As I explained in my earlier post “Hyper-casual trends to follow (and not to follow)”, games in this genre are super-mini versions of AAA games, and therefore should follow the same design pillars as these big game studios.
The beauty of games in this genre is that at their very essence they are easy to understand (though not necessarily easy to design and develop), so a prototype is an extremely reliable way to test out the game’s viability, before too much time and money is invested into the game. Concept doesn’t work? Move onto the next idea.
I’ll delve into four key guidelines to follow (once you’ve cracked the trend question from my earlier post), and are ready to focus on design elements:
One: Immediacy - Players don’t wait
One of the main reasons why hyper-casual games have become so successful is their understanding of what need they’re serving. They’re snackable bites of content that are served in short bursts, so time is of the essence. With that in mind, as soon as the game starts, take the player straight to the gameplay screen. Everything else is superfluous to that (and that includes worrying about the game progression, meta game and monetization) and should all be shown at a later stage.
This also holds true when it comes to the output that a player expects. In a world where people are used to getting instant rewards, giving users what they want, quickly, is key. Make sure that your controls aren’t clunky and most importantly, make sure that there are no delays from the moment the player inputs into a game (clicks, taps, slides, whatever) until the first output. We can see this executed excellently in Bullet Rush, where the characters aim and shoot simultaneously while they’re on the move. Another good example of immediacy is in Popcorn Burst, where the player holds down to instantly generate multiple pieces of popcorn with the goal of reaching the threshold without the popcorn overflowing from the bucket. In Dig This and Sand Balls, the player carves out a smooth route in the sand, creating instantaneous gratification.
Two: Dramatization - Be playful and generous
Enabling an immediate output is important, but make sure that it's worth it. The trade-off between the user’s input versus their output must be clear and satisfying enough to warrant continued play. Take classic runners for example. They’re not so engaging as a standalone concept, but once mixed with minimal adventures like platformers, they might have several layers where the player can control a unit that has an additional mechanic built into it.
For example, in Samurai Flash, the player isn’t just in control of the movement, but also in control of time. So players can see how the outcome - of how fast or slow the units get cut - depends on their input. In Bullet Rush, you’re controlling a unit (the character) dynamically - either slow or fast, depending on your effort. Meanwhile, that unit has an auto ‘aim and shoot’ system applied to it and an AoE attack, which goes off once the player has 'released' his finger from the screen.
Juice-based elements are a great way to dramatize an output, and one such method is the use of fever systems. These elements give a player a temporary prize for hitting a hidden milestone, an objective or any other fever condition, and are a popular way of driving drama. But going over the top isn’t advised. Fever systems are most successfully executed when they’ve achieved the right balance between drama and being well-polished, well-executed and not too noisy. For example, there’s a fever system that appears once a player has shown some level of expertise, such as managing to maintain an action without running into obstacles by ‘continuously’ playing without lifting the finger off the screen. This can be found in Spiral Roll and Stackball 3D for example. If it makes sense for your gameplay to implement a layer that rewards such milestones, then fever is one concept that you can add to your tool box.
Three: Minimalism - Short game time needs maximum focus
This might pain game designers to hear, but it’s a make or break point for a hyper-casual game: games which have too much going on in the non-core environment, at the minimum are wasting precious development hours and at the maximum are actually distracting a user from the gameplay. Though the scope will be smaller than in heavier games, start by white-boxing your environment to check that a game concept will work. The environment is there to support your gameplay, so make sure you do it right.
A spinoff from this point is how, or if, to use minimal characters. Stickmen have been very popular until now as they can communicate super efficiently without being too detailed or distracting. The packaging may not be as nice as more complex characters but they work well in the context of the minimalism concept above, and they bring emphasis to the gameplay itself while being fast, easy and safe options to use. Just look at Bazooka Boy, Join Clash and Cube Surfer as examples. On the downside, however, this strategy can get repetitive, and there’s definitely room to explore other options of minimalistic models that go beyond the smiley stickman and which can revamp the hyper-casual genre in this area. It will be interesting to see how this space develops.
Four: Gameplay First - Don’t get lost in stories
Now this is the best tip I can give to hyper-casual developers: it’s more important to be able to describe your gameplay clearly, rather than being able to tell its story. The crucial questions to answer are: what does your game do, what are the controls, what are the rules, what interesting progression elements are incorporated into it, is it a simulation game etc. The surrounding story is superfluous to these questions and is unlikely to affect your game’s viability, so don’t get too caught up in storytelling.
An ideal explanation of a game would go like this: I do ‘X’ (input), then ‘Y’ happens (output), giving me ‘Z’ e.g. I hold down a character (input) in order to operate a trajectory (output) and by releasing, a shot will be fired with several potential outcomes (depending on my aim). Rather than: my game is a set on a beach where there are two characters playing frisbee.
It’s about fleshing out the entire gameplay with the verbs and actions that a player is going to take in the game, rather than focusing on the story or environment, which in hyper-casual games serve more of a secondary function. You want to get to the testing stage ASAP to see how your game performs. Having said this, there are exceptions to the rule, for example with Save the Girl, where the story is also part of the gameplay.
Take this into consideration when creating explanatory documentation for your team and publisher. The method in which you communicate the game should be in keeping with the speed at which the game is understood and ‘sold’ in the video ad version of your game. If you can’t explain it concisely then something needs to be cut.
In an ecosystem where games are created and launched within a month, being quick and clear both with yourself and then within your creation, can be a deal breaker. As you’re developing your game, make sure that the thematic choice is clear to everyone, not just to you. You’re creating a prototype for a reason - to check the game’s marketability - so be willing to let go of an idea if it doesn’t fly, learn from what didn’t work and move on to the next challenge.