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  • Book Excerpt: Creating Casual Games for Profit and Fun

    [04.19.07]
    - Allen Partridge

  •  Developing Extensible Puzzles

    Another essential way to respond to the needs of your audience is to design puzzles and challenges that may be easily modified and complicated to maximize their usefulness while minimizing development costs. Profit margins for game developers in the casual games industry are not huge. If you are going to be successful, you'll need to keep development costs as low as you can. Designing and developing puzzles that can easily be reused simply by changing the rules of play slightly will greatly reduce your costs.

    Typical casual games are produced by teams of 5-10 developers. Insight Interactive Games produces them with only two developers and one artist.

    In a practical sense this means doing things like creating a color-matching game that uses the same basic logic throughout but adds a few elements (rewards such as bombs and chain reactions or punitive elements such as blocked paths and time limits) to complicate your puzzle without draining your limited development budget. A common and easy-to-implement example of this is timers. By simply decreasing the amount of time available to solve your puzzle, you can create a great sense of excitement for the player, with almost no additional programming.

    Zuma Deluxe provides a great example of how even a simple device like a timer can delight the player. As balls pile up and the player is in danger of losing to the cave, the mouth of the demon starts to open slowly, and an audible timer ticks faster and faster. A simple graphical representation combined with compelling audio creates the combination of time pressure (the balls pushed out over time) and distance from the cave. The players can literally feel the pressure as the gates open and feel the relief if they manage to eliminate enough balls to close them.

    Time, Complication, and Nesting Goals

    Designers use several basic methods to create engaging and self-complicating puzzles. Developers learn to use these puzzle complication strategies to create great games. It's important to remember that no matter which of these strategies you use, casual game players do not like to lose. They are interested in a casual, fun experience. They want to enjoy their time without significant investment and without arbitrary or unproductive distractions such as losing the game.

    Many casual games don't even include a lose screen or option (Figure 1.10). Failure to accomplish a goal simply results in the player repeating the current level or area.


    Figure 1.10 A lose screen from Word Whacky lets the player start again.

    The first method is to manipulate time. There are a couple of ways to do this. Limit the amount of time a player has to solve a puzzle. Increase or decrease the speed at which a given element of the puzzle moves or interacts. Using these strategies you can easily reward the player by adding time or adjusting the rate of game elements or challenge the player by reducing available time or adjusting the rate of game elements in a manner that makes the game more difficult (Figure 1.11).




    Figure 1.11 Time is an ever-present force in MCF: Prime Suspects.
    © Big Fish Games. All Rights Reserved.

    The second puzzle enhancement method is to complicate the puzzle. This can also be accomplished in a variety of ways. The number of tasks that must be completed can be increased, the rules for completing a task can be adjusted, and the environment in which the game is played can be made more complex.

    Puzzle Enhancement and Extension Methods
    Manipulate time
    Complicate the puzzle
    Change the goals or rules

    Designers can also make changes to the goals of the game that will entice the player to continue. This is generally done by nesting a new goal inside a perceived reward. In other words, the player ­accomplishes a task or solves a puzzle and is rewarded with a new, different puzzle. This is often the strategy of games that include substantial story elements (Figure 1.12).


    Figure 1.12 A complication in Zuma Deluxe puts balls beneath parts of the map.
    © PopCap Games, Inc. PopCap Games, Zuma, Feeding Frenzy, Bookworm, Bejeweled, and Diamond Mine are registered trademarks or PopCap Games, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

    Games like PopCap's Zuma Deluxe are generally categorized as arcade or action games because the objectives emphasize shooting and fast-paced action. There are also strong puzzle elements to many of these games, most notably the need to match three tokens.

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