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IMGDC: Nick Fortugno On The Rise Of The Casual MMO

Is there really such a thing as a "casual MMO"? At IMGDC, RebelMonkey co-founder and Diner Dash creator Nick Fortugno outlined the unique way in which multiplayer online games are viewed from the perspective of the casual space -- to explain why he

April 4, 2008

7 Min Read

Author: by Michael Zenke, Leigh Alexander

Nick Fortugno, co-founder of casual game company RebelMonkey, was originally supposed to address the audience at IMGDC on "What Your Mother and Your Ten Year-Old Can Teach you About MMOs." However, when he noted how "on the ball" the attendees of IMGDC seemed, he decided to diverge a bit. Some background on Fortugno's company: RebelMonkey hasn't yet launched, but is on the verge. In addition to Web 2.0 social gaming, they also do more general games work in the casual genre. For now, though, Fortugno's better known for his previous role with Gamelab, where he created Diner Dash. Fortugno told the audience that when he’s at casual games conferences, he hears a lot of discussion of MMOs, but when they talk online gaming they mean something very specific – not always what MMO designers see as their subject matter. Where Casuals Stand So, what are casual games? "Casual games are games played by everybody," Fortugno began. "The definition is borrowed from Dan Goldstein; everybody means everybody. Senior citizen players of the Wii, the dominant market is women over 35, and many casual MMOs are aimed at kids younger than ten." As an example of the broadness of this casual group, Fortugno pointed out, "Zuma is one of the most popular games on the Xbox 360, and despite what Microsoft might say, nobody’s mother is touching the 360." Fortugno thinks there’s an informal opinion that casual games are inferior somehow; he likened them to the "twisted stepsister" of the games industry -- “Even in comparison to mobile... and when you’re ‘worse’ than mobile, that’s saying something.” The traditional view, he continued, is that casuals are all imaginative abstract games or dopey puzzle titles. But, said Fortugno, "There are many different kinds of casual games, they cover a lot of different spaces. Casuals do have specific kinds of game constraints because they’re for everybody, including non-gamers." Fortugno also covered what he feels are basic principles of casual games. "Casual games need to be intuitive," he said. "Their controls need to be easy to see and understand. Most games use the left mouse button because web users are the market; they made games that people could access using patterns that the players already knew." Fortugno explained that casual games depend on a simple core mechanic that is expanded across a "terrain." The gameplay action itself is simple, like the click of that left mouse button, but the complexity is introduced in the level design and in other elements. For example, Diner Dash is "one-click flow organizing" that becomes more complex when customers become harder to work with, the flow gets tougher, and failure is less tolerated. The game never gets more complicated, said Fortugno, just more challenging. Finally, Fortugno said that casuals are games that can be played in short play sessions. "Either this is encouraged through a continuous play structure that is easy to stop, or has a very specific set of quickly-achieved criteria," he said. A Different Perspective on MMOs What does this have to do with MMOs? “Given that we have different views of casual games, the casual view of MMOs is also different.” They look at MMOs differently from the hardcore perspective, drastically, he said. From their demographic, MMOs are either fantasy adventures (like World of Warcraft) or "do it yourself” games (like Second Life). Fantasy adventures are typified with RPG game-style structures, virtual world persistence, and a masculine power fantasy. “Keep in mind this is from our perspective," said Fortugno. "This is a field where a very typical narrative might be something like ‘a spunky young woman who is trapped in a bad job quits her job to start a cake factory.’” Most opinions about the "do it yourself" style of games have been informed by the press. Second Life’s press coverage is hard to ignore, he pointed out. To him, this genre is typified by open-ended creation abilities, few pre-existing games and structures, and the primary task is to create things for each other to "make it work." Also in this case there is an extremely thin, or no narrative, overlying the experience. Fortugno's examples included There.com, Second Life and ActiveWorlds. "I was struck by how, if I mixed these screenshots around, I probably wouldn’t be able to tell which was which," he added. To casual gamers, both of these MMO types mean basically the same thing, Fortugno says. Both are virtual worlds, which are large and requires effort to navigate. "Time is built into the experience as a ‘cost,'" he said. "There is a time-intensive core activity, a ‘grind’. Keep in mind the audience here. This is a group for whom the idea of changing the preferences in Microsoft Word is a major endeavor in computer science." There’s also a lot to learn: geography, skills, and other elements that Fortugno says all add up to one conclusion: MMOs are hardcore. "Those games fail for casual gamers." When casuals think about MMOs, they think of Club Penguin, Fortugno continued. "What they’re really thinking about, though, is the huge amount of money Disney paid for it. That was kind of a big deal. Investors, especially, think about that. Pogo.com is the other thing casuals think of; it's been around for years, happily puttering along. It is considered an MMO in the casual game space. Other examples are Habbo, Webkinz, Puzzle Pirates, Parking Wars, Kart Rider and Audition." Fortugno offered one big caveat: "Casual gamers don’t play casually. They don’t play games for any shorter duration than ‘hardcore’ gamers. There is a similar spread of long-and-short players as there are in traditional games. This is a myth in the casual games market too." Redefining 'Multiplayer' So then, is a casual MMO a paradox? Fortugno explained that, to casual game makers and the folks in the industry, everything mentioned in his talk is an MMO. Some of them are "fraught" for folks in the MMO community, but none of them are questions for folks in the casual space. "The main differentiator is that none require hardcore play styles," Fortugno stressed. "The impact of the MMO genre can’t be understated," he continued. "For thousands of years, all games were multiplayer. It’s only in the last hundred years or so that we’ve even seen the concept of a single-player game that wasn’t Solitaire. They’ve done a lot of heavy lifting to make good networking code, and now all games are looking at the idea of playing together." He continued, “The most interesting thing about MMOs to me is that we have social structures now that have never existed before in the history of humanity.” However, casual games have lagged behind in the social elements, he said. "Simultaneity has been really hard to get right, unless you went with a download. Flash sucked for a really long time. Schedules that allow for multiplayer is also ‘hardcore’. Scheduling for raids is just not something casuals understand or have the flexibility for." Casuals get around this, he explained, by calling things "multiplayer" that may not be true multiplayer in the commonly-understood definition. "For example, Pogo.com has all these games where you play by yourself, 'with' people in a chat nearby. As they play, a common scoreboard updates. That’s 'casual multiplayer.'" Games like Club Penguin, where interaction is so heavily limited that there's almost no social environment, also fall into this category. Same with the Lego-branded Drome Racing Challenge -- the races, being asynchronous, are not "races" at all. But while these kinds of games defy traditional definitions of "multiplayer," they're still MMOs from Fortugno's perspective. In conclusion, he said, "The casual barbarians are coming! We’re bigger, we have more people. There are a lot of people in hardcore, but we have everybody else. Casual gamers are looking for all kinds of games, and MMOs are an open space casuals are just going to be in one day."

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