Games User Research Blog


What is a Casual Game?

In a recent article titled: 'Why Casual' Doesn't Mean 'Easy' on, 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.


Future Play

The reviews for FuturePlay have been released, and it's good news; both of my papers have been excepted. The first is a long paper (8-pages) where I'm the first author. The second is a short paper (4-pages) where I'm the second author. This is really exciting because I now get to present the long paper at FuturePlay in Vancouver.  The conference runs May 6th and 7th and is co-located with GDC Canada. There were 5 successful submissions from the our department, which is great news!

The long paper is about a modified heuristic evaluation technique that I'm calling critic-proofing.  The paper focus on game usability heuristics but weights the importance of issues based on reviews of similar games. Once the camera ready version has been submitted I'll post the paper.

The second paper is about an iPhone game, which I helped to design, that is designed to motivate families into being active together. The prototype is simple, but the game makes liberal use of the GPS capabilities of the iPhone platform. We submitted the project as a short paper because only a preliminary evaluation was carried out, and the project is still a working progress.

I'm still miles behind on various project, but I'm told this is normal, it still sucks though.  Since I'm heading to Vancouver within a month I'm planning to post more content to this site, for professional reasons. Specifically there will be updates to the project sections as well as the addition of code and demo sections. I need to start show casing what I've been doing for the past year. :)


Going Forward

April has begun.

There are 4 projects that I want to work on for this month, 2 I plan on finishing, 2 to be working progresses. The first two are academic projects and planned publications. One is an examination of collaborative work in MMO's, the other is a modification to heuristic evaluation to provide additional use in agile or scrum development.

The other two projects are Capsized, and an academic project I started last year and have yet to finish. If I can finish the academic projects I can focus solely on my thesis work, because I'll have finished all side projects.

I keep looking forward to where I would like to be by the end of this year, in truth I should just stop and focus on what's directly in front of me. If I do so, I'll be there before I know it. :)



Phillis's Muse

Back in January I entered a game design contest through I had planned to post something about it earlier, but just forgot; better late than never!  The challenge was to design a game based on a photo. The game I designed was titled Phillis's Muse, an iPhone game utilizing the unique input features available on the device. My submission was fortunate enough to garnered a honourable mention in the challenge, which is good because it leaves room for future improvement. Below is my full submission, but you can also read it on the GameCareerGuide website.


Jack, the little boy in the picture, discovers the statue of Phillis Wheatley while visiting Boston with his mother. Curious about Phillis, Jack climbs up on the table, faces Phillis, and stares intensely at her. In the blink of an eye the statue comes to life; the real Phillis Wheatley!

Startled, Jack looks about for his mother but does not see her; rather he sees dusty streets, horses, and citizens of 18th century Boston. Phillis is equally startled. After a brief introduction Phillis tells Jack that she is suffering from writers block and is distressed because skeptics of her work are pursuing her with claims of fraud. Jack promises to do whatever he can to help her.

Immediately Phillis asks Jack to help her find new inspiration for her work. As Phillis is asking Jack for help, Phillis's pursuers burst onto the scene forcing her to flee. At the last moment she thrusts a map of Boston into Jacks hands with different locations marked on the map.


This game is designed for the iPhone and takes advantage of the GPS capabilities offered on this platform. The game is made up of two unique elements. The first has Jack travelling around the city of Boston in a race against time. The second has Phillis and Jack confronting skeptics in a War of Words.


GamePlay Element 1: Hunting for Inspiration

This element requires the player to move Jack around the map collecting enough inspiration so Phillis can finish her poetry. This creates a race against time. Jake needs to avoid roaming skeptics, collect inspiration, and return to Phillis before her skeptics catch her. If a skeptic catches Jack a War of Words is initiated costing Jack valuable time, and inspiration if he loses.

In a unique twist, movement is controlled using the GPS provided by the iPhone; movement in real life corresponds to Jack's movement in game. The direction that Jack moves is still controlled by the player; however, the player needs to walk in real life to move Jack around Boston.


GamePlay Element 2: War of Words

The War of Words is a simulated argument where the player must shift the burden of proof to the skeptic by moving the iPhone in sequences of taps, tilts, and shakes. To win the War of Words, the player must completely shift the burden of proof onto the skeptic before the skeptic can shift it onto the player.

The game presents progressively longer sequences of movement combinations that the player must then duplicate. Each correctly completed sequence (called a valid argument) increases the cohesiveness of the argument and the length of the next sequence of movements; each mistake in the sequence decreases the cohesiveness of the argument. If the player has the more cohesive argument the burden of proof is shifted to the skeptic and vice versa. Collected inspiration may also be spent for a boost to the cohesion of an argument providing a bonus.

When a player, or skeptic, fails to complete a sequence the opponent has a chance to identify a ‘logical fallacy' in the argument. To do so, the other player must successfully complete the same sequence and successfully hit the points previously missed. Success will reduces the cohesion of the opponent's argument.

If Jack loses the War of Words he also loses some inspiration that may need to be recollected if Jack doesn't have enough for Phillis to finish her poems.

If Jack wins the War of Words he gains additional Inspiration.

Winning the game:

To win the game Jack must return to Phillis with enough inspiration to help her finish one of her poems. With the help of Jack, Phillis will need to defend her work against a skeptic in a final War of Words. If Jack successfully helps Phillis complete all her poems, he will be transported back to the present, winning the game.


It's still March

Just barely.

The story remains the same, just trying to get things done. I submitted one paper to FuturePlay and I authored another, so assuming both are accepted I'm pleased with the work.

I just finished a network game for a that I've been working on, now and then, for the last few weeks. It was on hold because of FuturePlay but I finally managed to finish to a state that I'm OK with, there are still many things that I'd like to add but there are more pressing projects.  The game is a little multiplayer sandbox game. There are no rules to the game, just actions, allowing players to use the game board to make their own games, and systems for interactions. I haven't given the game a name yet, I will though.

The board is made up of a 24x24 grid of buttons, clicking on one button will activate the buttons directly adjacent to it, except on the diagonal. This creates a little cross. Each player is assigned a colour and when a grid button is clicked the player's buttons are re-coloured accordingly. If a player's selection would colour a button again, that button is instead returned to it's neutral starting condition. If a players section encroaches on an opponent buttons, those buttons will simply switch to the players colour.

Like I mentioned there are no rules enforced, and this means no win condition. This is intentional as the project's goal was to create a digital game space that enabled the players to enforce their own rule systems. I feel I successfully met that goal, and the board allows for a number of different games to be played.

I wrote the game in C# and XNA. I'll post the project and the source files shortly, it's currently a bit messy so I'll clean it out and comment it up before it's shown to the world.

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