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The Game Designers Play: Part 2

Last week I discussed the meta games that designers play against the intended player when designing a game. In this article I'll use a specific example to highlight some of the ways to leverage meta-game mechanics to deepen an existing game.
Basic game mechanics are second nature for game designers. As long time gamers it's very easy for us to say what works and what doesn't in a video game. As I discussed in the last article, the game that designers play against the players as they're designing and balancing the game can have a huge effect on the resulting game from the perspective of the player and with respect to the game design with respect to the original intent of the game.
To this end I'm going to examine the specific example of casual games and the mechanics and design choices which make them unique and simultaneously broaden their appeal in the marketplace. Once we determine what those basic mechanics are I'll discuss ways they can be implemented in more traditional game types to improve appeal. Hopefully this can be done without altering the integrity or basic design of the game.

Casual games have a specific draw for players and specific ways that they encourage repeat play over an extended time. This is, in many ways, in opposition to the assumed market position of a traditional AAA title. A major release is held to a set of soft requirements that casual games aren't held to, because there is a definite value proposition in the purchase of any larger game.
For example, a $60 game which clocks in at 6 hours for a single player experience is not as valuable as a $60 game that takes 80 hours to complete. These times are often offset by additional online or multiplayer content outside of the main story, but the value proposition is still there.
The cost to play is not a deal breaker though and there are many examples of outliers in the game length to cost ratio. There has to be something more within the actual design of successful casual games that gets people playing and keeps them coming back. 

From Turn-on to Game-on

Casual games are very tightly designed in terms of time investment. It might be helpful to think of them as "short stories" as opposed to the "novels" of traditional games. This tightness extends not just to in-game design, but also to game startup and completion. For example, a game like Bejeweled Blitz starts up very quickly;  it takes a minimum of one click (or interaction) to get into the actual game.
After the game ends another game can be started almost immediately. This quick access and low time commitment is extreme but serves to illustrate the point. The faster a player gets into the game the sooner the immersive aspects of the game world can begin to work their magic. Even if that world is a 6x6 grid of sparkly gems, if the mechanics of the game are well designed, the immediate immersion hastens their development of a meaningful connection to the game.
As major game releases continue, at least topographically, to resemble motion picture releases with multiple developers and publishers who each need their logo tacked onto the initial game load, then it's entirely possible to play an entire round of Bejeweled Blitz in the time it takes to load and start the average game on a console. If we compare this to retro games, where the game logo took center stage and publisher and developer information was concentrated as text on the startup screen, you can see the direction in which the game startup has gone. 

The Role of "Luck"

From a design perspective, Bejweled is unbelievably simple. Swap random gems to match colors, more gems appear, repeat. Unlike some other arcade-style games, there isn't a real skill other than pattern recognition, but yet people play it non-stop. I looked at the leaderboard for Bejeweled Blitz on my Facebook account and the top-tier players far outpace the casual players and have amassed levels of completion far beyond most other players, despite the fact that astronomical scores are entirely based on luck. The game keeps you playing because that next round might be the lucky one.
As the game has been upgraded, additional game mechanics have been introduced to reinforce this luck based repeat play. Boosts, which can be purchased by coins earned and give the player a miniscule edge for a limited number of games, as well as score-based ranking at various levels both encourage repeat play between randomly good rounds. The "good" rounds remain the payoff, but the sub-goals of earning coins and maxing out levels fill in the gaps. This mechanic is very similar to a Pavlovian-based reward mechanism.
While not necessarily appropriate for a more in-depth game, there are aspects of even the most robust game which can be enhanced by luck-based mechanics. Many games use luck already (some going so far as to have a luck stat for the player characters) but this differs greatly from the arcade-style game version of luck. The luck in Bejeweled is seen as a random reward for repeat play. When stats are assigned to this random reward it makes it just another part of the visible game mechanism with which the player is interacting.
For example, if you were going to implement a luck based instant-kill mechanism in a game and have it tied directly to a luck statistic, it loses some of the "magic" that makes luck so attractive in the first place. If you instead keep the mechanics hidden from the average player, but make a big deal out of the act of the instant kill, that mechanic will have more value because it seems more special than a mere roll of the electronic dice.   

Length of Play Session

The pick up and play nature of casual games is often stressed over the just as important "play and put down" nature. One of the obvious hallmarks of casual games is that not only can you get into the game immediately, but that they deliver their content in very short segments. Even in an online Scrabble game, which may take days or weeks to play, the actual play session is very limited. Casual games achieve this via a few different design choices: limiting of play, stateful design, and zero memory design.
Games such as Mafia Wars or Kingdom of Loathing limit play by giving the user a specific amount of resources to spend. As resources regenerate over a fixed period of time, more game time is allowed. Alternatively casual games may have very short round times, allowing players to divide up play time based on the number of rounds they want to play.
A turn-based word game, such as Scrabble maintains only the bare minimum of information on the game screen to allow a player to pick up exactly where they left off. Seeing the board, the score, and the last played word for example are enough to jog the player's memory about what the state of the game is. Arcade games tend to use what can be called a "zero memory design," that is, there is no memory necessary on the part of the player in order to start playing outside of the basic rules of play.
A game like Bookworm lets the player start playing immediately and doesn't require any a priori knowledge of the state of the game world. Depending on the style or intent of the game, these methods may be used in combination or on their own to achieve the ultimate goal of allowing users to define the play time investment for the game. In some ways these sorts of considerations have slowly been making their way into the domain of more hardcore games. The popular checkpoint based progression is an excellent example of how these principals can be applied.
In Gears of War, you can literally play the game for five minutes, make it though a couple of checkpoints and put it down. When you return, Marcus and Dom will be right where you left them. When compared to a game like Prototype, where you reach checkpoints but still have to play full missions in each sitting, you can see the difference between the two methods of game design.
The expectation of a zero-memory game is not really possible with the scope of larger titles, but through the use of detailed journals (e.g., Mass Effect) or innovative next-objective markers (e.g., Fable's trail of breadcrumbs), games can give the player more freedom to put the game down when life or responsibility calls. As the average gamer ages this becomes more important as adult responsibilities encroach on uninterrupted game time.

Speed of Game Play

There is very little waiting in casual games. While it is pretty easy to argue that casual games could be considered pure level grinding games, there is very little waiting in the course of actual game play. The casual game keeps the player constantly engaged throughout the course of the game with very little interaction that falls outside of the actual game mechanic space.
Ironically, while on the surface this aspect of casual game design seems to be the most difficult to integrate into long-form games, it is the idea that has been the most widely embraced. Transit beacons, hearthstones, and other fast travel shortcuts have been around for a decade (one of my favorite examples are the snake mirrors in World of Xeen).
It has become not just enough to give players a faster mount, but to give them the choice to jump to any point in the game world they have previously accessed. This can be implemented via an in-game item or, as is the case with Fable II, the player can simply choose to travel to a location and it loads as the in-game travel time passes them by. Other areas where more traditional games have sought to increase the speed of in-game play are in dialog and cutscene management.
Allowing players to adjust dialog speed, skip dialog entirely, or even skip cutscenes has made these games more accessible to the increasingly diverse user base. These design decisions accomodate both the player who simply wants to move from one battle to the next and the story driven player equally. Unfortunately there is also room for improvement. Many games are still rife with unskippable cutscenes, intros, and dialog. There is nothing more frustrating than falling to a boss and then waiting for them to elucidate their plans a second time.
Not only does it slow down play, it also diminishes the incentive to replay difficult sections after subsequent defeats. By offering a resume or continue option that allows players to try their luck again from the beginning of such a battle is an excellent way to avoid this slowdown. Even if players need to hear an enemy's speech, they should still have the option to skip it. As designers, it may seem like an easy out for the player to be able to skip around the map with little to no time penalty. In reality this fundamentally changes the world mechanics we're given to play with. We can make quests more epic in scope, make evil armies more geographically vast, and at the same time flatten the world and give the player more investment as a global hero.

It is easy to see that there are many aspects of casual game design which could be embraced by the game design community as whole. By integrating the design lessons learned from the causal games boom, long-form games can benefit in a number of ways. The addition of some casual game mechanics increases game appeal and provides the possibility of crossover between the casual and hardcore games markets.
Hardcore gamers also benefit from the adoption of causal game design principals because it makes the games they love more flexible and able to fit into their increasingly busy lives. While many companies are trying to win the casual games race outright, I think it is far more important to determine how the basic toolset of the casual game can benefit the traditional game designer and subsequently the industry as a whole.

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