Smart Casual: The art of casual games design

Smart Casual: The art of casual games design
Will Freeman

By Will Freeman

February 5th 2015 at 11:28AM

Casual Connect is once again upon us, so we investigate how so many studios create simple games that keep people playing

In a world where everyone is a gamer, designing a game for everyone means targeting an increasingly diverse audience with one product. Experts in designing the accessible tell Will Freeman how they think it’s done

In the not-so-distant history of the games industry, the term ‘casual’ was clearly defined.

Made famous in an era where much excitement surrounded the growth and diversification of game-playing audiences, ‘casual’ fell from favour almost as quickly as it rose to prominence. In-jokes about equestrian-themed shovelware and the cliché of the Wii TV advert family made the concept of ‘casual’ something of an industry four-letter word. To this day, it’s greeted in some corners with scepticism and suspicion.

And yet the trend that spawned the word ‘casual’ has continued and accelerated. Today, more people play games than ever before, and the giants of accessible mobile gaming have seen their names enter the pop-cultural lexicon of the ‘non-gaming’ public.

Casual hasn’t gone away. It’s just shed its name. And today there are numerous releases that are accessible, broadly appealing and mass market that are also critically acclaimed, successful, admired in the industry and, in some cases, festooned with awards. Titles like Threes, Monument Valley and Crossy Road.

The biggest mistake I made was making a hodge-podge game that didn't really appeal to anybody.

Asher Vollmer, Sirvo

At the same time, fingers prodding at Clash of Clans and Candy Crush Saga continue to be a regular sight on public transport across the world, as the free-to-play giants continue to make ‘casual’ titles into startlingly profitable brands.

Casual, then, has grown up. But how do you get it right, and what are the best in the field doing to design quality games with the potential to become ubiquitous?

The problem for casual game designers starts with a broad problem; the audience. If you are making, for example, a hardcore fighter for traditional gamers, you have a niche to serve; a group to target and a defined taste to meet. 

With casual games, though, your potential audience is ‘everybody’, or at least ‘everybody with access to games’. That audience today is so vast, and so varied, it can feel impossible to meet their needs.

TARGETING EVERYONE 

So how do you make a refined game that appeals to the broadest possible audience?

“You absolutely have to still consider your audience, and that’s exactly what I do,” offers Asher Vollmer of Sirvo (right), the small team behind puzzle sensation Threes. “The biggest mistakes I made in my earlier games was not considering an audience at all, and making a sort of hodge-podge game that doesn’t really appeal to anybody. And that would just leave me sad that nobody likes it.”

For that reason, says Vollmer, he envisioned a particular audience for Threes.

“That audience wasn’t everyone on the planet,” says Vollmer. “It was everyone on the planet with a phone. So that meant making it as native to the phone as possible, and making a game that fitted the way people use phones, such as the time they play.”

In other words, the phone itself was Threes’ intended audience. Vollmer designed for the length of time people play for on a phone, conceiving a title that was not realtime, with no timers.

“I definitely had a very broad audience, in that so many people on a planet have a smartphone, but there was still something I could design for,” he explains.

 

ROAD TO SUCCESS

Other game designers apply a different approach to the pursuit of universal appeal. One is Matt Hall (left), one half of Crossy Road dev Hipster Whale, which saw its refined spin on ‘Frogger meets Flappy Bird’ delight huge swathes of the public.

“Every game I make, I try and find someone to make the game for; almost an individual,” reveals Hall, who asserts this can make a game appealing to a much broader audience.

“It’s like a lens; a way to focus,” he continues. “To make a game that’s popular with everyone, you have to make it for someone. It’s about broad appeal through narrow appeal; choosing a single person that can represent your everybody. Or you might end up with a mish mash of stuff that tries to appeal to everyone, and fails.”

For Hall, it is envisioning a single individual that lets him design for everyone.

For others, though, it’s about considering the audience’s understanding of games. Take Supercell; that relatively youthful company behind the mobile powerhouse that is Clash of Clans.

“You can’t assume that your audience has played games before,” asserts Supercell game designer Veli Vainio. 

“Experienced gamers know various tropes and conventions, such as ‘shooting a red barrel will make it explode’ or ‘red hearts mean character health’.”

You can't assume that your audience has played games before, or knows red hearts mean health.

Veil Vainio, Supercell

But, says Vainio, for those consumers that have rarely, not recently or never played games, barrels don’t equal explosions and red hearts just mean love.

“Things get even weirder when you consider different symbolism in different cultures,” he continues.

“You still need to communicate these things to your players in order for them to make informed decisions. At this point it’s almost like you are trying to communicate to someone who doesn’t speak the same language as you do. 

“In such situations you need to draw inspiration from the real physical world and break down your message to the simplest form possible.”

Considering the audience with intelligence and a little common sense is vital in crafting a highly successful game with the potential for ubiquity, then, but what about design beyond that conceived purely to attract the right audience?

 

CASUAL IS HARDCORE

To a degree, it isn’t too different from the process behind a traditional or core game. At least, that’s the opinion of Jakob Lykkegaard (right), CEO of Pocket PlayLab, which signed with the Rovio Stars publishing initiative to see its tile game Juice Cubes meet with significant success. To Lykkegaard, the process is a fairly straightforward one.

“There is not much of a secret in making any game accessible,” he suggests. “The key is even though your game has many things that players can do, you always focus them on learning one thing from it at a time.

“The quality of the game is pretty much about audiovisual presentation, whether or not the game is casual or hardcore; quality is still based on the consistency of the interactive audiovisual, and this principle works the same way regardless of whether or not your game is a casual game.”

And regarding depth, Lykkegaard is confident casual games can be relatively complex, demanding, and absolutely boast meaningful interactive substance.

“A match-three game with a level designed to be solved by making a specific move, or [with] obstacles that require complex interactions to get rid of can also put players in deep thought [needed] to solve them.

Lykkegaard continues: “A good casual game has a shallow learning curve and introduces new challenges with a slow pace, allowing players to pick up and stop playing any time they like, but always return for more.”

Over at Ustwo, the East London outfit behind the hugely adored Monument Valley, the approach is a little different, and delivering a quality casual title is about what studio tech director describes as a balance between authenticity and accessibility.

“Authenticity means we needed to keep the game purely focused on the strongest and most original elements of the concept; not get sidetracked into unnecessary features and to maintain the authorial voice,” states technical director Paul Pashley. 

This often meant the team making decisions that were contrary to accepted wisdom, but according to Pashley, sometimes countering convention felt more in keeping with the tone of the rest of the game. 

“For example, the ‘In Which’ text that proceeds each level,” he offers. “It sounds crazy to ‘give away’ the narrative of a level, but it felt right to us.”

As for accessibility, it came down to the tried and tested method of user feedback. 

“We made sure that every feature was understandable to everyone that we user tested on, and that no one felt alienated by any aspects of the game,” explains Pashley. “This meant looking at things with a fresh, child-like perspective and not assuming knowledge of familiar gaming tropes.”

 

SYSTEMS OF ELEGANCE

Looking at releases like Threes, Monument Valley and all the others mentioned above, there is much interactive variety: from Crossy Road’s twitch to the god gaming of Clash of Clans, but one consistent element is a simplicity and elegance not at the expense of engagement and entertainment; something not all casual leaning games get right.

“You can find a lot of games that are too simple,” offers Sirvo’s Vollmer. “There’s a lot of them on the app stores that I think are too boring. Elegance of design is, in a way, the resistance to compartmentalising mechanics. That’s a very fancy way of saying that the core mechanic of whatever your game is should have lots of repercussions.”

It’s clearly an approach Vollmer applies absolutely to his more recent games, such as the forthcoming Close Castles. In Threes, sliding a tile has multiple effects. It rearranges many of the on-screen tiles, it spawns in a new tile, and it merges some tiles.

People aren't going to have a chance to tell their friends if they're only playing a game for two minutes.

Matt Hall, Hipster Whale

“That’s a lot of things happening at once all connected to this one verb that is moving a tile,” continues Vollmer. “Sometimes the player doesn’t want all of those things to happen at once, but then the game is managing those things.

“So, I feel you can get a lot of mileage and elegance from overloading a lot of repercussions onto a verb. And that can be very appealing. That said, games like Monument Valley and Crossy Road approach it very differently.”

Over at Supercell, meanwhile, there’s a particular focus on core loops; something that won’t surprise many who have read up on their free-to-play design theories. But the core loop is something Vainio (above left) believes can serve first and foremost as a bastion for simplicity in game design.

“Find out what makes your game fun and build the core loop around that,” he advises, before sharing more tips from one of the planet’s most successful game studios: “Only after that should you start adding more systems to the game. Always ask yourself this question when adding a feature: ‘will a typical player benefit if I add this?’ Prioritise features that the majority of your players will find interesting or useful.”

RETAINING DESIGN

Designing a causal game is just the start, of course. In an era when the developer’s job is never done, maintaining, updating and adding new content introduces a whole new skill set to the business of casual. Each is a subject for a feature of its own, but on the matter of designing casual games, retention is something that can be fostered before release, as part of the creative process of making a game.

“One thing I’ve learned from those people in the world of monetisation, user acquisition and data is about retention,” reveals Hipster Whale’s Hall. “I’d not really thought about retention before, until I was speaking to one of the experts at a game conference.”

Over time, something became obvious to Hall; even if a title is as successful as Flappy Bird, it doesn’t matter if people are only playing for two minutes.

“We saw half the people that had downloaded Crossy Road playing regularly two weeks on,” Hall says. “That’s insane, and it creates a huge window for people to share the game, and that spreads. It went on for weeks. People aren’t going to have much chance to tell their friends if they’re only playing a game for two minutes. So we gained from a concept from that dastardly world of free-to-play; the idea of how important it is to retain players.”

And how did Crossy Road retain with such energy? Designing good characters that people wanted to share, according to Hall. It was an area of particular focus as the game was designed, and it’s proved a powerful tool in the viral journey Crossy Road has taken.

The design of simple games is certainly a complex task, but one thing is clear: with a measured approach to your intended audience, and careful forethought about platform, mechanics and simplicity, there remains ample opportunity to make a quality, successful, broadly accessible game.