Thursday, September 21, 2006

Hardcore Casual

Recently and not-so recently I've written about casual games, and how "simplicity" isn't something you can assume for much longer.

Casual games are a fairly new market, and are just now developing the power of genre. Looking back at early computer games and arcade games, we see the same basic thing happening: start simple, get complex.

Each "wave" of game has addressed a new audience. First, video arcades. Their games were short and hard, meant to eat quarters and keep players churning together. Second, home systems (computers, Atari, etc). Their games were intended to convince players that the $60 they spent was worth it by doing just the opposite: taking forever to complete. Third: casual games. Addressing an audience who will often play for a long time, but only in small chunks and games which can be interrupted and canceled.

Each wave addressed its audience in very particular ways. Mechanics appropriate to one group need much tweaking to be appropriate to another. But each wave, without fail, steadily added complexity.

As genres were built up, short-term complexity was added. More moves, more items, more buttons, more options. Each built on the standards that the audience had liked in its genre.

You can already see this happening with Casual Games. Atlantis Sky Patrol, Virtual Villagers, Fish Tycoon, Diner Dash 2... all of these games might not feel complex to you, but compared to their ancestors, they are as much more complex as eels to earthworms. This trend will continue, restricted by the nature of the audience: an audience that can't guarantee even five minutes before the boss walks by. An audience which requires interesting play literally every minute of the game.

In addition, however, as genres were built up, long-term complexity was added. No matter what the target audience, games began to keep data long-term. First, it was simply top scores. Then it was characters and positions. Now, whole rosters. This is true of home systems, this is true of arcades, and it is coming true of casual games.

But the same restrictions apply. The long-term complexity that will be added to casual games will be, at least at first, a mild sort. Think those 3D chat avatars, or the ability to build and furnish your own homes, or to put together a complex friend tree. But as closely related to the casual games as a first-person-shooter dossiere to the first-person-shooter.

Obviously, the way this is most likely to succeed is if some game place, something like Popcap, creates a piece of middleware. The backbone of the middleware creates a massive, shared system for avatar customization, stuff collecting, friend relations, permissions, and so on. Then people can create games - mostly casual ones - which feed back onto that backbone. Like Secondlife, but without the horrible pain.

This has a whole bunch of interesting features. For example, you'll have to arrange it so that pornographic content can't be popped up on your screen without permission, ever. These are often people at work and/or children. Also, older games which few people play will still have unique rewards to offer, so there will be steady "trawling" for "oldschool loot"...

We're likely to see this kind of backbone driven by micropayments, but exactly how that will be set up is still a mystery to me. There are a lot of options.

The effect of this scattered-attention audience on "narrative"-based games is pretty dramatic. The narratives we see on big games of today won't be happening. We're more likely to see very slow narratives (adventure-title type narratives) and more of a "legend-style" narrative, where it's more about character design and a few critical events rather than a specific progression.

There are other effects... it's an exciting field!


Patrick Dugan said...

I totally feel that, I've been doing a deal of research lately, reading some articles and analyst reports and playing the hell out of the top 20.

A common pattern for more succesful casual games is to have multiple releases after getting customer feedback and tweaking. I think it'd be worth making two or three more releases into '07, as an aggregated player community can provide some solid long tail revenues. The thing is, if you do the iterative releases, you tend to get bigger sales bursts than at the initial release, to its like long tail with an added multiplier. We'll cross those bridges as we go of course, might have to hire another programmer, we'll see. The sort of features you describe could feasibly be added over that time scale, once we've seen initial revenues.

I've e-mailed a Cuttlefish expert marine biologist about him showing me some video footage he shot. If we do decide to go with that specific cephelapod it might be useful!

Stay brillaint.

Craig Perko said...

Iterative releases are obvious and good, no news there.

But this post has NOTHING to do with ANYTHING you or I are working on. Please try to stay on topic.

Patrick Dugan said...

Alright, I got some on topic for you:

This game can be picked up and dropped, theoretically, in five minute intervals, where a few cycles of gameplay can go on in that short time. Its UI is a single mouse button, with some complexity in the range of things to click on, however its straightfoward enough that many could play it. At the same time, its incredibly hardcore, for those that want it to be, you can try to beat your score, or simply enjoy a few spins during lunch.

Play With Fire exhibits this hardcore casual property to a degree as well, we structured the content to theres some easy fun, and if you're hardcore, or become hardcore, you can try for the combo goals and play the challenge path. Its like active difficulty adjustment, but leveraged as process that widens and cultivates the audience.

Craig Perko said...

Those are both solid links, although I don't actually LIKE the Space Trader game. It's kind of... antiseptic. Doesn't really draw me in at all.

Patrick Dugan said...

Thats funny, I've been greatly enjoying it.

Another game you might want to consider is Fate:

I'd be interested to see the figures on that one. But regardless, as a benchmark of craft, it shows that you can do traditional genre's in a casual way, and perhaps vice versa. This is very interesting to me, because it means that developing for the casual market doesn't mean you can't do something interesting that explores complex dynamics, you just have to design the UI and the overall metaphor in a way thats palatable to the wider audience. Its also possible to make games which have casual appeal, but which are also preffered by the traditional genre addicts, because the experience is so streamlined and non-commital.

It'd be interesting to apply that to new genres as well.

Craig Perko said...

Well, people have different tastes.

But as to pioneering - it's best to learn to walk before learning how to build a jet airplane, I always say. If you don't have a solid grasp of the basics, you don't have a foundation to build on.

So, yes, it'll be fun to explore new ideas and genres, but hopefully it won't be too boring establishing a solid skill and experience base first.

Patrick Dugan said...

The king of relevant links: