Harder than you think: Exploring the hidden depth of casual games

Harder than you think: Exploring the hidden depth of casual games
Matthew Jarvis

By Matthew Jarvis

February 18th 2016 at 11:08AM

Almost any app can grab the spotlight for a hot minute, but the real secret to success in the casual sector is keeping gamers happily playing – and paying – for months. Develop asks King, Zynga, Halfback and Storm8 for their tips

Star Trek: The Next Generation has much to offer in way of advice to developers.

From the minimalist design of the Enterprise’s panels – ideal for today’s touchscreens – to the measured reaction of Patrick Stewart’s Captain Jean-Luc Picard to hostile forces – an allegory for effective community management if there ever was one – the beloved sci-fi show is ripe with ‘how to’ examples for studios.

Casual game designers, in particular, should consider taking the pithy command of Picard as their mantra: “Engage.”

It sounds simple and, in concept, it is: the longer gamers play, the more successful a game becomes.

If it were as easy in practice, however, the iOS and Android top-grossing charts would offer a fresh set of names every week.

Instead, podium staples such as Candy Crush, Game of War and Clash of Clans have become exactly that, with contenders left to scrap over their 15 minutes in the spotlight.

So how can developers help their casual game cross the thin rope between fleeting fancy and financial powerhouse? 

"Thinking about games as ‘casual’ isn’t useful in figuring out how to design something."

Alex Richardson, Halfbrick

Perhaps the best place to start is with the definition of ‘casual’ itself.

It’s somewhat of a deceiving term, with casual tropes such as microtransactions and loyalty gifts bleeding into triple-A hits, and mobile devices able to recreate the graphical and mechanical prowess of console efforts.

“In the past, when we thought of casual games we would think of stuff like Bejeweled,” observes Alex Richardson, design coach at Fruit Ninja studio Halfbrick.

“Games like Flappy Bird and Crossy Road are actually hardcore games in terms of skill, but still feel like casual category.”

In fact, Richardson adds, considering your game as merely ‘casual’ can sign its death warrant before development even begins.  

“I don’t think that thinking about games as ‘casual’ is useful in figuring out how to design something,” he says.

Torsten Reil is co-founder and CEO of NaturalMotion, which was acquired by FarmVille and Words With Friends creator Zynga in early 2014. He sees accessibility as the defining feature of a successful ‘casual’ title – and has an easy way to check.

“The game needs to be playable by pretty much anybody, regardless of their game playing experience,” Reil explains.

“In addition to that, the game needs to be playable in short chunks. We call it the ‘Starbucks line test’ – the ability to be immersed in a game in the time it takes for you to order your daily macchiato.”

Richardson has his own eligibility test.

“A casual game is something where you can go in, have a play session that’s only a few minutes long and that’s it – you’re done,” he states.

“You could do a half-hour session, but the point is that if I have two minutes to wait for this bus, I could do a run of Jetpack Joyride, Fruit Ninja’s arcade mode or a level or two of Candy Crush.”

Of course, you’re not looking to capture just 30 seconds of someone’s time. A well-made casual game is designed to fill every free space, quickly totalling up to tens or even hundreds of play hours.

To achieve this, the gameplay fundamentals of the title must provide a solid foundation – an aesthetically-pleasing wrapper will quickly disintegrate under the intense scrutiny of dedicated players.

“Having a simple game means making sure that the core game loop is always fun and engaging,” says Richardson. “If you can make that loop engaging enough that people are playing it over and over internally while you’re developing, that’s a really good start.”

This is the crux of the design: if gameplay is too simplistic, players will quickly lose interest, but if it’s overly complex, it will appear impenetrable and fail to gather momentum. One mobile franchise to have successfully balanced the two seemingly opposed forces is Candy Crush.

“A lot of our players choose to play when they want to relax and unwind or just want to spend a few minutes having fun while they’re on their commute,” says Carolin Krenzer, who is general manager of King’s London studio.

“Others are more engaged and enjoy the competition or the more complex elements of our games. For example, we run events in our games that allow players to compete against each other, collaborate or to achieve a certain goal in a limited amount of time.”

Halfbrick product manager Resa Liputra expands on the necessity to offer something beyond the surface. 

“The core mechanic of the game is just packaging – it’s a marketing tool for someone to get enticed and check out that game,” he advises.

“When you’re trying to design games today that retain players for a long time, the core loop needs to be good enough that you do that action over and over without getting bored. It’s the meta stuff that keeps you coming back and progressing.”

Although it may be tempting to advertise the complexities of a game’s mechanics right away, Reil highlights the need to gently ramp up players’ understanding of in-game systems – or risk scaring them off.

“Complexity and depth should only unfold once the player is familiar with the game, so it’s not necessarily contradictory to early accessibility,” he suggests. “With Clumsy Ninja, we did ‘man on the street’ testing with new builds of the game three times a week, over several months.”

"It’s critical to listen to player feedback and challenge the status quo to keep the game fresh."

Perry Tam, Storm8

Keeping players engaged for as long as possible is uniquely vital to the survival of casual games. Unlike full-price PC and console releases, where gamers pay upfront and decide how many hours to invest, the freemium model works on contrary logic: the number of hours invested by players dictates the revenue generated by the product.

Early casual games often forgot that retention runs parallel to revenue, attempting to coerce players into paying for performance-boosting in-game items by placing them at a gameplay disadvantage. Luckily, modern advancements in monetisation have allowed developers to be more lenient with their prospective audience.

“It’s a lot easier for developers to not be pay-to-win, because they can shift back further to the advertising front,” says Adam Wood, lead games programmer and product manager at Halfbrick.

“When that first came in, it was banner ads or full screen ads and was really in your face and annoying, but there’s now a new approach to it where it’s rewarded advertising.

“The advertising and incentivised video route is extremely good because 70 per cent of the casual games user base is teenagers that don’t have a credit card.”

Liputra agrees that the oft-maligned presence of advertising can be a win-win situation for developers and players, as long as it is treated with respect.

“It’s not very different from Saturday morning cartoons when you’re a kid and you watch commercials during the ad break,” he suggests. “It’s forced upon you, but they happened at scheduled breaks and you knew when they were going to occur.”

Krenzer offers some insight into Candy Crush’s own use of microtransactions, indicating that keeping gamers playing is ultimately more valuable than a potentially damaging cash-grab.

“All of our levels are possible to complete without having to pay for in-game boosters,” she reveals. “Our priority is long-term retention of our network of players, rather than short-term monetisation.”

Even when the stars align and a game is simple yet deep, monetised yet fair, attractive yet substantial, it’s still not time for a developer to breathe easily.

The ongoing state of modern games means that changes will need to be made as time drags on. It may be tempted to double-down on the audience that already exists for a title, but Perry Tam, CEO and co-founder
of Storm8, warns that balance must be maintained.

“Even with experience, it’s critical to listen to player feedback and challenge the status quo to keep the game fresh,” he explains.

“Launches are only the beginning. When updating games to improve the player experience, it’s critical to remain true to the core, fun gameplay and not unnecessarily add complexity that may only appeal to a limited set of players.”

Tam concludes that the magnetism of mobile behemoths continues to grow, making it vital that developers perfect their design before they hit the market – or risk becoming another name in the long footnote of casual
gaming history.

“The difference now, compared to several years ago, is that a good portion of the audience has likely played one or more mobile games, which makes it even harder for new games to pull users away from their existing favourites,” he observes.

“The quality bar has gone up tremendously. New developers really need to bring something unique to be noticed.”