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  • Book Excerpt: Creating Casual Games for Profit and Fun

    [04.19.07]
    - Allen Partridge
  •  Navigation Conventions

    Some navigation conventions have become so common to casual game interfaces that it's tempting to believe they are a product of the industry. For the most part, the casual games industry did not invent these navigational approaches, but it has worked as a body to standardize them to a much higher degree than any other type of game. The similarities these interface conventions bear to the conventions seen in children's games during the 1990s is striking.

    Note here that we're not talking about the chrome or aesthetic qualities of the games-casual games rarely have any kind of juvenile or child-friendly look to them-but the user interaction and navigation qualities of the interfaces. Casual games typically use progress maps to provide a sort of visual narrative of overall success for the player. These maps are used to guide and motivate the player. Multiple modes of game play are also a mainstay. These modes can facilitate different levels of difficulty, narrative, or even varying game rules.

    Progress Indicators

    Sprout Games' Feeding Frenzy 2 includes a great example of the classic approach to a progress map. The basic idea is that the players can quickly see how much progress they have made toward beating or finishing the game. Progress indicators come in many different forms, including classic maps, rankings, gates, or other inhibitors that forbid the player to move on in the game without solving a given puzzle or round (Figure 1.21). Casual games often include clear, easy-to-follow images that represent these steps to solving the overall game. This creates an inherent sense of narrative and gives users an increasing sense of reward as they move farther and farther along the path.


    Figure 1.21 A progress map from Feeding Frenzy 2 by Sprout Games.
    © PopCap Games, Inc., PopCap Games, Zuma, Feeding Frenzy, Bookworm, Bejeweled, and Diamond Mine are registered trademarks or PopCap Games, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

    Some progress maps include animations and create a sort of narrative as the player witnesses a game character moving from one location to the next.

    Progressive Maps

    Progress maps create a very clear indicator of the player's success in the overall game. The maps are often level selection interfaces as well. The basic idea is that a spatial world is defined for the game and the map identifies places through which the player has traveled. In Sprout Game's Feeding Frenzy 2, for example, the players work their way through a series of underwater locations. Each location is noted like a city on a map, and once the players have completed a level they may click on the dot to return to that level at any time.

    Dropping the Gates

    Another approach to player progress is to provide gates or locks that prevent the player from moving forward in the game until they have accomplished a given task or solved a given puzzle. Games have used mechanisms of this sort nearly since their inception. The idea is that the player must defeat all of the enemies before the drawbridge falls or must find all of the gems before the key will appear. Keys and locks are the most obvious forms of gates in games, but in casual games they tend to be related quite clearly to clearing a level or accomplishing a goal (Figure 1.22). You can, of course, find some casual games that use literal locks and doors to accomplish this sort of progress indication.


    Figure 1.22 A gate in TradewindsTM Legends is locked until a power-up is acquired.
    All Tradewind Legends, Westward, and Glyph properties are trademarks, registered trademarks, or copyrights owned exclusively by Sandlot Games Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

    There are several good reasons why game developers would choose to develop their games with this sort of gate, breaking the game into smaller chunks. In casual games, as in virtually all computer games, the player responds to a series of rewards and challenges. It is essential that these rewards and challenges are communicated clearly and simply for the messages to get clearly through to the player. The gates provide an opportunity to give new information to the player at predictable intervals. Many casual games take full advantage of these natural breaks to guide the player to supplemental information. A common system in
    casual games is to trigger guidance or help at these points in the game, essentially combining the fact that a new level is a complication, and it will require some new information to get beyond that complication.

    Sprout Games' Feeding Frenzy 2 provides a nice example of this sort of new concept narrative between levels (Figure 1.23). As the new player first encounters the game, no real instruction is required. Mouse movement causes a clear fish movement, so the player only needs to understand that the point is to eat smaller fish and avoid being eaten. At the first level completion, the player is given new information about gameplay. They learn that by pressing the mouse button, they can get a forward speed burst.


    Figure 1.23 Players are taught how to dash between rounds in Feeding Frenzy 2.
    © PopCap Games, Inc., PopCap Games, Zuma, Feeding Frenzy, Bookworm, Bejeweled, and Diamond Mine are registered trademarks or PopCap Games, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

    Earning Tools and Enhancing Powers

    Sometimes the progress indicator in a casual game comes in the form of an earned tool or power-up. These take a variety of forms, but one good example is found in most match-three games. Many of today's puzzle games are descendents of a game developed by a trio of Russian students in the 1980s called Tetris. The wildly popular game is played by dropping shaped blocks into a glass or tray and rotating them in order to create horizontal rows of solid blocks. When an entire horizontal row is filled with solid blocks, the row is removed and the blocks fall downward. One evolution of this game genre is the match-three switching game, which became legend in the casual games industry with the release of Diamond MineTM (later called Bejeweled) from PopCap Games (Figures 1.24).


    Figure 1.24 PopCap's Diamond Mine made the match-three a household game.
    © PopCap Games, Inc., PopCap Games, Zuma, Feeding Frenzy, Bookworm, Bejeweled, and Diamond Mine are registered trademarks or PopCap Games, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

    In PopCap's original release, Diamond Mine, there are not power-ups for matching clusters of more than three gems, but in the retooled and massively successful Bejeweled 2 the power-ups are a major part of gameplay. It is immediately clear when playing the game that these power-ups provide a much-needed internal reward. They explode, knocking out clusters of blocks or zap them with electric beams and create a more exiting game dynamic.

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