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 🙂


2 Responses to “Keeping it Casual”

  1. 1 Tekchip August 28, 2009 at 7:14 pm

    Great post. Spot on! “The difference here is that the casual player is testing real world skills, but in an entertaining way.” the same parallel is what happens in the case of the controller as well which you touched on briefly. I think its also important to note that it still does what a game is supposed to do and to a point has some suspension of disbelief involved. Cooking Mama for example lets you totally screw up a recipe with out the detriment of having to eat it afterward. Or guitar hero lets you be terrible with out to many real people laughing you off a stage.

  2. 2 mikebithell August 30, 2009 at 5:15 pm

    that’s a really cool observation.. that casual games allow the player an experience without consequence…

    The themes, activities and situations of most games are deliberately chosen by the dev team as ‘wish fulfilment’ for this very reason. We know that teenage boys want to be rockstar action heroes, because a large proportion of the decision makers used to be them.

    Which of course lends a worrying perspective on the majority of ‘girl games’. They seem to be encoded with the idea that all girls want to be models, or take part in gender stereotypical activities. This betrays some dodgy assumption on the part of the developer/publisher.

    The casual game I’ve been helping out with (based on the Nickelodeon girl-centric sitcom, iCarly) is largely non-gender encoded. The player’s goal is to be funny, and entertaining to an AI audience. We can’t take all of the credit, as a lot of that comes from the show, which is refreshingly free of a lot of the ‘girl’ content you’d expect.

    Oops, a massive reply.. i apologize 😀

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