Core gamers might not think twice about the hidden object genre, but a close look behind the scenes of these explosively-popular games reveals fascinating design wisdom, and a close relationship with an audience little-understood by the traditional industry -- casual adults, most of whom are women.
With a back catalog of 3,000 titles over ten years, global casual game company Big Fish now publishes a game a day on computing and mobile platforms, and enjoys a base of loyal fans that look at games as an escape from their daily routine -- most of the company's players play between the hours of 7 and 11 PM, fitting sessions in between other obligations where they're unlikely to spend World of Warcraft-level hours.
The company's first game was Mahjongg Towers -- but now the company invests a good deal of time and attention to theme and plot. Lisa Brunette leads narrative teams who work with designers on a plot graph, and the studio has invested particular attention in the hidden object genre. Because people like story, the popular object-spotting games have quickly ramped up to include more of a narrative.
At first the games began implementing journals that fleshed out the story through text on a screen, but now games like Shiver Poltergeist include more cinematic elements. The more story Big Fish added to the fairly simple format, the better the games sold, says Brunette.
"When it comes to building story into the games, though, what we see with our developers often is that they're stretching for the themes they naturally like in their own games," says Brunette -- which means a lot of times games designed by traditional game developers end up having a harder time appealing to Big Fish's core player base of adult women. This isn't a problem that can be solved by "girling it up."
"It takes a lot more than putting some glitter and pink on something to make it right for women: It's disingenuous. If you don't start with your audience in mind at the outset, they'll know," Brunette says. Despite the perception that women like games about fashion and dress-up, a survey of Big Fish's players found fashion was actually the least-desired category, second only to sports. Western and occult themes also ranked quite low.
According to Nielsen ratings, men under 25 and women over 25 have polar opposite taste in television, and Brunette suspects something similar is at work in games. With that in mind, Big Fish players seem to want more mystery games, mature humor, drama at the level of programs like Mad Men, or supernatural thrillers. History means something more like Gone With The Wind, less like Apocalypse Now.
"The thing about fantasy is that if I perceive it's for someone else, I can't enter it myself," Brunette says.
When it comes to relationships, facial features and body types are actually not compelling reasons for players to engage in romances with NPCs, she suggests -- players like to judge characters in the game world by their personality and action. Romance may work best when it's a realistic part of a larger storyline, as Big Fish itself hasn't had much success with romance games per se.
Skunk Studios' King of Thieves was perceived as "too boyish," and nobody wanted to play as a thief. Brunette's team had to repurpose it as an espionage story, and some of the art was given a new perspective -- rather than a title screen with a masked man descending into the dark, instead a warm, tactile low-lit desk of intriguing objects was substituted. Raven's Flight was the new title. The attractive female boss was given a more mature, professional look (the previously-designed mission commander was much more traditionally sexy).
Espionage was still a risky theme, but the edits made it more likely to be interesting to Big Fish's players. The game didn't do as well as some of Big Fish's other games, but performed much better than it would have as King of Thieves, and players praised it as a good "whodunit."
"Even if you polish it all the way if you set out with a theme that wasn't going to work with this audience it's still going to hurt you."
In another case study, with Shiver, Russian developer Artogon "hit the theme perfectly for our audience," full of mystery and intrigue as the player picks up a mysterious, familiar girl who leaves a teddy bear behind in the car before vanishing, leaving the player alone in a Hitchcockian spooky town.
It goes for creepy and eerie, not spooky. "The creep factor comes from the way that the story and the player integrated, and the music and the art," Brunette says. Bloody slasher-style fear would not have played well.
It's a mistake to conceive of Big Fish's audience as mothers that will play with their kids, and players loved that all the elements were sufficiently adult. But the studio's next game ended up featuring a robot and a wizard -- to moderate success.
"I can't fault Artogon for trying to do something different, because we got really good at doing gothic horror. Our in house series, Mystery Case Files, did really well and launched a thousand imitations... however, that can only work for so long. Our players get tired of the same thing; there's a bit of a theme fatigue going on right now."
The Surface: The Noise She Couldn't Make casts the player as a psychic who enters a patient's mind to solve what's ailing her in the real world. There are metaphorical gameplay interactions that relate to what's happening to the character, a mysterious Jane Doe who's been found unconscious with a bloody knife. Developer Elephant Games had a lot of leeway with creating emotional fantasy worlds, since the worlds were inside someone's mind, and the title was incredibly successful.
Players respond poorly to anything that seems juvenile, though: "They're just as likely to object, in our experience, to a game, maybe it's a fairytale game, that looks like it was made for their daughter, as a robot game that looks like it was made for their son," Brunette notes. Adult casual players want "gender-neutral, sophisticated, mature, well-writen storylines."
Brunette's best advice is to make games that the real women you know might like to play, rather than targeting some idea of the "40 year old woman" or the stereotypes associated with things people like: think about the real women in your lives when you're making games, and pay attention to their unique needs.
"Respect them, don't pander to them, don't talk down to them, and don't give them stereotypes," she says. "Don't assume that what works for other audiences is going to work for yours. Craft strong storylines with the right themes, and don't forget to evolve."