A Method Acting Approach to Designing Casual Games
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
One of Hollywood's finest actors, Daniel Day-Lewis is pretty renowned for remaining in character throughout the shooting of a film - to the extent that he apparently broke two ribs from all the slumping in a wheelchair after the filming of "My Left Foot" was done.
Probably one of the most famous practices in Hollywood, Method Acting is defined as “a technique of acting in which an actor aspires to complete emotional identification with a part.”
I’ve always found Method Actors pretty inspirational, and in designing Free-to-Play (F2P) casual games, I’ve been inspired to try to take a similar approach – one in which I try to remain “in character” of a casual player during development - in an attempt to not just design ideas purely based on theory, but on actually trying to approach a game like a casual player.
Research and analysis of competitor games are common in Game Design, where we often play games within a genre or with similar features as research. But staying “in character” is a little bit more than that.
Part of Game Design is really understanding your audience – even if it is at times counter-intuitive to what you what you personally prefer (especially for a pretty hardcore gamer like myself). In designing commercial casual games, we often have to take the wants, needs, understanding and lifestyle of our players into deeper consideration.
For me, these are some points I try to keep in mind when trying to stay “in character” while approaching Free-to-Play games like a casual player. And who knows, this might be the start of a potentially illustrious Method Acting career, perhaps.
- When would your Player play?
Sweet Taste of Failure
“You’ll get it next time” was on my screen 5 or more times a day, as I made it my daily routine to play Candy Crush Soda Saga on the subway to / from work - every day, twice a day.
For the Casual Player, mobile games are often so incorporated into a player’s lifestyle that to understand casual players, it often requires us to understand when and where they would potentially play the games, for how long, under what conditions, and all that jazz.
Catch in a session or two after lunch, come back to check on the game after your buildings are completed, log in daily for that bonus, play through all 5 lives straight on the subway – playing games “in character” of a casual player often takes quite a bit of dedication and discipline of course, as sometimes it almost feels like you never really stop working - especially consider the opportunity cost that all you really want to play is another round or Hearthstone on the way home.
It’s also interesting to try to simulate the profile of casual players across the spectrum - ranging from those that play a session or two a day, to the more dedicated ones who would play it over hours. I actually binge played over 40 lives a day of Candy Crush Soda Saga over a couple of weekends to clear 20+ levels a day, and 2 hours of Disney’s Tsum Tsum in a single session just trying to beat a friend’s high score - all in the name of ‘research’.
- What would your Player do?
Playing “in character” of a Casual Player is not simply a matter of playing a game casually, but going a little bit deeper to try to simulate certain behaviours that casual players perform – and then switching back to the Game Designer hat in identifying potential problems.
“Are the levels too hard and why would I continue playing this game?” “How long do I have to wait for that building to be completed and how badly do I want it now?” “Can I understand what the first action I need to perform is, if I just skipped through the tutorial text?” “Can I still understand or remember what I needed to do if I came back to the game after taking a call or responding to a text?”
Super Hexagon – Killed by Text Messages ever so Often
These might seem like no-brainer questions to a most of us Game Designers, but the fact of the matter is – most of us are not casual players. And things that we often take for granted as learnt knowledge is lost on the casual player.
Top mobile casual games are often designed with a focus on readability and accessibility, and are designed with solutions to these problems in mind. Play it over lunch while eating, pause your game and resume it while changing trains on the subway – would you still know what the next move that you have to make is after all those interruptions?
Pro Tip: Nothing beats the value of watching real people play – so yes, observe playtest with the target audience can not only give feedback from real players, but it also helps you better think / act like one.
- Go Wide, Dig Deep
“Play everything” is a mantra often thrown around in the realm of Game Design, and while this is true, with the over-saturated App Store of today, “everything” is impossible.
Part and parcel of the Game Designer’s job is always to keep up to date and play related games. And while it is often natural to just play a game to analyse it on a mechanic or system or economical level – designers often stop once they think that they’ve gotten enough of an opinion of a game.
“Play Everything” THIS, just try.
Instinctive, yes – and even justifiable, perhaps, as casual gamers would do the same once they got through the first 10 levels of a new game to think that they “got it”, and then make a decision whether it is for them or not.
However, these are the casual players who play mostly the hottest games before moving on to the next one - but these are also hardly the type of players that are not worth simulating, as they often don’t stay in a game long enough to potentially pay / convert.
Thus, the harder part of the “method” is to also go deep with at least one casual game and try to commit to it as much as you expect your player to (as counter-intuitive or dreadful as that might sound for a lot of us.)
This often requires a lot of time and quite a bit of effort, considering the opportunity cost of squeezing in another round of Hearthstone on the subway. However, one key difference is that casual players often don’t have a Hearthstone to go back to.
Casual players often like routine, comfort-zones and really just play to unwind or pass time – and learning a new game is often the last thing that a lot of them want to do - unless there is strong enough driver to convince them to.
Stay in character – invest some time, maybe spend some money, fully explore the social features of a game - try to understand the drivers that would keep a casual player in the game and what makes them tick. Engage real friends who are casual players, engage in leaderboards, respond to push notifications, ask for lives, share your in-game achievements.
Definitely not always the proudest thing to have on your Facebook feed for a core gamer, but I believe the full investment did help me see more clearly the trade-off of dropping out of one game for another more realistically – rather than just trying to find that one “insightful” thing to say about every new game out there. Probably explains why I am still chugging through Candy Crush Soda levels, despite failing over, and over, and over again…
It is said that during the filming of Django Unchained, Leonardo DiCaprio cut his hand while filming, but he didn’t break character despite that, and his real bloodied hand made it into the final cuts of the film. As with Method Acting often involving a strong degree of dedication, remaining “in character” as a Casual Player for a Game Designer requires some similar degree of preparation, time and dedication – all in hopes of finding a stronger “emotion sync” with our potential audience.