Friday, September 05, 2008

the true heart of "casual"

N'Gai Croal (who I love to hear banter about games with Michael Pachter, by the way) wrote an article that inadvertently highlights the reason the "casual games" trend is a fool's errand.

GameInformer editor-in-chief Andy McNamara recently wrote (September 2008 issue) that the division between casual and hardcore gamers is an illusion. The same gamers who play Halo play Bejeweled. Quality, McNamara says, is what drives game sales. The industry is naturally growing beyond the borders of generations who grew up with video games, growing beyond its initial marketing and distributing limitations, and the major causes of that growth are being misperceived.

Croal's article points out why that argument holds water, at least to a limited extent:

"Every session that I have with one of these games feels like a complete experience – even when it’s interrupted – as though I’ve experienced a beginning, a middle and an end."

That's what "casual" games have that makes them so popular right now, particularly to new and infrequent gamers. They offer a "complete experience" immediately, at any time, and consistently.

Immediately means you don't have to work up to the thrill. The thrill begins when you start the game. MMOs are notorious for telling players "the real fun comes later", and they're shooting themselves in the foot that way. A game that gradually unfolds a story is fine, but there should be some other aspect of the game that is immediate and self-contained (doesn't require remembering what you were doing the last time you played). Fable 2 seems to be an example of a game that offers both a long-term experience and immediate experiences. The omnipresence of immediate experiences and short-term rewards is an important distinction between entertainment and the hardship of real life. Don't make players wait for the thrill.

At any time means the thrill doesn't come in spurts or need rebuilding after the game is paused. Cutscenes are often at odds with this by forcing the player to wait before interaction (play) resumes. Harsh death penalties can put fun on hold or make challenges feel more like work than fun. Pausing a game will inevitably disrupt a player's level of immersion, but keeping fun in all areas and all moments of the game allows the player to regain this immersion quickly and effortlessly. Simple, intuitive controls allow players to move from game to game and take long breaks without feeling frustrated by having to relearn.

Consistently means the thrill is there every time the game is turned on. An MMO, for example, might be inconsistent because its thrill depends on variables like how many players are currently logged in, which players are logged in, or the prevalence of lag. The degree of fun in each play-session is relatively unpredictable. Likewise, games that shift dramatically in content from one point to another, as Half-Life did (human weapons in a human environment --> alien weapons in an alien spaceship) and Assassin's Creed did (fast-paced exploration and combat in the Crusades --> slow dialogue and not much to do during the modern environment), limit their popularity by jarring many players and putting off potential players who don't see a focused game. Every time I boot up Puzzle Quest or Diablo 2, I'll face different challenges and enemies, but the basic style of gameplay remains constant.

Yes, people who are new to gaming or haven't gamed in years need simplicity to convince them they can handle games comfortably. Yes, these potential gamers are more susceptible to lower game prices, because they have not been cultured to accept the high prices of blockbuster games. But beyond that, the appeal of "casual" games is not out of reach of "hardcore" games.

1 comment:

  1. Very nice breakdown of the appeal of casual games. I'll be thinking about this for my next games. :)


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