We're in the midst of an explosion for arcade-style casual games for all kinds of audiences. But while the massive mobile and social gaming platform was taking its time to proliferate, a small family of mainstays have been capturing millions for years: Even people who don't play games play Windows' Solitaire and Minesweeper.
The iconic games come bundled with Microsoft operating systems, and it's hard to find a computer user who's never played one. But with upcoming Windows 8, Microsoft decided it was time to bring its classics, along with the relatively more recent Mahjongg, up to date and into step with the changing face of games for everyone.
For that goal, the company turned to its longtime casual and social gaming partner Arkadium; earlier this year Microsoft announced a multi-year partnership with the company to work specifically on titles for Microsoft's platforms.
"We'd been working for Microsoft for years with The Zone and MSN Messenger," explains Tammy Manganello, senior vice president of Arkadium's Microsoft Games For Windows-dedicated group. "We were approached initially to update Solitaire, Minesweeper, and Mahjongg and give them a fresh new look... what an opportunity."
At first the team planned to do a simpler sort of refresh of the games for Windows 7. But further into the process, the team learned they'd actually have to think ahead to Windows 8. "You're faced with the challenge of making an ancient game fresh and exciting without taking away what it is," Manganello explains.
With Minesweeper, its little gray window and simplistic flags and happy faces are unforgettable. "But those graphics? As retro as they are at this point, we were like, 'wow... what can we do with that?'" Manganello says. "Everybody wanted the same thing, something where you could look at it and say, 'Ooh, I want to play that.' It should be juicy, it should be engaging, and it shouldn't make your eyes hurt."
One issue on the table is that Minesweeper, with its stark numbers and gray palette, would probably be visually out of place in an industry of games designed to be tactile and appealing to an audience that developers now understand includes at least half women players. "It's so techy and geeky in some ways," Manganello says. "But we weren't going to go down a path where we were like, 'Oh, let's put unicorns and rainbows.'"
Though specific audience data isn't disclosed, the Minesweeper audience does skew more male, Manganello says, while Solitaire splits fairly evenly down the middle. There was a completely-purple version of Minesweeper under consideration, she tells us. It didn't stick: "It was just too purple," she reflects.
"One thing Microsoft really stressed in the beginning, and throughout the process, was we had to be true to these games and their core audience," she says "You're not going to change the game of Solitaire or Minesweeper, but we wanted to give the people who had been playing it all these years something new."
Arkadium's Minesweeper update aimed to keep the metallic, "techno" feel, but update it to something "sleek, techno, and shiny." But in part with the less traditionally-masculine demographic in mind, one thing the team did was add an additional visual mode: Ladybugs.
"It's ladybugs in a green grass field, and it's completely adorable," Manganello enthuses. "The ladybugs dance, animate and fly away, and it feels really special... it's beautiful and engaging, and we hope it'll expand the female audience."
Focusing only on the necessary design elements: Marking flags, undoing moves, and proceeding to the next level while keeping things simple helped streamline the overall "clean and fluid" experience the Arkadium team aimed for, she says.
The process began with company-wide brainstorms across all disciplines just to try to pin down the key elements that identify each of the three games Arkadium was tasked with renewing. There were also artist challenges, competitions to introduce unexpected new designs. That, in addition to extensive internal and external playtesting, helped with a slow and iterative discovery process, she explains.
In most ways Solitaire was an easier task. Interestingly, though, most people who casually play the card game are playing the version called Klondike. There are four additional variations, which in order of popularity are Spider, Pyramid, Free Cell, and Tripeaks. Arkadium's upcoming Solitaire version will offer all of them, along with tutorials -- a feature that hasn't been seen in previous updates.
The classic "bouncing cards" animation that greets players who win a game of Windows Solitaire? It won't be there in the October release, but will be added in at a later date. It's so closely associated with the experience that a pair of Norwegian artists have recreated it in sculpture.
"No character is going to ride out or anything, but the cards are beautiful, the backgrounds are beautiful, and we have all the themes and variations," says Manganello. "We wanted to be really true to these games as they are and how people know them, and keep the important information."