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  • Book Excerpt: Creating Casual Games for Profit and Fun

    [04.19.07]
    - Allen Partridge
  •  Modes of Play

    Another mainstay of casual games is the provision of various modes of gameplay, generally a manipulation of the rules, allowing a player to change the experience of the game to better suit player preferences (Figure 1.25). This makes the game more ubiquitous, as players with different likes and dislikes will be able to customize the game rules to their likings, but because the players in this group are fairly unlikely to seek out or make that sort of adjustment, it isn't clear that there is any real perceived additional value for the consumer in making ­additional options available. This leaves developers with a tough ­decision to make. Is it better to present players with a large list of choices to launch various game modes, or is it better to simply get them playing and ignore game customization altogether?


    Figure 1.25 Skunk Studios' Sveerz features four modes of gameplay.
    © Skunk Studios, Inc.® All Rights Reserved.

    If the developer chooses to provide these options, there are several different ways that the features may be implemented. The difficulty of the game can often be increased or decreased by changing variables in the programming. Another common option is to play a narrative-driven versus a basic arcade-style version of the game. The rules of play can also be varied, altering the overall experience within the shared conventions and interface. Finally, some casual games allow players to customize the game itself by changing fundamental elements within the game.

    Difficulty

    Adjusting the level of difficulty is a typical feature in many games, but it is not all that common in casual games. Often developers build this sort of function into a game simply because it is likely to be tweaked frequently during the beta testing. Some developers argue that finding the perfect level of difficulty for a game is more important than everything else. It's a very good point.

    The casual game player does not like to lose. They aren't interested in an overly challenging or confrontational environment. Setting the level of difficulty too high is a common mistake. The audience for casual games is extremely broad, and often these players are struggling with basic interaction, so convoluted controls can be a real product killer. Likewise, experienced game players (and developers) tend to set the level of difficulty much too high. It's threatening to the players who don't consider themselves accomplished gamers and therefore affects sales negatively.

    When working on our first casual game, Word Whacky, we struggled to understand and appreciate this concept. When conceptualizing the game, we didn't really understand the audience. We thought people addicted to word games would be ­interested in bigger, more exciting options. We designed a game that was faster, harder, and more sophisticated than any available casual word game. We began to realize that something was really wrong as we started to see who was buying the game.

    The demographic of purchasers was loaded with highly skilled professionals such as doctors, lawyers, and psychologists. They were not a broad-based audience at all. Our beta testers tried to tell us that we had managed to squeeze all of the fun out of the game, but we just didn't listen. Had we listened to the audience, we would have quickly realized that they don't play word games because they want to challenge their mental acuity and expand their vocabulary. They play them because they provide the sort of reward for simple play that makes them happy. They play to have fun, not to work.

    In retrospect it's easy to see that while Word Whacky is probably the most challenging word game available, it is also loaded with ­examples of what not to do to achieve success in the casual games ­industry.

    In word games difficulty is managed in several ways. First, players are often given access to integrated hints that enable quick escape when they aren't finding the answer (Figure 1.26). They are also generally only challenged with short, simple words. Word Whacky uses one of the largest dictionaries available to find valid words, while typical word games use much smaller dictionaries that are limited to much more common words. Many word games further simplify things by providing definitions of target words.


    Figure 1.26 Pixelstorm and Pogo's Word Whomp uses hints to guide players to potential answers. PogoTM Images © 2007 Electronic Arts Inc. Pogo, Pogo to Go, and Word Whomp are trademarks or registered trademarks of Electronic Arts Inc. in the U.S. and/or other countries.
    All Rights Reserved. Used with permission.

    Story and Arcade Games

    Frequently the story of a game and the game itself may be easily separated. Some players find the narrative essential. It helps them keep track of progress, contextualize the problems, and appreciate the rewards. Other players find the story annoying. They don't want to take time to watch animation or read text; they just want to play the game. Typically a casual game that has story and arcade modes of play is attempting to address these disparate tastes by allowing players to choose whether or not to go through the narrative aspects of the game.

    Rule Variation

    Sometimes the rules of the game may be easily changed. This means the player can have an entirely different game-playing experience because the rules of play are ­different in different versions of the game. For example, changing the rules of Mahjong to force players to lift tiles off a conveyer belt before too many pile up is a way to change the rules of the game. It would also change the rules if you allowed tiles to relate to one another in nonstandard ways or created a poker game with different rules regarding the face value or playability of cards. Sometimes these differences can be slight enough changes that developers include them as optional modes of game play.

    Game Customization

    One element of game customization is standard practice in casual games. Players are usually asked at the beginning of the game to give their name. This device is no doubt common because it makes it possible for developers to automatically save ­information about the player's progress and success in the game. Casual game ­players don't usually like to save information manually, preferring to stay invested in the game or get to whatever real-world tasks are pending. Word Whacky and Podz provide good examples of the different ways of handling the saving and loading of casual games (Figure 1.27). In Word Whacky users were prompted to save their games by typing in a preferred name and pressing a button to save. Conversely they may load games from a menu of available saved games.


    Figure 1.27 This load game screen forces players to search for old games.

    Podz uses the more accepted method for casual games. It solicits the player's name immediately and then allows the player to create new profiles (or games) by using a drop-down menu available when starting the game (Figure 1.28).


    Figure 1.28 This game uses profiles to automatically save and load.

    In addition to this well-established approach to customization, casual games can also allow the players to further customize their game experience through a ­variety of other devices. Players may be asked to create a virtual representation of themselves, or an avatar, which can be customized to create a look and feel that they prefer. Players may also be invited to customize other aspects of the game, including the interface elements or colors, but keep in mind that this will probably not help make the game more marketable. This audience is unlikely to spend time on this sort of thing and could easily find a large set of options intimidating. Note that the most successful and universally adopted customization is only there to make the game's saving and loading features more transparent. The customization makes the experience easier for the players, who then can be called away at any time and never have to worry about how the game managed to magically remember where they left off, even if it was shut down with little warning.

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