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Wednesday, August 09, 2006

There Are No Casual Games

Corvus has introduced a new Round Table in part a riff off of Craig's and Duncan's takes on the casual game market.

Right now I'm working on a project which will be easy to learn, easy to play, simple in terms of design, probably free and downloadable. Most would say that defines it as a casual game. I'm not entirely sure I agree, simply because I think they're focusing on the wrong part of the sentence. Most people, I think, would say a casual game is a relatively basic game which anyone can learn and play quickly. Cell phone Tetris, Puzzle Pirates, that kind of thing. But it's not like Doom was exactly hard to learn. Gather, dodge and shoot. Quake? Pretty much just added proper jumping. Nobody spends more than a few minutes learning a game anymore, even if it's a sim or war game. When's the last time you felt you had to read the manual while waiting for an install to finish?

Your standard platformer is no more complex than your average puzzler and for some puzzlers - like Tetris - require similar skills in the long run. So why is Psychonauts hardcore and Puzzle Pirates casual? Simple: one is a console title and the other is a downloadable game.

When people say accessibility ... I think they need to be specific. Casual games are casual not necessarily because of their content, but because they are cheap and easily attainable. My mom would never play Psychonauts because I could never convince her to get a PlayStation or Xbox. If someone made a game for Xbox Live, she'd never see it. But if it was a web game? She might give it a try.

This is precisely what happened to my dad - a closet hardcore gamer if there ever was one. My stepmom would never be caught dead playing TimeSplitters so instead they've both gotten into various PopGames. In this case, it's not so much the cost of entry (dad's already got it) ... but the hardware itself. Let's remember, Nintendo's "casual revolution" isn't focused on the games so much as the hardware. Succeed or fail, it's brilliant because someone's finally acknowledged that a game controller isn't the most natural thing in the world.

To take the whole concept of a casual game and twist it - I hate playing golf in the real world. I don't hold the club right or stand right or anything. But I'll play hours of Tiger Woods on the PS2.

There's no such thing as "casual" games. Anyone who has known a serious Tetris or Sodoku addict knows that's a misnomer. I've seen my mom play crosswords - there's not much casual about it.

There's such a thing as "accessible" games. Not everyone wants to spend hundreds on specialized hardware or "learn the controls". Lots of people would rather spend $5 on a cell phone game than $50 on a "full" title. Some people would rather challenge their mind than their coordination. What we're seeing isn't a new market - it's a broadening of the exact same market. It's an evolution of the home game console - make games more accessible by freeing them from the arcade. Now games are getting unleashed onto your web browser or cell phone. The hobby projects I've got in the fire are "casual" not because I see them as basic games for non-gamers ... but rather because I'm completely outside the industry required to get something onto a console. It takes a lot of time, money and dedication - and I'm lacking in pretty much all three.

Another counter-example: ARGs. In many ways, an ARG resembles a "casual game". They're played via the web. They don't require a lot of hand-eye coordination. They're usually free. Yet, there's a major investment in time and energy and most ARGs are very difficult to get into without a community to help the player along. They're one of the most inaccesible genres around, because the entirety of gameplay is often a puzzler in and of itself.

So I'm not sure a music-powered Galaga clones played within iTunes is precisely casual. In fact, I'd say it's about five times geekier than simply playing the original. But I'm hoping it will be accessible.

Head back to the table for seconds:

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Patrick said...

There is no spoon, its just your brain and consesus social reality asserting the figment of a spoon. Likewise with casual games.

Your project sounds really cool.

Greg Tannahill said...

Interesting point. Any post that makes me want to coment is by definition a pretty good one!

I'd always really thought of a casual game as one that:
a) required no legacy skills,
b) you could get into and out of in under 10 minutes (including some meaningful play in the middle), and
c) didn't require any sort of pre-planning, forward organisation, or strategy extending more than 20 seconds into the future.

Crosswords are (to an extent) a casual game. Cryptic crosswords are not (they require legacy skills). Checkers is a casual game. Chess is not (depth of forward planning).

The Wii offers the possibility of a truly casual FPS, simply because (theoretically) control by laser pointer will be intuitive to a first-time user, whereas the scheme of mouse-and-keyboard (flipped axis or not) is really only intuitive when compared to using a solo keyboard or joypad.