🙂

Taking Over the Open World

openworldHi, I’m Mike. I make games. This is my new blog: somewhere to put up the random thoughts I have that are too big for twitter. You can follow me by heading here.

So, my first post. I think I’d like to talk about the open world genre. There’s been a bit of a spate of them recently, hasn’t there? I’ve just completed inFamous, and have started digging into Red Faction (something I’ll be continuing with straight after this). The thing that hits me with both these games is, well, how much better they are than what’s gone before.

It kind of feels like we’ve hit the third generation of the 3D open world game. GTA3 started something, with an enormous, engaging and streaming world that everyone wanted to explore and overcome. The gangster setting and humor were great, and of course impressed everyone. But that wasn’t the point. After years of being shuffled down endless (if beautiful) corridors, players felt freed. The word ‘Holodeck’ was used, and we all felt like a virtual world where we could do anything suddenly took a big step closer. As a teenager receiving the game as a ‘well done on your GCSEs’ gift (lets skip over my parents’ flagrant disregard for age restrictions for the moment) it blew my mind.

GTA3 also sold. Really bloody well. So everyone started making these crazy big worlds. But the games which followed had lost something in duplication. It would seem that lightning couldn’t be trapped twice. Towards the end of this trend we saw games which took an open world setting, but layered on something new with varied success. Spiderman 2 was surprisingly good on the consoles, possibly because it didn’t try to copy carjacking and gun play. Those that did (including GTA3’s two second gen sequels) piled on complications and surplus mechanics, until the player became bogged down, or worse, overwhelmed.

GTA4, for me at least, was a welcome return to the simple pleasure of exploration and violent crime in GTA3. I had a lot of fun with it, and spent quite a few evenings playing the cops and robbers mode with friends. A year on, and I think inFamous and Red Faction: Guerrilla just trumped it. Here’s some thoughts on how…

  • Real, measurable, ownership of the world: Both games (more so with RF) really push the idea of taking over the game space. Taking part in activities in the world pushes out bad guys, and leads to permanent(ish) displacement. Far Cry 2 had respawning enemies, and even though that was the norm in the FPS genre, open world fans really rebelled. It looks like the guys at Volition and Sucker Punch were reading the blogs. By slowly handing over the space to the player’s control, the designers have ensured a constant feeling of progression, and a near Pokemon like ‘gotta catch em all’ mentality in the player. Smart
  • Unashamed game status: Both these games have a lot of HUD. both feature heavy, and obvious, mathematical feedback. The player is constantly scoring pickups for kills, collectibles, and morale/morality. There is a trend of removing HUD and scores for a more *shudder* cinematic experience (something for another post). This has crept into open world games. The Getaway is an obvious example, but GTA4 is also guilty of it. There’s also a thematic shift in GTA4, a darker, realer world. I say screw it. I want to have fun. Both these games allow me to play with their mechanics and worlds.
  • Considered and consistent game logic: All activities in both games flow from a simple, core, design idea. inFamous lets me use electricity, and Red Faction lets me blow everything up. The designers have expanded and developed those core ideas, without piling on distractions. inFamous in particular is a great example. All gameplay, story and art flows from that core game design idea. The player’s goals are always related to the protagonist’s story, or to collecting energy. It’s all about me. Little things betray how core the design of this game was. In stealth missions, it could have been really frustrating working out where that 4 pixel high enemy was looking, but in this game, you only ever stealth follow the enemy type with a large flashlight on their head (read Metal Gear Solid style vision cone). Fall in water, you short out. It all ties together beautifully. Can’t explore an area, it is of course tied to your power: there’s no energy supply there. Nothing in inFamous feels haphazard or ill thought through (which is more than can be said for this paragraph).

I could gush some more, but I love both these games. There’s a lot of really impressive design at work, and a lot of great inspiration for those looking. Can we do better though? What happens next in the open world genre? go on… comment.. I dare ya 😀