You’ve probably heard the news about about WiiWare. (Newsweek broke the story here.) In a nutshell, developers can buy a Wii SDK, create games for the Wii, and get them sold online through the Wii’s downloadable interface. Nintendo says that there will not be any screening of game ideas, and gave the impression that the Wii will soon have an exciting free-for-all of downloadable games for sale.

This is huge news for casual game developers, because the Wii audience should contain a very large percentage of people who are looking for short, engaging games, rather than long challenging games. In other words, they might buy our casual games!

The bad news:

  • Although Nintendo calls their SDK “virtually free”, the actual cost of a development kit for one developer seems to be around $2500. And that’s not including any middleware you might need to buy.
  • Your game must pass Nintendo’s QA process to be allowed to go live. You better believe that the developer will be footing the bill for this (much as developers foot the bill for Microsoft’s Arcade QA pass now).
  • Developers are required to get the game rated by the ESRB before it can go live. I can’t find the cost for this online, but if I recall correctly from my days working on brick and mortar games, I’d say you should put aside $1000 for it.

The bottom line: you’ll likely need to be able to pony up $10k to $15k to get your game on the Wii. That’s in addition to the $5k to $6k needed to buy art and sound assets. This is chump change for a small studio, but it certainly keeps the riff-raff (like me) out of the running until we’re really confident that we have a money-maker on our hands, or we can convince a publisher that we’re a sure thing.

I’m still excited about the possibility, though. If I had a less-expensive way to take a shot at it, I’d love to port Starcrossed to the Wii.

Responsiveness, or the lack thereof

If you’ve installed the new “Windows Live Messenger,” have you noticed how terrible it is? It’s unresponsive. I often click on its icon in the tray and then wait and wait … sometimes I have to wait as long as five seconds before I get any indication that it noticed my clicks. In the meantime I’ve usually clicked like mad on the thing in case the first click didn’t work. It’s frustrating. I’m a long-time Microsoft IM user, and this lagginess has driven me away from the product. I’m looking into alternative IM clients like Trillian. And the only reason is that I hate having to wait to see if it’s working.

I feel the same way when playing a game. I hate it when nothing happens!

  • When the game starts, does it do nothing while it’s loading? Does it display a big black screen for five seconds, leaving me to wonder if the game blew up my monitor?
  • When I click a button in the game, does the button graphic change so that it actually looks like it’s been pressed? Or is it just a static unresponsive bitmap?
  • When changing the volume slider knob, does the game not play a sound to help me judge whether I’ve got the volume at the right spot?
  • Does the game not care that I have my mouse buttons reversed because I’m left handed? If so, it interprets my left clicks as right clicks, and right clicks don’t make buttons work. So what I get is this: click, click, click, “Hmm, it’s not working. Is it broken, or just laggy?” Either way, the game sure didn’t impress!

The number one rule of thumb when designing anything for the computer, be it games or anything else, is that it has to feel responsive! In fact, if your program is responsive at all times, we’ll assume it’s fast. The sad truth is that a program can be slow as hell behind the scenes, as long as it reacts swiftly to our input.

Making Games with a Casual Mindset

So earlier blog posts attempted to nail down what we mean when we say “casual gamer”. My conclusion is that the casual games we find on portal sites have two things in common:

  • They are engaging rather than outright challenging
  • They can be played in short bursts (20 minutes or less)

This is probably not surprising news if you’ve played a few casual games. :) But let’s look at a few ways to actually take these guidelines to heart:

The “Retry” option

Several games now have a “Retry” option whenever you lose. This lets you immediately restart your game right where you left off. This feels “cheaty” to people who are looking for a challenge — because it removes a lot of the challenge! But that’s the whole point: engage, don’t challenge. Here’s what Elemental’s retry screen looks like. Extremely simple: it’s just the normal background with a couple of buttons stuck on it. Luxor 2 has a similar screen, if I recall correctly.

I added a Retry screen to my upcoming game, Starcrossed. I added it at the last minute, though — for some reason, it didn’t occur to me to add one, even though I’d seen it elsewhere. One of the beta players mentioned that they wished they had a Retry option, so I hacked it in. Next time, I’ll plan on having a Retry option right from the get-go.

The “Short Session” Metaphor

Most casual games can be played in short bursts, but it isn’t always obvious to users how to stop playing when they want to. This is something I wish I’d done a better job of in Starcrossed.

The traditional approach is to bring up an “End of Level” screen that shows statistics, and lets the user save and quit at a nice stopping point. This is good, but games like Galapago take it a step further. The main menu of Galapago is also a level-selector screen. (Here’s a screenshot. Only one level is unlocked in this shot, but as you unlock more, additional little squares light up all across the island.) Each time the user beats a level, they are returned to the main menu, where they can now select a new level. This also gives them a great opportunity to stop playing, should they want to. It’s very intuitive. I wish I’d done this for Starcrossed! I’ll likely use the idea in the next game.

Easter Eggs and Secret Codes

Should a casual game have easter eggs? Before we dive into that, let’s see what successful casual games have done:

  • Bejeweled 2 has a large number of codes that affect the game’s appearance. There’s also one easter-egg game mode.
  • Zuma Deluxe has a few easter egg commands.
  • Bonnie’s Bookstore has hidden interaction easter eggs.
  • Galapago has brilliant, wonderful hidden interaction easter eggs.

Most games don’t have anything resembling an easter egg, at least that I have found. (I used Google to help refresh my memory of a dozen other games.) So obviously easter eggs are not super important to a game’s success. But they don’t hurt, right? And some games do have easter eggs. So when do you include them and when not?

We struggled with this one when making Starcrossed. Here’s a list of reasons to add easter eggs:

  • Secret codes give you things to talk about. When PopCap sends out a newsletter to people who bought Bejeweled 2, they can include a few secret codes. It creates content for you (or your publisher) to parcel out later.
  • Interaction easter eggs make the game feel more polished. When you randomly click on the bell on the Bonnie’s Bookstore main menu, it makes a sound like a bell. This makes you smile. When you click on the shrunken heads in Galapago, you hear hilarious commentary. It makes you laugh.
  • Having hidden codes means having things for other sites to talk about, too. If your game has secret codes, then the various code collection websites will collect yours. Hey, any publicity is good publicity, right? Well, maybe? It can’t hurt, though we don’t have any evidence that casual game players ever look for codes on other websites.

In the end we added a few easter egg codes, but our most important easter egg, which was a hidden game mode, became unlockable content instead of secret content. We figured having it there on the menu but grayed out (until you beat other game modes and unlock it) was better than it just being hidden away. It’s better to see the cookie at the end of the trail than to have an invisible cookie that only a few players might stumble upon. Okay, that’s a weird analogy.

So to sum up (and add arbitrary subjective opinions):

  • Hidden interactions that players stumble onto are good. It makes the game feel more polished, assuming players stumble into them like they’re supposed to.
  • Minor easter eggs that are unlocked via secret codes are good if you have a newsletter. Other than that, they have dubious value-add.
  • Easter eggs that reveal hidden game modes are less effective than making those game modes into unlockables instead of easter eggs.

Defining Casual vs. Hardcore, pt 2: Time Consuming vs. Not

The other useful way to define casual vs. hardcore is by how long a game session is. A good rule of thumb is that a “casual game” can be played enjoyably in a 20 minute window or less.

So although I set out to define “casual” and “hardcore”, I’ve actually created four quadrants of game style:

Casual vs. Hardcore Categories

  • Challenging with Short Time Requirements: the most obvious example of this category is the old arcade game. Pac-Man, Galaga, Pole Position: these games require short amounts of time but are usually pretty challenging. (We often take for granted how hard these games were, back in the day.) Some games on casual portal sites fit this area, such as some Arkanoid clones. The Nintendo DS and Sony PSP also have a large number of games in this section.
  • Challenging with Long Time Requirements: many of the most popular console games fall into this category: God of War, Prince of Persia, Madden Football. These are games that have a long per-game session and are unabashedly difficult to play. They appeal to lots of people, but it should be no surprise that competitive males with lots of time on their hands tend to prefer these games.
  • Engaging with Short Time Requirement: this category contains most of the games on portal sites. Bejeweled, Diner Dash, Bonnie’s Bookstore. They are just difficult enough to be engaging without actively challenging the player’s abilities. They also have a brief time duration: you can finish a session in 15 minutes, usually.
  • Engaging with Long Time Requirement: a smaller number of casual games on portal sites fit this bill. A good example from the real world is a jigsaw puzzle. These are games that don’t actively challenge the player — they just require attentiveness. But they also require a long expenditure of time. One could argue that RPGs like Fate or Dungeon Runners also fit into this category, though then you have to quibble about “sessions”: you can play Dungeon Runners for 20 minutes, but in order to feel like you’ve actually accomplished something with your character (such as leveling up), you’ll need to invest an hour or two.

Why bother categorizing games this way? The reason is that you need to know who your target audience is so that you can make a game that appeals to them. Even big companies seem to miss this simple premise a lot of the time.

This grid is just one of many ways to categorize audiences, of course, and your mileage will vary, but even if you don’t use my categorization, please, use some categorization. :) Don’t just make a game you like and assume it’ll sell to everybody.

Actual human beings don’t fit neatly into any one category; many gamers tend to slide between two or even three of these. But when they’re in the mood to play a game, it’ll be a game from a certain quadrant. If I want to play some God of War, then playing Diner Dash instead isn’t gonna cut it.

One other thing: a good game hits ONE or at most TWO of these groups. Don’t try to make a game that appeals to all four quadrants at once; we’ve yet to see anybody make anything successful that way.

Defining Casual vs. Hardcore, pt 1: Challenging vs. Engaging

The “casual or hardcore” distinction has a lot of problems. First off, nobody can agree on what “casual” and “hardcore” mean. When I was the producer of a massively-multiplayer RPG, I was often amused by players who played the game for 20 hours a week and called themselves “casual players.” These people had the equivalent of a part-time job playing a video game, but because they saw other people playing even more than they were, they assumed they were “casual”. Needless to say, this breed of “casual” player isn’t what we’re marketing to when we create a “casual game”.

So before we can use those words, we need to add some meaning to them. I think there are really two axes involved here: what challenge people want in a game, and how much time they can allot for a game. Let’s tackle each axis separately.

Casual Test #1: Do you want to be challenged by a game, or engaged?

Although many people switch back and forth between these two, it’s still a useful distinction. People who play “casual games” like to be engaged by the game. People who play “harcore” games like to be challenged by the game. An engaging game isn’t too easy or too hard. It doesn’t expect you to get dramatically better at the game, at least not at too fast a pace. A challenging game ramps up the difficulty quickly, or else it has points of extreme difficulty (such as tough boss battles), forcing pretty much any player to practice repeatedly until they’re good enough.

I have a confession to make, one that would get me kicked out of the Hardcore Gamer Guild if there was such a thing: I played most of God of War 2 on “easy mode.” I was just in the mood for something engaging — not too easy, but not too hard — that would keep me preoccupied for an hour each evening. On “normal mode”, I found that I had to repeat boss battles�many times to learn the techniques, and I just didn’t want to.

God of War 2 is a pretty challenging game: it constantly pits you against obstacles that you are probably not good enough to beat. You will be forced to repeatedly face these obstacles until you succeed. It can be played as an engaging game if you set it on easy mode, but there’s a significant stigma attached to playing a game on “easy”. This stigma is probably intentional!

If you’re playing the game on normal mode and you’re repeatedly failing, the game will ask you if you want to switch to easy mode. This is brilliant, because it makes hardcore gamers feel better about themselves. If they keep practicing, knowing that they could have chickened out at any time, their eventual victory is all the sweeter. People who don’t want to practice a video game over and over again just switch to easy mode and don’t look back.

Let’s look at other games via this lens. Grand Theft Auto 3 is somewhere in between: it’s challenging, but only when you choose to be challenged. You can also just play engaging mini-games for as long as you want. So I’d say GTA is accessible to both casual and hardcore players. This is reflected in the large number of people who played the game in unusual ways.

Bejeweled is engaging without being too challenging. However, the XBox 360 version has some very challenging aspects: it’s extremely difficult to unlock all the XBox 360 achievements in Bejeweled 2. This gives the game some hardcore appeal, at least to some players.

I often switch back and forth. I do sometimes want to be challenged by my video games; it really depends on my mood. I think games that have a mix of engaging and challenging aspects have the broadest appeal. Mixing the two elegantly, now, there’s the tricky part.

Next up: casual question #2.

Starcrossed completes its QA

Early this morning, Starcrossed was sent off to our portal publisher! Hurray! It might be another month or two before it shows up on portals; the whole process is much slower than we had imagined. Of course, when it’s finally available you’ll hear about it here. :)

I’m working a contract job for the rest of this month, but my thoughts are already turning to what game I should create starting next month. If I had a lot more money for art, I’d love to do a web-based role playing game. The format might not end up being accessible enough — I’d have to try it and see — but it’d sure be fun to make :)

Puzzle Quest: Not Casual

I’ve been playing a lot of Puzzle Quest recently. It isn’t as sticky as some would have you believe — I think some of the people who say that it’s “incredibly addictive” haven’t played enough modern casual games. Which brings me to my surprise finding: even though it’s based on Bejeweled, Puzzle Quest is not intended for casual audiences.

That’s okay. It’s just not what I expected. When you first start a Puzzle Quest character, you’ll be fighting “battles” against bats and rats and vermin. Each “battle” is actually a game of Bejeweled, with you and the opponent taking turns. You’re going to lose. You’re�going to lose a LOT. Now, there’s no penalty for losing a battle, you can just try again. But they don’t baby you and let you win at first. In fact, the game gets much EASIER after a few hours of playing — not because you get better at Bejeweled (you don’t), but because you get better powers. By the time you’re fighting zombies and rogue wizards, you’re actually having more fun, because you have power-ups that can be combined in interesting ways.

It’s fine to make a Bejeweled game for hard-core gaming audiences. I’m happy that the game is receiving good word of mouth among RPG fans: it deserves it! But with only minor tweaks they could also have reached the casual gaming audience:

  • Start out with fewer colors. Puzzle Quest starts with 7 matchable colors. This is a lot of colors for a Bejeweled game. They could have discarded a color or two (say, the “sacks of gold”) and made it much easier to find four-in-a-row matches.
  • Make the monsters dumb at first. Since you and your opponent take turns on the board, you can’t really set up any clever moves — your opponent always takes advantage of your setup! The first few opponents should have been dumber. Let the AI get smarter as the game progresses.
  • Start players out with more useful powers, even if they’re just temporary powers. Why does the level 2 rat have more impressive powers than a level 2 player?
  • Give players more information about “leveling up”. Players have to make very difficult decisions when leveling up. Spending skill points the wrong way can ruin a character, forcing you to start over from scratch. There’s not nearly enough information for people to be able to make informed decisions about something so important. At the very least, the game should offer a “recommendation” about where to spend their skill points.

Hardcore players might call these changes “dumbing it down.” On the other hand, I don’t know anybody who actually had FUN during the first hour of gameplay. So if dumbing it down means “making it more fun”, isn’t that a worthwhile trade off?

Maybe not. This gets into the “casual mindset versus hardcore mindset” discussion, which is a topic for another day. Suffice it to say that a steep barrier to entry is appealing to some players. It creates a “we’re better than those peons” sense of pride, which is very important to some people who self-identify as hardcore gamers.

However, I have to imagine that when you’re making a game for Nintendo DS, you’re better off appealing to casual gamers than to the most hardcore niche. Or am I wrong about who owns a DS?

Also, the background music has to go.

Asset Tracking: a better way?

In my last entry I commented on how I’d lost track of one of my sound effects during development — I didn’t know where it came from. I decided to create a paper trail of everything I buy from now on; this will be a last-ditch mechanism to help me track stuff down by following my own footsteps and seeing what I bought and from where.

But it’s not really good enough, as you pointed out (yay, commentators). Is there a better way? Well, the .WAV file format has space to store strings in it, so it should be possible to stick useful information into the .WAV files themselves. Then even if they get changed a bit, I could figure out where they came from. I think the .OGG, .PNG, and .JPG formats have that option, too, so I could use it to track all my assets.

The problem is that I don’t have a program to easily edit that data. If anybody knows of a simple GUI app that can do that, I’d be happy to try it out during my next game development and see how it goes. I can’t find one, though…

(It’s tempting to get sidetracked and write my own little editor for it, but I really shouldn’t let myself get sidetracked any more than is strictly necessary…)

Asset Tracking, or, “Where’d This Sound Come From?”

As Starcrossed undergoes the final polish and QA phase, I made sure all the game’s licenses were in order. One trouble: during development, I bought many sound effects from places like Sound Rangers and only ended up using half of them. I have an “assets” spreadsheet that lists all of the sounds I used and where I got them from. But one of Starcrossed’s sound effects wasn’t on the list.

I searched everywhere trying to find where this sound came from. But it was renamed from its original filename, and I’d obviously mucked with it — I’d reduced the file size, and I’d also probably tweaked the sound in ACID Studio. But where was the original file? I have no idea. There’s no trail for it.

My big fear was that it was a temporary sound that I’d grabbed from somewhere on the web, and forgotten to replace with a licensed sound effect. That didn’t seem too likely, but it might be the case… after all, I had no idea where the sound came from! So I had to make a last-minute replacement. And the replacement sound effect wasn’t quite right, so I had to muck with it a while to get it to sound okay. Wasted time, wasted money.

Moral: don’t be stupid. Err, I mean, keep a strict track of all your assets! For my next project, I’m going to print out the invoice email for every sound I buy, and stick those emails into a file folder. That way even if my asset spreadsheet goes awry, there’ll be a paper trail to try to figure out where things went wrong.