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  • Book Excerpt: Creating Casual Games for Profit and Fun

    [04.19.07]
    - Allen Partridge

  •  Integrated Context-Based Help

    One mechanism that has become common in casual games, probably because of its ability to respond to the frustrations and concerns of casual gamers, is integrated, context-sensitive help. Casual game developers now generally include extensive features aimed at guiding the player through the game. Some estimate that as much as 30% of casual game development time can be spent creating help features that are intended to put casual gamers at ease and meet their every need. To understand these tools and features, you need to start thinking like a casual gamer.

    Spare Me the Question

    The first rule of casual game help systems could be described as spare me the question. Why should the player have a question in the first place? If you label everything clearly and give context clues and feedback for everything, the players won't have any questions (Figure 1.16). They will simply understand what kind of interaction is expected and then proceed to playing the game.


    Figure 1.16 A context-based help screen from Podz is called after a few misses.

    Feedback is any reassurance provided by interface items that an interaction element will behave the way that the player expects. A good example is a button that appears to glow when the player moves the mouse over it, appears depressed when the player selects it, and appears raised or unaffected when it is not selected.

    The idea here is that you should at least be able to separate the mechanics of the computer from the actual game. This manifests itself in all kinds of ways, including things such as save and load game features that automatically do the work that in typical hard-core games require significant user participation. In a typical hard-core game, user customization is king. If the player wants to save a game, it is presumed that he will want to be able to save under various names and have all sorts of information about the game available. In a typical casual game, the save and load features are simply done for the player.

    Context clues provide information to the player based on what the player seems to be doing. A common example is a pop-up help tip. If a player holds the mouse over an interface element for a period of time (usually a second or so) without doing anything, a help item can appear to tell the player about the function of the button or interface element.

    The game will usually save automatically, similar to the way a word processor saves your document periodically. To casual gamers, it often appears that the game simply recognizes them and remembers where they left off in the game. The practice of assigning human characteristics to their computers is typical, and thinking in this way can help you understand the viewpoint of the primary audience.

    Anthropomorphism, the practice of assigning human qualities to inanimate or nonhuman entities, is not at all unique to casual game players. It is a natural byproduct of explaining complex computer behavior by relating it to things that we think of as human. Sometimes this tendency makes it a bit more difficult to figure out how to make parts of a game, because the developer must first refute the supposition that the computer behaves in some way and then design the specific interactions that result in the perceived behavior.

    Anticipating the Player's Experience

    Anticipating what the player will experience during every stage of interaction with your game is a fundamental part of game design, regardless of the game's classification. This generally takes the form of a "walkthrough" in a treatment or a storyboard or flow diagram. We'll talk more about creating a game treatment in Chapter 2. The walkthrough is a description of a typical player's experience, generally from the moment they begin the game through the first level of game play. Figuring out what their experience will be can help developers discover elements that may be confusing or unusual and to plan and implement tools that will reduce or eliminate potential road blocks.

    Anticipating the Players' Needs

    Casual games anticipate players' needs and include features designed to meet those needs. They anticipate the audience's questions and answer them even before they are asked. For example, most casual games include options to enable and disable the audio, to set the application to play full screen or in windowed mode, and other controls to make the game conform to the needs and expectations of the player. Often small accommodations are made, such as pausing and player time-outs to account for players being unexpectedly interrupted and walking away from the game for a period of time (Figure 1.17).



    Figure 1.17 In Skunk Studios'® Sveerz players pause using the universal pause symbol.
    © Skunk Studios, Inc.® All Rights Reserved.

    In every case the player is not punished for such unexpected behavior. In other words, pausing the game doesn't lead to a lost round or level, nor does walking away for a short period. It's important to note here that casual gamers are just as likely to become hopelessly addicted to a game as a hard-core gamer, but as a general rule, they are much less likely to tolerate severe punishments, especially for incidental interruptions (Figure 1.18).


    Figure 1.18 MCF: Prime Suspects combines pause with the options menu.
    © Big Fish Games. All Rights Reserved.

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