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Persuasive Games: Casual As In Sex, Not Casual As In Friday

October 9, 2007 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next
 

In recent years, casual games have become an increasingly popular and important part of the videogame landscape. Proponents argue that casual games both open up new audiences for games and make new styles of games possible, but the genre has largely floundered in copycat titles.

One reason for this is a lack of imagination about what casual might mean. I propose an alternative: casual games that players use and toss aside -- one play stands, serendipitous encounters never to be seen again.

What Is A Casual Game?

According to the IGDA Casual Games white paper, casual games are “games that generally involve less complicated game controls and overall complexity in terms of gameplay or investment required to get through game.” The group contrasts casual games with “hardcore” or “core” or “traditional” games -- games “developed for and delivered on a dedicated game console” that “involve more complicated game controls and overall complexity in terms of gameplay or investment required to get through game.”

The whitepaper’s authors admit that “the typical casual gamer is hard to define”, but suggests that the name characterizes “gamers who play games for enjoyment and relaxation.” Casual games are less complex than core games and require lower commitment to both title and medium.

We might summarize the industry’s conception of casual games along two axes: design considerations and player resources. Because casual gamers don’t play many games, or don’t play them very often, they are unfamiliar with the complex conventions that might feel second nature to hardcore gamers.

These games attempt to minimize complexity and investment in player time, money, and control mastery. Casual games sport designs and controls of reduced complexity that take little time to learn and to play, that come at modest cost and are easy to purchase. Casual games typically offer short gameplay sessions, come at a lower cost than hardcore games, and allow play on more ordinary devices like personal computers and mobile phones.




Time


Money

Control


Complexity


Low commitment

Easy access

Simple


Investment


Short

Low cost

Existing equipment

The typical design values of casual games strongly resemble the early coin-op industry. Consider controls. Nolan Bushnell’s cabinet version Spacewar!, which he called Computer Space didn’t sell well. One reason for its failure was complexity. As Bushnell explains, “You had to read the instructions before you could play, people didn’t want to read instructions.”1 Pong fixed the problem. Bushnell: “To be successful, I had to come up with a game people already knew how to play; something so simple that any drunk in any bar could play.” The Pong cabinet features one instruction: “Avoid missing ball for high score.”

One can easily draw a connection between the taverngoing Pong player and the after-bedtime Bejeweled player. The IGDA SIG explicitly recommends mouse-only control for casual games (“The interaction between the user and the game should be limited to the computer mouse”). A mouse is something every computer user owns and knows how to use. Simple controls on existing equipment seem to be well-addressed design strategies in casual games.

As for money, the business model for coin-op games is somewhat different from that of casual games. When designing games for the bar or arcade, developers aimed for short play sessions, usually around two to three minutes. Such tactics maximized “coin drop,” the cash the game could acquire in a fixed amount of time. Coin-op publishers looked to sell a large number of lower priced plays of the same game, and to rely on repeat purchases of that game. This dynamic naturally encouraged a particular kind of competitiveness: players who get better at the game can play longer for less money, effectively reducing the publisher’s incremental profit while maximizing the value of player’s own leisure dollar.

In their heyday, coin-op games were easy to access—they were found in bars and convenience stores and laundromats, places one would go regularly for reasons other than videogame play. Coin-op games were also low cost, usually just a single coin. Most casual games are purchased from online portals. Players download, try, and then purchase online, usually for US$20 or less. There’s no doubt that online purchasing offers easy access, one of the industry’s design values. But is $20 really low cost? While $20 is one-half to one-third the price of contemporary console games, it’s still a considerable figure for a discretionary purchase.

But the most contradictory of these three player resources is time. A common design philosophy for casual games is “easy to learn, hard to master.” Casual games are supposed respect the value of their players’ time, making it easier to learn to play the game. But the notion of mastery raises doubt about low commitment in casual games. Individual casual game sessions often do require only short amounts of time: a round of Solitaire or Tetris or Bejeweled might take less than five minutes. But the maxim “easy to learn, hard to master” reveals that casual games actually demand significant total play time.

Players are expected to string short game sessions together, either at once or over long periods, to maximize performance. A casual games proponent might argue that the player might choose not to master the game, but rather just to play short sessions early in the title’s progression (“games you can play for five minutes or five hours”). But the business of casual games belies such argument: for one part, the typical cost of a downloadable game suggests that medium- to long-term player commitment is required to get value from a purchase; and for another part, downloadable games’ 1-2% conversion on try-before-you-buy purchases suggests that the vast majority of players are satisfied with the gameplay experience of the trial anyway. Mastery demands high, not low, commitment.

1 Scott Cohen, Zap! The Rise and Fall of Atari (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1983)

 


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