Casual games are getting harder

As Jesper Juul (his company made High Seas) mentioned to me in an email recently, match-3 puzzle games seem to be getting harder. He’s right… they really are. In fact, the newest match-3 puzzle games are really tough! In earlier posts, I had suggested that the DS game Puzzle Quest was too difficult to be a casual game. But maybe I’m wrong. The newest match-3 games rival Puzzle Quest in difficulty.

I still think that, in general, casual audiences want to be engaged by a game, rather than outright aggressively challenged by the game. They don’t think it’s fun to retry a boss stage over and over until they get it right. But what was once engaging is becoming boring. What was once a perfectly-balanced match-3 game three years ago is too easy now. I think the hide-and-seek item hunt game genre is undergoing the same thing: the newest entries in the genre are significantly harder than the earliest ones. That genre is solidifying, too, and it’s much younger than the match-3 genre.

This is a tricky problem, because it means it’s harder than ever to know how hard to make a game. Starcrossed isn’t a match-3 game at all. But it’s played on a similar board. Do any of the player’s match-3 skills come into play in Starcrossed? Probably some match-3 skills, yes, but not all of them. So … yeah. I guess I should make it kinda-sorta hard, then? What do I use to measure?

The only real way to tell how hard to make it is to get members of your target audience to play your game and give you feedback. If you’re making a match-3 game, your audience is match-3 enthusiasts, so you’ll have to find some and get them to test your game.

At this point, you might be shouting, “Just stop making games in the same genres!” There’s some merit to this: if you make a game that’s significantly different from the common portal games, you can assume that the audience doesn’t have any skills in your game, and it’s a bit easier to balance. You can err on the side of easy.

But as I found with Starcrossed, even a game with significantly different mechanics has some crossover skill. Let’s face it: casual gamers are starting to get real gaming skills, and those skills will carry over into almost any kind of game they play. The audience is solidifying. They’re getting better, and casual games are getting harder as a result.

3 thoughts on “Casual games are getting harder

  1. Instead of making things harder, they should start dividing plays into Easy, Medium, Hard, and if the developer chooses – Insane – difficulties. That way, newcomers will not be frustrated with hard controls and seasoned casual gamers will not be bored with easy plays.

  2. Rioka, how hard is “Hard”? If a player does extremely well in the first level, which is, necessarrily very easy, then subsequent levels can be ramped up in difficulty. For example, a game of Checkers might have a hundred difficulty levlels with the AI being set based on the players previous performance.

    A player might pick “Easy” because they have no idea how to play the game yet and find it’s too easy. The player might pick “Hard” because they have confidence in their skills only to find the game impossible to beat.

  3. I think that different games lend themselves better to different levels of challenge. When trying to decide on how challenging to make a game, I think there are a few things to consider.
    1) The genre of the game (certain challenge levels grab more audiences for different types of games. For example, a casual space shooter game will probably be more appealing their less casual audience if it were more challenging)
    2) Maturity of that genre (currently, what level of difficulty appeals to them most?)
    3) The game itself (this is where you’re trying to differentiate yourself. A genre game usually has a twist that the developers think will help it sell. This will modify the challenge level to what makes this twist most fun.)

    Casual games are generally less challenging than normal games, but the question really is, how much less? And it’s probably different from genre to genre.

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