Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Casual is Simple

In this article, Jeremy Barwick explains why simple design elements signal success in the casual game space.

As a Developer Partnership Manager at Oberon Media, I play lots and lots of casual games. I see the best and the worst. The simplicity of the design is a common thread that can define a game as the former or the latter, and in fact I think simplicity is even more important in the casual space than others. Casual players have a much shorter attention span when it comes to learning the rules of a game.

Granted, there are some casual games with fairly complex rule sets and game play. Many sim games are like this. However, when you look at successful games in that genre, such as Virtual Villagers or Build-a-lot, you will find that within 5 minutes, you can be up and playing, even if you've never played a sim game before.

Many game designers have great ideas about how to tweak or modify a popular genre, how to add new and different mechanics and features. Which is great. That is probably one of the best ways to create a successful, if not best-selling, title. However, one of the most common mistakes when coming up with new ideas is the tendency to try to show off all your new ideas in the first few level or two. Bad idea. If you have too much newness to soon, the player quickly becomes overwhelmed, and then gives up. When they give up, your conversion rate goes down. When your conversion rate goes down, so does your bottom line.

The Build-a-Lot series is a good example of how to do things correctly. You do not have to build a fire station, town hall, chateau and garden center, plus sell 3 houses and restore 2 all in the first level. Leave that for later! "But," you may say, "players will get bored if there isn't a lot to do in the first level." This can be true. So make the opening levels quick and easy. Include an option for more experienced players to skip past the tutorial levels.

Because I am fairly familiar with most game mechanics, I tend to get frustrated if I'm forced to click through dozens of pop-up explanations in the opening level of a game. View it as selective simplicity. Let the player decide how simple they want the game to be. This principle can apply to story as well. I've written a few stories in my time, and know the feeling of wanting others to read and appreciate your work. But do not force your story onto the player. Let them decide whether or not to enjoy it.

I recently received a submission of a hidden object game. It was associated with a fairly well-known brand. Before doing any research on the history of the game, I sat down and played it. I was overwhelmed by the amount of information I saw. The "tutorial" was basically an entire screen of text! No gameplay at all, just reading. I assumed that since I am a fairly experienced gamer, I could skip past that. I clicked the button, and was hit with another page of "tutorial" text. I couldn't believe it. I skipped past this one as well. By the time I got to the actual game, I didn't have any idea what was going on.

You might be thinking that I was thinking a bit too much of myself and should have just read the instructions. That's possible. But do you really think that the average gamer (many of whom skip past the tutorials like me) will behave differently? It was supposed to be a hidden object game, but there were other mechanics that made it very frustrating, not only to understand what was going on, but also just to proceed past the first level. After quitting the game in frustration, I did some research and was not surprised to see that it had launched on other portals a few months before and had not performed very well. Needless to say, I did not accept the game.

Gameplay and tutorial should be intuitive and smoothly integrated. In the best-case scenario, the player doesn't even realized they are being taught how to play. They view the tutorial as friendly hints and tips, not a lecture.

My experience and observations are somewhat limited to the casual space, but I think the principles can be applied to game design in general. For better or worse, game design must take into consideration, if not downright appeal to, the lowest common denominator. I could write a lot more on this subject, but I think I've made my point, and would like to keep this article simple!

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, not those of Oberon Media, its affiliates, or its employees.

Jeremy Barwick currently works as a Developer Partnership Manager for Oberon Media, one of the largest distributors of PC downloadable casual games. He has a BS in Media Arts and Animation, and has been an avid PC and console gamer for over 25 years. If you have questions or comments, please feel free to contact him at this e-mail address.


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