In a recent article titled: 'Why Casual' Doesn't Mean 'Easy' on GameCareerGuide.com, author Brice Morrison discusses some of the misconceptions surrounding casual games.
As has become apparent recently, casual games can be hugely popular and can reach a huge audience. Games like Farmville demonstrate that there is also money to be made. However, casual games are different from traditional mainstream games, a point that Morrison discusses in his article.
Morrison talks about three misconceptions often held would-be casual game developers that casual games are: easy, family-friendly, and dumb. For each misconception Morrison discusses why they're incorrect, and why they are often held. For the most part I fully agree with Morrison.
Using the game design canvas Morrison compares two very different games, Wii Tennis, and Halo 3. The conclusion is drawn that, while the games are clearly vastly different, the primary difference lies in the base mechanics. That is to say, the base mechanics for Halo 3 are more numerous and complex than the single base mechanic in Wii Tennis. But does this observation hold for all casual games?
Well actually, no, I don't believe so.
Farmville is a casual game, Morrison identifies it as such, however the base mechanics are more numerous and complex than Wii Tennis. However, Morrison does suggest that maintaining less than 4 base mechanics in casual game is a good idea, any more and you're entering hardcore territory. Does Farmville has fewer than 4 base mechanics?
What about a game like the Sims? The Sims is a casual game, but like Halo 3 the base mechanics are numerous and complex.
So how does this fit with Morrison's classification of a casual game? I believe Morrison was arguing for accessibility without knowing it. If a game is accessible people will try it, if a game is fun people will play it. The accessibility of a game supports all the observations Morrison made and also support other factors.
Why are so many casual games cartoonish in their style?
Because it makes the game accessible to the widest audience. Children, teens, parents, adults, and the elderly are all able to accept a cartoon representation of an object. It is also cost effective for developers to use this style.
Why do some casual games have few and simple base mechanics?
Because it makes the game accessible to those with little to no experience with video games. Compare the base mechanics of a casual game to those of many popular classic games, perhaps some of the first games you personally played. Pac-Man, Pong, Tetris, are all simple, accessible, and popular games. The accessibility will effect a games ability to draw the player in.
Why do casual games seem easy to many traditional players?
Because they are accessible. Traditional gamers have more experience playing games, so they are able to master base mechanics faster. For example, knowing how to drive a car will make learning how to drive a bus easier. The same applies to games. However, easy to play shouldn't be confused with easy to learn. As Nolan Bushnell said, games should be "easy to learn and difficult to master". In casual game I believe this mantra should be slightly different, games should be easy to learn and play, but difficult to master.
I still haven't address the complex base mechanics of casual games like the Sims. How are these games accessible? I believe the answer can be found in the premise of the game, the premise must be accessible. The base mechanics of the Sims are accessible because those mechanics relate directly to real life actions. The player just controls their Sims as they live their everyday lives, eating sleeping, going to work, etc. In Farmville you are a farmer, farmers plant and harvest crops, the mechanics enable the player to perform those intuitive actions. The premise is simple and understandable, so the player can perform actions intuitively. Since the actions are more intuitive these games are able to successfully maintain more complex and numerous base mechanics.
I agree with Morrison on almost everything, except for his argument for base mechanics. Instead I believe the key to a successful casual title lies in the accessibility of the game.
If a game is accessible players will try it, the more accessible the game the greater the potential audience.
If that same game is fun, players will continue playing it.