At Seattle's Casual Connect game conference, held last week, former PopCap general manager (and current independent) Dave Rohrl gave an intriguing lecture presenting his insight on the way player experience breaks down across time spent in the casual gaming format.
He particularly looked at how keeping this in mind can help designers of casual games create an engaging product. "A lot of what you do is understanding your audience," he advised.
Rohrl opines that users judge whether or not a game is for them within the first ten seconds of the experience, and adds that users should learn the basics of game interaction within the first sixty seconds of play.
In particular, Rohrl advises designers to keep in mind that many casual players don't care about rules or are too impatient for instructions, seeking a quick-fix experience -- thus players need to have a good probability of mastering the basic functionality right off the bat. He also noted that while there's been somewhat of an increase in complexity becoming acceptable to the market, it's still "a risk."
By five minutes, "if they're not having fun now, you're in trouble," Rohrl cautions. He reminded the audience that there are no in-game penalties in this market for users who leave a game for months at a time. "If they're not having fun moment-by-moment, they're going to move on," he said.
Breaking out the minute-by-minute model further, Rohrl says that users know by five minutes in whether or not they're enjoying the game, and by ten minutes, they expect to have accomplished something meaningful. By twenty minutes, users expect a game to gain a new dimension of interest, like more challenging goals, or depth and variety on "inherently repetitive" gameplay.
By an hour, users will assess whether the game is worth paying for. He noted that these time dynamics -- in particular, the sixty-minute model -- are especially relevant to the free-trial model, where users often have sixty minutes to try out a game before they consider buying it.
Rohrl also pointed out the importance of reinforcing elements in gameplay. "Making people feel good about themselves makes them feel good about your game," he reminded. He feels games should always give the player the feeling of winning, even if they essentially lose, and that players should be rewarded in a big way for significant accomplishments.
Finally, Rohrl noted that players would like to feel as if they have something left when the demo time is over, like a consistent accumulation of rewards that players feel connected to and want to return for.
[UPDATE: Added references to Rohrl's departure from Popcap.]