Sunday, June 8, 2008

Ruminations on Casual Games

There has been quite a bit of talk the past couple of years about the growing casual games industry. Although previously most casual games were purely free Flash or Java based internet games, Nintendo has started an annoying trend of trying to cater directly to this so-called "casual" crowd with their newest consoles (most specifically the Nintendo DS and the Wii). To the absolute chegrin of "real" gamers (ie people who actually CARE about video games), both consoles, especially the Wii, are drowning in what is commonly referred to as shovelware: pet and baby care sims (insulting games for the little girl tween market that requires its own angry post), movie tie-in games, and so on, each one with a lower production value than the last.

So here's the biggest question for any developers: what, exactly, constitues "casual" gaming, and what can we do to accomidate this elusive market with extremely fun, high quality games? And are people ignoring the fact that many so-called "hardcore" games could, in theory, be fantastic casual games?

Well okay...a casual gamer...a few things come to mind:
1) not interested in getting into a game too deeply (ie want to play quickly and be done with it)
2) not interested in spending lots of money on equipment or games
3) not interested in getting involved with the culture around a game (outside of maybe a casual MMO such as RuneScape); if there IS a culture it needs to be completely casual as well
4) zero learning curve, but there is room to allow for increased difficulty or it could get boring, even in a short amount of time

There are a few examples of more "hardcore" games that could easily be considered more casual, or have elements of casual games, except for a few key issues. Team Fortress 2 has excellent class balance, and is extremely condusive to pick-up-and-play. Play the Pyro and you're guaranteed to at least enjoy yourself, even if you're terrible at the game. The problem? Same as all online multiplayer FPSes...the culture that has built up around it can be extremely harsh and unforgiving, which is not something casual gamers are prepared to deal with, nor should they have to. Portal is another excellent example; they story and atmosphere are very fun, and the puzzles are challenging. The fact that it is very rare for the character to die is also very appealing. The problem with this game is that, although you learn new skills in each level, it's very hands-off in term of instructions, and even after blowing through the main game I had huge problems getting through the very intense and challenging boss battle. Katamari Damacy, Ratchet and Clank....the list goes on.

So say we have a game similar to TF2 or Portal...an online mutiplayer game with a strong focus on fun, maybe some puzzles, doesn't have to be a first person shooter. The first move would be to make the controls absolutely transparent, possibly with a pull down menu in the corner and can easily be dismissed and turned off (this is another issue with TF2, the keyboard commands can get confusing for any but the most hardcore FPS player). Since it's an online multiplayer game, the environment should be more condusive to teamwork (a la TF2) with less emphasis on destroying the other person (even to the point where the "adversary" is a computer like in Portal). Along these same lines set up very strict etiquitte rules for servers, or make it very easy for someone to turn off communication and to play on a private server or alone, and allow players to easily message admins about players breaking these rules.

Anyway, this post is quickly turning rambling; I may run with this and try to post a real design later. The casual gamer market is quickly becoming very important, mostly due to the fact that it is obviously becoming very profitable. With more care and planning, all casual games could easily be elevated to the level of "gateway drug"...games as high-quality, but low-cost as Katamari Damacy that make people realize how fun video games really can be (as an interesting side-note I think Katamari would have sold much better if it had been marketed more as a casual game, but unfortunately it was released on PS2, and before the Wii or DS). Check back for a possible design later!

1 comment:

Bob Rogan said...

I did like your description of the casual gamer..it is however, such a broad term that there are many different descriptions of what "casual gaming" stands for. I am interested to see where this industry will be a few years from now.