Innovative Casual Game Design: A Year in Review

Originally presented to acclaim at GDC 2009's Casual Games Summit, Nick Fortugno and Juan Gril's review of casual game design looks at the biggest innovations and trends in accessible casual and indie games over the last 12 months.

[Originally presented to acclaim at GDC 2009's Casual Games Summit, Nick Fortugno and Juan Gril's review of casual game design is an important look at the evolution of trends. Encompassing a wide variety of platforms, target audiences, and design concepts, the talk is an overview of the indie and casual games market, as well as a tool for creators to refer to in their own work.]

For the past two years, Nick Fortugno and I (Juan Gril) have worked in a session at GDC where we talk about the casual games that impressed us the most during the past year. We don't give Oscars away, as it's not a "best games of the year list".

Rather, it's a list of games we think are innovative, and we group them in trends. These trends are usually genres which are not stagnating (new games come out constantly with new design ideas in them), or are new to the market (a game or group of games which creates a new genre).

The following article is a transcript of our conversation in our session at GDC.

Intelligent Puzzle Trend

For the second year in a row we have found interesting puzzle games among casual games made for different platforms. It's a trend with a healthy stream of innovative games, and best of all is the trend with more radical innovation.

Juan: My pick for this year is Auditorium. Auditorium is a great game developed by Cipher Primer, an interactive design agency which just started developing video games.

Auditorium is a very simple looking game. You have volume meters, a ray of light, and directional markers. You have to move the directional markers, positioning them over the ray of light to make the light flow in a direction towards the volume meter. The volume meter will fill with the light and start playing the music.

As levels get more complex you'll have to deal with multiple volume meters (each one is one track of the composition). Color circles will change the colors of the rays of light to match the color of the volume meter, and portals and dividers will make things even more interesting.

Auditorium is a new take on music composition. It's a game that provides a very clear aural reward, with a clean and elegant interface.

Nick: My pick is World of Goo. The game was created by 2D Boy, a game design team born out of Carnegie Mellon University. The core mechanic for the majority of the game is simple: use goo bits to create a structure that you build towards a drain. When the goo structure reaches the drain, the remaining goo is sucked into the drain, and if the number of goo saved exceeds a threshold, the level is won.

It's a simple system, but it's developed out in continually surprising and engaging ways. The physics never get so complicated to become hardcore, but the introduction of new types of goo and new terrain means that the core experience remains fresh through dozens of levels.

For a game that is basically a set of physics puzzles, it goes well above and beyond in terms of visual and sound design. Each level has a unique whimsical aesthetic, and the variety from level to level is just astounding. Players are given multiple axes of success as well, and a set of OCD awards reward expert solutions to each board.

World of Goo shows the length to which a simple mechanic can be harnessed through smart level design and a creative approach to theme and style.

Other games worth checking out in this trend are:

  • Jojo's Fashion Show: Great matching game based on fashion. Gamelab successfully used a topic so ephemeral in a game with a system of rules that fits to all tastes.
  • Shift: A puzzle game by Armor Games about navigating a character to an exit, in which the player switches the character between the black and white parts of the board. It's a simple twist that creates many interesting levels.
  • Neon Layers: A one button puzzle game by Ozzie Mercado, in which you have to direct a ball towards an exit by just switching lighted platforms on and off.
  • In the Dog House: In this puzzle game made by Nitrome, your goal is to take the dog out of the house, by moving all the house parts around. It's a nice variation of the "car parking lot" types of games with a different theme.

Visual Narrative Trend

This is another strong trend in casual games. New themes and more complex puzzles than last year, but they are still easy to play. There is less innovation than in puzzle games, but nevertheless there are great new games worth checking out.

Juan: My pick is the Bowja the Ninja series. It's a series of games (in its third iteration by now) created by Pencilkids. In them you command Bowja -- the stealth ninja who is part James Bond, part 8-year-old kid, and part ninja master.

The game mechanic is based on the concept of exploring the screen with your mouse to find hot spots, and clever puzzles that you have to solve. The theme is great and it will be particularly appealing for all of those who have grown up with Cold War-era movies and books. Best of all the games contain almost no text at all so they are globally accessible.

Nick: This is something of a legacy pick, but my choice for visual narrative is Grow Nano vol.3, insofar as it represents the entire Grow series. The Grow series is developed by Eyemaze, and Nano vol. 3 is the 2008 entry in the series.

Grow games are essentially logic puzzles. The player is presented with a number of objects that can be dropped into the field of play one at a time, and the objects are dropped in the right order, the player wins. Grow games are about the trial and error play of experimenting with different arrangements and trying to max out the development of each one.

What moves the Grow games beyond simple logic puzzle is the way that the states of development are shown through narrative. Each object added to the playfield advances the narrative in unpredictable ways.

In Grow Nano vol. 3, for example, each object added can increase the main characters health: by growing into a bed, generating a spouse and then family, and evolving through several kinds of medicine. So while the game necessitates repeat play, it remains fun to keep experimenting since each new step is a narrative reward, regardless of whether the step is successful or not.

There are many different variants in the Grow series, from Grow RPG to Grow Tower, but all of them share this cute style and non-verbal narrative that make a very basic logic puzzle a heartwarming play experience.

Other games worth checking out are:

  • Passage: This game by Jason Rohrer is a major step forward in the games-as-art movement. One of the most moving 5-minute-or-less experiences I've ever seen.
  • Majesty of Colors: An interesting modern take on the old choose-your-own adventure structure by Gregory Weir. I think this game and others like it point to a new direction in interactive narrative.
  • You Have to Burn the Rope: Kian Bashiri's wonderful commentary on the difficulty of modern games, and recipient of the unofficial Best Original Song in Casual Games 2008.

Let's Play Together Trend

So far, most casual multiplayer games were clones or simple incremental innovations of popular videogames (i.e.: Worms clones). But now we are starting to see unique multiplayer casual games with new themes and mechanics.

Juan: My pick is a game made by Three Rings Design called Corpse Craft. This is a multi-player game part of their Whirled service. In Corpse Craft, each player manages an army of zombies which goal is to tear down the opponent's HQ. You build zombies by combining substances, and you get these substances playing a collapse-style puzzle game.

The game looks simple but it requires a great deal of strategy, specially when it comes to timing. This is not a classic RTS style of game where whoever builds the most units wins. You have to be careful what you build and when. Corpse Craft has great character design too. Each zombie connotes really well what action it can do.

Nick: My choice for this category is LittleBigPlanet. A lot has been said about LittleBigPlanet in terms of its visual style and user-generated content, but I think it's multiplayer offering is at least as interesting to the development of casual games.

The core way of playing LittleBigPlanet is to play with multiple people on the same screen. The platforming gameplay encourages many people to tackle a level at the same time and either aid or grief each other. So the physics elements that platforming levels contain are designed that players can work together to utilize them.

This includes multiple players pushing blocks and balls to create steps, one player moving ahead to retrieve items for the rest of the group, or even the pure Gauntlet-style gameplay of lending a trailing player to keep the team moving forward.

There have been a few casual and core games from LittleBigPlanet to Rock Band that have been exploring how cooperative play can be used in a game that's not an FPS or a fantasy MMO. This is a field of game design that has a lot of future potential, and LittleBigPlanet deserves credit for making an early and strong step in that direction.

Other games worth checking out are:

  • Kongai: It's a collectible card game made by the guys at Kongregate. With very few actions they created a game really deep and addictive.
  • Age of Booty: Made by Certain Affinity. Taking elements from RTS and squad-based combat games, Age of Booty is a game where you command a pirate ship and you have to control all the towns in a map. It's great fun with friends.

Arcade Evolved Trend

Another trend with a healthy stream of innovative games. This trend is also benefiting with the success of downloadable services like XBLA, PSN and WiiWare.

Juan: My pick is Pixeljunk Eden by Q-Games. Much have been said about the game so I won't waste bytes here. One thing that I would say is that no video or description can really explain what this game is about. You have to play it to truly understand it. It's so good it is my favorite game of 2008.

Pixeljunk Eden has a truly unique game mechanic, a very compelling and simple visual style, and contains a whole new challenge in every level by just changing a few simple variables.

Nick: My choice is for this category is Braid, an indie game by Jonathan Blow. It's a borderline casual game, but it's innovation at a mechanic level and its absolutely brilliant level design make it a must-win in my book.

Braid takes the basic platform mechanic of a Super Mario Bros. game and combines it with a few simple and unique twists on time manipulation mechanics. But the thing that moves Braid from interesting to amazing is the strength of the level design. Each mechanic is used to create a handful of extremely tight and well-balanced timing puzzles.

The sheer variety would be impressive, but the genius is the game is the way that skills build from level to level, and that solutions to the puzzles turn out to be just different ways of thinking about the way the game twists time.

Braid is a level design masterpiece, and deserves to be an object of study for any serious game designer.

Other games worth checking out are:

  • Carneyvale Showtime: An almost one-button game. Your objective is to make your character (a clown) jump from platform to platform performing acrobatic stunts. Very clever game mechanic. Made by the GAMBIT Game Lab.
  • One Key: A platform game by Nitrome where you use just one key.
  • Grey Matter: A shooter game made by Edmund McMillen where you are the bullet instead of being the ship.
  • Frozzd: A game about planet jumping by Jesse Venbrux. This one's for all of you waiting for the Little Prince game.

Manage It All Trend

Time management games are finally having other things than just waitresses in them. Financial sims, and sandbox simulations (such as Build-A-Lot) have now more in common with time management games than the open environment common in hardcore simulation games.

Juan: My pick for last year is a game called Oiligarchy, made by MolleIndustria. In Oiligarchy your role is to be the CEO of an oil company right at the end of World War II. You start in Texas, and you will soon run out of space to drill.

So you participate in the election, making sure your candidate wins and you get the government to participate "aiding democracy" in countries such as Venezuela, Nigeria, and Iraq. I'm not kidding.

Oiligarchy is a financial sim with a story tie-in and a very strong political message. It has tons of options but they don't overwhelm the player as all menus are contextual. Very simple and effective graphics.

Best of all, and regardless if you agree with the message or not, next time you have somebody daring to say that video games have no meaning, just open your laptop, fire up Oiligarchy, and tell them to STFU.

Nick: My pick is a web game called Cursor*10 by NekoGames. It's a very simple and sparse game, but I think that it's a nice example of how a genre of mechanic such as time management can manifest very differently in different games.

The goal is Cursor*10 is to reach the 16th level, and to score points by clicking on pyramids. The player starts with a cursor, and clicks on the screen to climb stairs, score pyramids, and push buttons. That cursor has a time limit, and when that limit runs out, the player gets a second cursor to navigate the level.

However, the movements the player made with the first cursor have been recorded and play again as the player uses the second cursor. This repeats 10 times in total, and the player must coordinate the use of the cursors together to get to the top.

What fascinates me about Cursor*10 is that it is literally about managing the way you click with your cursor within a time limit. It's a reduction of time management to its most essential form, and that provides an interesting intellectual and reflex challenge.

Added to this is a clever use of tangential goals: the point-scoring pyramids. Clicking the pyramids is necessary to get a high score, but it distracts the player from the progress goal. The combination of these two elements gives you a challenging, replayable game.

Cursor*10 is a game that shows that it isn't always polish and piles of stuff that makes a game great. The skilled use of a essential core mechanic can be enough to make a compelling game.

Other games worth checking out are:

And that's it! Thank you for reading. We look forward to another great year in Casual Games.

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