Book Excerpt: Creating Casual Games for Profit and Fun

By Allen Partridge [04.19.07]  [Part 1, "Designing and Developing Casual Games," and Chapter 1, "Casual Game Design Basics," are printed with permission from Charles River Media. Creating Casual Games for Profit and Fun by Allen Partridge.]

Designing and Developing Casual Games

A variety of genres and formats are now commonplace in the newly emerging casual games market. This part of the book includes an examination and analysis of hit casual games and successful genres as well as an introduction to the basic model used by game developers to create casual games (Figure 1.1 seen in title image).

You will learn to implement a casual game, from initial treatment to final installation, in this part of the book. Casual games typically feature many special techniques that are detailed and demonstrated in Adobe Flash and Adobe Director. Common game development methods are also demonstrated in this section.

One mixed blessing of casual games is that they have rapidly fallen into several common conventions for better appeal to the mass market. The market for casual games is substantially larger than that of hard-core games. It is flooded with people just beginning to master the use of their personal computers. In some ways this normalization or standardization of games in the industry is helpful to developers, because it clarifies exactly what tasks need to be completed for your game. On the other hand, it can be a real creativity killer, tempting developers to fall into the fold, pressing out an endless array of Tetris® descendents.

Originally released in 1986, Tetris was created by Alexey Pajitnov, Dmitry Pavlovsky, and Vadim Gerasimov. The trio of Russian computer programmers was fascinated by the burgeoning computer games industry and hatched a plan to create several hit games. Tetris was not the one they expected to flourish, but it quickly demonstrated that elusive power to addict its audience. The game's name is a combination of tetramino (four boxes arranged in varied patterns, see Figure 1.2) and tennis.

Figure 1.2 Tetramino are the four block combination shapes featured in Tetris.

In this chapter you will learn how to:

Design a game that is accessible to a mass audience and that excites players

Design rules and puzzles for a game that reward players effectively

Explain the science behind a games challenge/reward model to producers and clients.

Plan a strategy for hooking your audience in the first few minutes of play

Design integrated help systems to guide your audience through your game

Develop reward systems that provide constant reassurance and satisfaction as well as escalating rewards that motivate continued play

Tease, tempt, and promise bigger and better rewards and features

Emulate standard industry navigation conventions

Apply these skills to the development of a game

Industry analysts have predicted that the worldwide market for casual games will be 1.2-1.5 billion dollars by 2007. Approximately 50% of industry profits come from advertising while players are enjoying the game online at portal sites.

 Easy to Learn, Tough to Master

When asked to define casual games, the phrase easy to learn, tough to master generally comes to mind. In some ways it sums up the concept beautifully. It's such a universal truth that you'll find the phrase in the ad campaigns and mission statements of countless games and game companies in the casual games industry. It means these games are based on simple, universally understandable conventions. They combine a model of constant enticement and reward with an increasingly complicated puzzle or problem. The objective provides just the right amount of stimulation for people to enjoy. While this definition is at the heart of casual games, it can also be found at the heart of many games. A casual game is easy to learn and hard to master, but it is also something more.

Players access casual games using popular portals (Figure 1.3). Portals are online retail outlets and distribution centers. These often provide a sense of community for game players, allowing members to write reviews of their favorite games and providing a nonstop stream of new online and downloadable casual games.

Figure 1.3 Reflexive Arcade is one of several popular casual game portals.
© Reflexive Entertainment. All Rights Reserved.

The term casual is a description of the audience, not the games. A casual game shouldn't be nonimmersive or nonengaging. Casual game players can be as heavily involved in any given moment of game play as a hard-core gamer. The difference is largely that they probably wouldn't define themselves as gamers if you asked. They are looking for a game experience that does not require a significant investment. Ironically it doesn't mean they aren't going to make one.

Qualities of a Casual Game
Easy to learn, tough to master
Audience does not consider themselves gamers
Broad appeal and inoffensive content
Easily acquired, typically via Internet download

A casual game is easy to learn to play and it never makes the player feel threatened or inadequate. Another characteristic of a ­casual game is that it appeals to the target demographic: a forty-year-old woman with an interest in travel, pets, and gardening. She has disposable income and plays casual games quite regularly on the ­Internet. It's important to note that this audience is widely regarded as an expanding market, so it is likely that the demographics will continue to evolve over the next decade.

Casual games are benign and have a broad appeal. They feature subjects, characters, and gameplay that are never offensive. While they are clean enough for kids, they are not juvenile or childish. The subjects are not conflict-oriented (war games) or adult in nature. The games can be played by anyone and witnessed by anyone and are easily understood by everyone.

Finally, a casual game uses a customer-friendly, easy-to-acquire sales model. It isn't generally sold in stores. It's available online for free and then after a time asks the player to purchase a license in order to keep playing. The purchase process, handled through digital rights management (DRM) tools, is as simple and as reassuring as possible for the customer. This is critical because it introduces a fact about casual games that is often overlooked. They are impulse purchases, made because the player feels a need to keep playing that game (Figure 1.4).

Figure 1.4 A Boonty digital rights management/up-sell pop up.
© 2004 Boonty. All Rights Reserved.

Boonty is one of the largest casual games platforms in the world, operating in more than 25 countries. Since its launch in 2001, the company's customized end-to-end solutions have been implemented by major publishers, Internet portals, ISPs, mobile phone operators, advertisers, Internet communities, and PC manufacturers globally.

How many entertainment products can you think of that let you take them home and try them for an hour or two before you decide whether to buy them? The standard for top-10 hits in casual games is insanely high. It is not uncommon for dozens of new casual games to appear on the portals every week, so catching the attention of a large audience is very challenging. Ultimately it doesn't matter if an enormous number of people play the game, if very few of them actually pay to own the game. A developer could easily create a game that more than 100,000 people will play, but never earn a profit from the title. However, a developer can create a game that over a year could generate half a million dollars or more (just for the developer) and over its lifespan could net millions. This topic is discussed in Part 2 of this book, which deals with the market and the industry.

The term success is used to describe any game that makes a profit. The term hit is commonly used to describe a game that achieves substantial ubiquity and enjoys a long run at the top of ratings charts.

 Cognitive Process of Challenge and Reward

People are constantly learning. It's an absolutely essential part of human nature. We all are built to be curious and to learn from the investigations that this inherent ­curiosity launches. We see this all the time in our daily lives. You may meet friends in the shopping mall and note that one seems distracted or evasive. Generally we try to explore and examine such irregular behavior. Sometimes we ask direct questions, such as, "Are you okay?" At other times we simply explore the question internally and wonder what might have distracted them. If we see a simple math problem, we often solve it without being asked. This is an obvious truth, but its easier to see in the young, as once we are older, there are fewer unknowns.

We play games, watch murder mysteries, explore caverns, even travel because it stimulates our minds and satisfies our insatiable appetite to learn. There are limits to the size of puzzle or challenge that we like to encounter. Music provides a fine example of this cognitive limit. We like music that we can easily follow and that challenges or surprises us in some way.

When we are young, the surprise need not be sophisticated. The Barney® song for example, "I love you, you love me. . . ," is perfectly acceptable to a young toddler, but will quickly irritate most adults. "Get it out of my head!" Adults find the music repetitive and annoying almost beyond their limit to endure. It isn't challenging enough to interest them, so it frustrates them. Likewise, if the music were too complex, full of discordant harmonies or complex rhythmic patterns, the adult would also find the music frustrating, not because it's too simple, but because it's too complex (Figure 1.5).

Figure 1.5 Delighting an audience requires the right amount of challenge.

If you think about it, effective games must fall in the middle of this cognitive range: between too simple (boring) and too difficult (frustrating). If they do, the player finds them delightful. This, of course, raises two obvious problems. First, the player will get better at solving the game's puzzles, so the range of the target changes grows more sophisticated over time. Second, all players have different starting points, so they will all have slightly different ranges that they find satisfying.

The result is that all games are a delicate balance of challenges to stimulate the player's need to learn and rewards to motivate the player to continue facing more challenges. Good games quickly allow players to identify the right starting level to challenge them and strongly reward the player for significant growth. If a game is tough to learn, players are less motivated to invest time in the experience. If a game is easy to master, players lose interest too quickly and are unlikely to purchase the game.

Any functional version of the game that is ready for evaluation and testing is called a beta. Versions that are unfinished (lack some of the planned functions) but demonstrate essential functions are called alphas.

 Listening to Your Audience

One way to stay in tune with the cognitive challenge your game is providing for your audience is simply to ask them and listen to them. Developers often poll players in the form of beta tests to find out what they think about the various challenges and rewards in a new game. You can even take this step further by enlisting the advice of your audience earlier in the development process, thereby getting a sense of their likes and dislikes before precious development time is wasted on features that are of little benefit. Regardless of how you learn your audience's tastes, it's important that you identify the characteristics of a given audience and work with representative members of that audience to make a game they enjoy.

To do this you have to first understand who that audience really is. This can be tough for developers. The casual gamer is often referred to as stupid and casual games labeled as games for stupid ­people. This is, first, nonproductive and, second, not at all correct. Casual game players are not stupid. They are just not the sort of ­people who would think of themselves as gamers. They often don't have a lot of experience playing games and they aren't always very ­familiar with computers, especially computer interfaces for games. It would never occur to them to press keys to jump, run, or steer a game character. They don't immediately see what people with a lifetime of game experience see.

A release candidate is a postbeta functional version of the software that is stable and believed ready for release. Only a stop ship or showstopper bug (something that would render the software unusable) is sufficient to make changes to the software at this point.

A great first-hand reminder of this was provided when Podz was presented to a typical casual gamer to test. This game player is an office worker by day, exposed to computers and used to playing casual games on them, but not at all accustomed to "new game paradigms." In retrospect, she was the project's best beta tester. Immediately she had dozens of questions, many of which were literally dumbfounding. "How do I start?" she asked, staring at a screen with a bright green arrow (Figure 1.6).

Figure 1.6 An early interface that was far too complex.

Most portals expect a release candidate or gold version of the software to be ready by the time you start working with them. They do not want to spend expensive time waiting for last-minute changes.

Based on comments from the beta testers, we made the arrow flash brightly, and it was the only motion on the screen. We removed the up-sell button and removed the three mode-setting buttons, including their huge expandable descriptions. We worked for months to figure out what exactly the player needed to know to play the game and concluded that there were only two critical concepts required to start (remember, easy to learn-no novella required). Those concepts are summed up in the final launch screen, which reads simply, "Feed Podz" and "Kill Slugz" (Figure 1.7).

Figure 1.7 The final interface for Podz requires much less thought.

Too much text on the screen frustrates and confuses many casual game players. They want to get to the fun, and don't generally like to read lengthy instructions. They will often ignore text, refusing to read lengthy instructions.

We added a prescreen pop up to gather the player's name before a new player even reaches this screen. The result allowed us to create a drop-down menu, preset to the player's name, right next to a bright blue flashing arrow. After this change, players were no longer confused about how to begin the game. Much of the confusion of the original interface can clearly be attributed to information overload. Remember, a casual game player doesn't want to have to work to figure out how to play the game (Figure 1.8).

Figure 1.8 This basic window appears first, to gather the player's name.

Most casual game launch screens use text-based buttons to give users choices. This is probably to ensure that the players are absolutely certain of what will happen when they make a choice. Generally these choices avoid unusual words to describe choices, using words such as timed and story rather than descriptive or themed terms that might be less clear.

We still let people play the game in the untimed and noncolor matching modes, but we simplified the interface to allow the player to toggle time and color modes on and off using the buttons on the bottom left. Clicking the clock button disables the game timers, and a bright red NOT symbol appears over the clock. Clicking again toggles the button back to timed mode. Clicking the button on the right toggles off the color-matching feature (all the balls match all the cones). Like the timer button, clicking it again sets it back to the original, multicolor mode (Figure 1.9).

Figure 1.9 Labels appear when the mouse is over the buttons. Icons indicate button state.

It's difficult for developers to imagine that you need more than a green arrow to know what to do, but the casual gamer doesn't want to have to think (or more importantly, worry) about what to do. This tester helped us realize that we needed a whole new definition of what kinds of things needed explanation. We couldn't rely on conventions of design or gameplay to teach the player how to interact with the game. This is why casual gamers have so much trouble with new game paradigms and why they need so much hand-holding to find their way through your puzzles.

Visual feedback is essential in casual games. Players are often tentative, and it is essential to do things like reinforce the idea that an object is a button by making it glow.

 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.

 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.

 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.

 Instant Gratification

A good way to describe the ideal player experience in a casual game is that it provides instant or nearly instant gratification and assistance. It shouldn't take much to start feeling rewarded by a casual game. That means the game itself should be easily launched (not a lot of introductory or option screens). The act of solving a puzzle, defeating a foe, or overcoming an obstacle within the game gives the player a reward, usually in the form of points or other in-game materials, but more importantly it gives the player psychological pleasure. It is fun and satisfying to win a game. It is also fun and satisfying to win small immediate rewards as individual parts of the puzzle or obstacle are solved and overcome.

Constant, Consistent, and Clear Feedback

Casual games provide constant, consistent, and clear feedback to the player (Figure 1.19). This does several things. It enhances the players' sense of satisfaction when the feedback confirms their belief that they are incrementally solving the puzzle and it reassures the players that the interaction they chose is having the effect they intended. Conversely the feedback can show the player that a strategy for solving a puzzle or overcoming an obstacle is failing (Figure 1.20). It can also show that an interaction is not having the intended impact.

Figure 1.19 PopCap's Bookworm uses arrow feedback to show selection order.
© PopCap Games, Inc., PopCap Games, Zuma, Feeding Frenzy, Bookworm, Bejeweled, and Diamond Mine are registered trademarks or PopCap Games, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Figure 1.20 Bejeweled 2 uses pop-up help to inform the player of a bad move.
© PopCap Games, Inc., PopCap Games, Zuma, Feeding Frenzy, Bookworm, Bejeweled, and Diamond Mine are registered trademarks or PopCap Games, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Nonstop and Escalating Rewards

In addition to providing rewards for the players' successful interactions, casual games often also increase the impact and value of the rewards over the whole game experience. This can be done by simply providing a greater number of points for progress in higher levels, for example. It can also be quite complex, providing increasing opportunities to acquire complex power upgrades, for example.

Action- or arcade-style shooters (games that involve launching a ball or other projectile at a target) often use this ­approach. The players are generally given more and more powerful weapons as they improve their scores and move through game levels.

Just as players will rapidly grow bored solving the same puzzle over and over, they will rapidly grow bored with earning the same rewards throughout the entire game. In some cases this wouldn't matter, as the player is simply scratching an itch via the game play. In others it is a significant issue. This area is especially difficult to design for in casual games. There are plenty of examples, even among the most popular genre (puzzles), to suggest that players don't need any escalation in rewards. These players seem to gain almost unlimited satisfaction from solving the puzzles, even with only slight variations in the manner in which the puzzle is presented.

The match-three game (Bejeweled®-like game) is an obvious example. In this sort of game, players work to place three like objects in a horizontal or vertical row. There are literally hundreds of variants on this game, and many of them are popular. These games sometimes only offer points as a reward for progress in the game. No escalation is necessary, and very few complications are warranted.

Tease, Temptation and Promise

Ultimately the casual game has a built-in imperative to convince the player, the customer, to go ahead and pay for the right to play the game after the initial free trial. One common device used to accomplish this is to provide information about the extra functionality, features, levels, or gameplay opportunities that will become available to the player only after paying for the game. This is a delicate balancing act, as you want to make certain the customer finds the promise of more features tempting and not off-putting.

While at first pass it may seem ideal to restrict the coolest features and then use them to tease the player into upgrading, in practice it is preferable to include the bulk of the coolest features to sell the player on the game. For the most part, casual game purchasers view the value of their purchase as extended game play. While they may be encouraged to buy a game in order to accomplish a goal such as completing a world or winning the overall game, they will probably view feature or tool restrictions as a nuisance.

 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.

 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.


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.

 Bells and Whistles

One nice thing about all of the standardization of features such as customizable profiles and automated file loading and saving is that these elements are often reusable. While the interface will generally change, the basic functions can usually be implemented in a way that allows developers to easily port the functions from one project to the next. The file save and file load features are generally integrated into the data design for the game. Top scores also are generally integrated into these functions.

File Save and Load

Some of the basic functions and conventions of casual games are so ubiquitous that portals and distribution outlets literally require save and load integration as part of their beta test functions. Ultimately there are a few major questions you need to ­answer when designing a save and load file system for your game, and there are a few elements that must be built into your game to accommodate file loading. You must have some sort of data structure that allows you to start a game from various points with varied scores and other elements preloaded into the gameplay. You must be able to save the database on the player's computer, and be able to load the database from the player's computer.

Data Design and Storage

We usually build a text-only, flat file database to perform these functions for a game. There are some benefits and some drawbacks to this system. The nice thing about a flat text file is that it is small and requires no database support or binary manipulations. The data may be simply saved to a list or array, and then the array may be saved as a text file. It is important to note here that some languages will not easily support writing a text file with references to various types of data.

Essentially we create a list of key information for the game and store that list under the name of the player. For example we might make a list like the following:

#roundComplete: 7
#score: 7465
#powerups: [1,2,4,6]
#obstacles: [#badStuff, #moreBadStuff]

While these arrays might be configured and manipulated differently depending on the programming language used, the concepts are universal. Information about the player's progress is stored in the list. If the game is stopped, the data can easily be reloaded at startup and the players can return to the game with all of their power-ups and points and in the round of their preference.

We usually also store a separate list with information about the most recent player and a list of all the players who have ever used the game. It is also very useful to store information such as player preferences in these lists. That way the game can do things like recall and reset to the preferences of the last player, giving them the audio, full screen, and help tip settings that they chose the last time they played. Consider from the player's point of view how annoying it would be to have to reset the volume or disable help tips every time they play the game (Figure 1.29).

Figure 1.29 Save is not fully automatic in Word Whacky.

Top Scores

Most casual games allow the players to compare their scores to the scores of other players. Because online connections are not presumed to be active while playing and many portals discourage network-­enabled features, most of these scoreboards are local. Sometimes they use the Internet to compare the scores to others online. The ones on the client machine are called local, and the ones online are often called global or online scoreboards.

Local Score Systems

The advantage of local scoreboards is that you don't have to worry about accessing the Internet or about what kind of language the players online might use to describe themselves. The disadvantage of local scoreboards is that the only players you can compare scores to are those who are playing on the same computer. Sometimes scores are included for fictional characters to try to give players a sense that they are competing with others.

Online Score Options

The advantage of online scoreboards is that the player can see how they stack up against others all over the planet in real time. The disadvantages include limitations from portals, loss of control over content displayed in your game, and connectivity issues. While online scoreboards are cool, there is very little evidence that they add any perceived value to the game in the eyes of the potential consumer.


To successfully design and develop games for the casual games market, it is important that you create software that is accessible to a mass audience and that excites a diverse population of players. Like hard-core games, casual games must include rules and puzzles that reward players effectively. People like to be challenged. It is fun to solve problems and experience rewards for solving those problems. Making your games successful means hooking your audience on an easy-to-learn, addictive game that includes plenty of feedback and well-integrated help systems to guide the player through the experience. It should tease the player with the promise of bigger and better rewards. You'll also need to emulate industry standards and navigation conventions. [The full chapter includes Project 1: Make a Match-Three Puzzle.]

Dr. Allen Partridge is Director of the Applied Media and Simulation Games Center at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Partridge owns Insight Interactive games and has developed a myriad of interactive 3D games. Partridge's games are featured on Reflexive Arcade and in international publications. He has written several articles and a book on Shockwave 3D games and was the technical editor for Paul Catanese's Director's Third Dimension.

Return to the web version of this article
Copyright © UBM TechWeb