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.

Make your first 3 minutes count

If you’re making a downloaded casual game, you already have a big hurdle to overcome: how to get people to download your game. But let’s leave that aside for the moment, and focus on the people who have downloaded your game. Wow! Congrats, you’ve already got the player WANTING to commit to your game.

Players don’t want to feel stupid. They spent several minutes waiting for your game to download and install. They want to be rewarded for their decision. They want to like your game.

Books like Daniel Gilbert’s “Stumbling on Happiness” teach us that most people make up their minds about something after just the first few seconds of interacting with it. If the first impression sucks, it can be hard to overcome it.

Judging from my play experience, I’d say you’ve got three minutes to convey that your game is a confident, professional product. If after three minutes my impression is, “this feels amateur,” then I’m done. Even if I keep playing for a while after that, I have no intention of buying.

So how do you convey professionalism in the first three minutes? Three of the keys are:

  • Tight initial experience. Look at every screen the game presents during the first 30 seconds of play — typically the loading screen, main menu, tutorial screen, and main game screen. These are the screens that need to be tightest. You can skimp on things like your high-scores screen.
  • Animation! Use animation on every screen. Animate the loading screen if possible. Definitely animate the menus. It’s not really about the actual animation; it’s about the feeling of movement on the screen that helps to convey a feeling of professional quality.
  • Don’t make the user feel stupid. It’s not an accident that the first level of modern casual games is really, really easy. This helps create a favorable first impression. It might also create the impression that the game is too easy. But that’s not as damaging as the impression that the game is too hard. When something’s too hard, people tend to lose focus. They’ll notice the little warts in your game. The illusion of professionalism will fall apart.

My beta feedback reinforces that the biggest player drop-off is in the first few minutes. If you can keep ‘em playing for longer than that, they’re likely to play for a good while, and you just might have a sale.

“Click To Skip This Movie”

I’m slowly slogging through the beta feedback and making changes to my upcoming casual game. One of the comments made the think. Somebody complained that they wished the story scenes were skippable. But the story scenes are skippable… you just have to click the cursor anywhere on the screen, or press the escape key on the keyboard.

So this player wanted to skip the movie, but didn’t think to click the mouse. They expected instructions on how to skip the movie. I’m not sure how people became trained that movies are un-skippable by default, but they apparently have.

Since I have no way of knowing how many users are in this boat, I don’t know whether I need to add a “Click to Skip” sentence somewhere on the screen. I’d rather not, since it looks stupid. Next time I do a beta, I’ll add logging to see if people can figure out how to skip the movies.

Do’s and Don’ts #1: Do Support Left Handed Mouse Mode

And now I can start dispensing advice and criticism! Woo. I feel bloggy already. First up, a bug that was mentioned in my analysis of Treasures of the Deep, but one which is present in many 3D games: they don’t support left-handed mouse users! The Control Panel option to swap mouse buttons isn’t new or wacky; it’s been there since the early 16-bit Windows versions. Not all lefties use this option, but many do.

When I start playing a game that doesn’t support swapped mouse buttons, I don’t realize it at first. I think, “that’s weird, the game isn’t responding.” I click on buttons and nothing happens. It takes a bit to realize what’s wrong. In the mean time, my first impression is that the game is broken.

I would never consider buying a game that didn’t support left handed mouse mode. It’s not spite or prejudice or anything … but think about it from the right handed point of view. If you downloaded a game and the mouse buttons were reversed, so you had to right-click on buttons to use them, your impression of the game would be pretty low, wouldn’t it? That’s how I feel.

If you use mouse messages like WM_LBUTTONDOWN for input, you don’t have to do anything to support lefty mouse mode. The operating system will take care of it for you! This is why 2D games tend to support lefty mouse even if the author didn’t think of it. However, if you’re using DirectInput for your mouse data, you have to check for swapped mice manually.

It is incredibly trivial to support lefty mouse mode in DirectX applications. You just make one single function call:

BOOL IsMouseSwapped = GetSystemMetrics(SM_SWAPBUTTON);

If this boolean is true, then simply swap the logic for your left mouse button and right mouse button handlers. That’s it! Ta da, you’ve made your game not suck for left handed users.