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  • Book Excerpt: Creating Casual Games for Profit and Fun

    [04.19.07]
    - Allen Partridge

  •  Hook to Sell

    Ultimately, to profit from a casual game, a developer must include a substantial hook. Most developers agree that the key to hooking an audience on a new game is in that mysterious and elusive quality, addictiveness. If there were a simple formula that could be used to identify or design addictive games, every game on the planet would be hopelessly addictive. It just isn't that easy. Still, some qualities are consistently present in addictive games. It is reasonable to conclude that designing games that make use of these aspects commonly observed in addictive games could help make a game more successful and perhaps even make it slightly more addictive.

    While addictiveness is necessary to turn a game download into a sale, it is not by itself sufficient to make a casual game a success. Casual game players generally know almost immediately if they are going to buy a game. The addictiveness is important, but it is also important that the players feel that the game has something else to offer them.

    Five-Minute Window

    The most addictive games generally convince the player to purchase within the first five minutes. If your game hasn't hooked the audience within about five minutes, they are likely to shut it down at the next convenient spot. Players often play every game for quite a while, but if they come back to a game, they are much more likely to pay the upgrade cost. The experience for the player during this initial five minutes is crucial.

    You need to make certain that every aspect of their experience feels slick and professional, that they have no doubt that the product performs well. Most developers feel that the challenge here is to create lots of cool features and gadgets. The truth is that the only thing enticing players to buy is that they are having a good time.

    This means the game must be learned almost immediately and that the initial experience must be very pleasant (Figure 1.13). People don't like to lose. They must not lose right out of the gate, or there must be some potential to see progress, during the first few minutes of game play.


    Figure 1.13 Feeding Frenzy® 2 is very addictive and requires virtually no explanation.
    © PopCap Games, Inc., PopCap Games, Zuma, Feeding Frenzy, Bookworm, Bejeweled, and Diamond Mine are registered trademarks or PopCap Games, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

    In Feeding Frenzy 2 the reward for purchase is in part immediately apparent. Players who purchase the game and continue playing will be able to experience many additional fish and environments.

    Casual Means Trauma Free

    It is nearly impossible to overestimate the amount of timidity and outright fear common among the audience of casual games. This group is often concerned that they will break or disable their computers. They are reticent to explore or play, so they will often just close a new game, quitting before play if any element is unclear.

    One of the biggest frustrations of developing for this audience has been that they often get addicted to our games when introduced to them by one of the developers, but similar testers would panic and bail out when asked to play the game without any live person helping them as they learned the rules. This is actually a great way to understand and anticipate the concerns and fears of your audience. You won't always be around to explain how to play the game, so you need to develop a perfect virtual guide that can hold the hands of the nervous players as they slowly encounter every new button, bomb, and barrier.

    Many casual game developers spend more time tweaking, manipulating the difficulty levels, challenges, and rewards in the game than they do creating the game's essential functions.

    Of course, one of the problems in developing casual games is that some people, including virtually every developer on the planet, find this sort of handholding and nurse-maiding very irritating. First, remember that the larger portion of your audience falls in the guide me category. Second, you can always find ways to disable your help services, letting advanced users avoid this kind of detailed instruction (Figure 1.14). Above all, the experience must be free of trauma. The player is in search of a pleasant, fun overall experience, so frustration should never overtake challenge. It's fun to be challenged; it isn't fun to be frustrated.


    Figure 1.14 Players are often able to disable help using a button on the tips.

    So far, although these games are downloaded online, the players and portals have tended to avoid the multiplayer arena. Some portals insist that the game have absolutely no code that enables the game to perform any functions over the Internet, including things like online scoreboards and communities.

    Understanding the Demographic

    According to a June 2006 survey by Macrovision®, the average casual gamer is a woman, in her early 40s, playing at night. She's on a broadband connection, which also implies that she has disposable income. Her hobbies include pets, travel, arts and crafts, shopping, and gardening. She sits down to play more than once a day on average and she sticks to it for at least an hour when she does. She also likes to play when she has the house to herself, which is pretty often because there's a 60% chance that no children under 18 are living with her. Her favorite games by far are puzzles, followed fairly closely by card games. She'll occasionally download and play a strategy game (like Mahjong) or an action game. Perhaps most importantly, she has downloaded games online and has purchased at least one already this year.

    Some of the more common puzzle games in recent years have been descendents of tangrams. Tangrams are a form of dissection puzzle originally created in China (Figure 1.15).


    Figure 1.15 Dissection puzzle games ask players to match shapes to a pattern.

    Anticipating Frustration

    Because this audience is known to be easily put off, developers must anticipate both their audience's tolerance level for frustration and the symptoms that show they have reached that level. All games have some challenging components. It is part of the fun of playing a game. The major battle for the developer of casual games is in finding exactly the right balance between challenging the player with potentially frustrating puzzles and rewarding the player with victories.

    One way to become aware of the level of frustration experienced by a player is to integrate monitoring or tracking functions into beta tests of a game. Developers can monitor things like the number of successful attempts versus failed attempts at each task over a broad group of testers within the intended demographic and then make better informed decisions about setting difficulty levels in the game.

    Monitoring or tracking player interaction can be useful for more than figuring out when to provide help. Developers often program the game to watch for inactivity. If the player is distracted or called away, an inactive game can be paused so that the player's work is saved and timers do not run out when no one is actually playing the game.

    Many of the conventions used in today's casual games were common in children's games for the past decade. While ­casual games are seldom targeted at young audiences, many of the conventions that made children's games easy to use have been adopted and improved for casual games. Notable examples include the use of detailed, learn-as-you-play help systems and constant and consistent feedback associated with every player interaction.

    This strategy can also be implemented dynamically in some cases. The same tracking functions can watch a player's success-to-failure ratio and then offer assistance or dynamically alter the difficulty level based on the player's success or failure. This method can be quite tricky, as it's also possible to make changes that the players notice and in so doing, further frustrate them.

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