Last Day of Work’s Arthur K Humphrey spoke extensively, if rapidly, of what he sees as the false and destructive conceptual divide between casual and mainstream games. Casual games are supposed to be accessible, and mainstream games are supposed to be deep. Games that are deep yet accessible are thrust into one or the other camp largely on the basis of their presentation.
Humphrey’s solution, in part: “in-between” games. His definition is “a game that takes the depth and qualities of a core game and brings it into a place where casual gamers can appreciate it.”
The advantages to “in-between” games, Humphrey says, include a dramatically under-served, yet growing, demographic, and the potential to better stand out from the ballooning pack of me-too lost-in-the-moment games. Disadvantages include confusing the press (if you can’t quantify it, you can’t score it), and potentially catering to a tremendous, if loyal, niche.
Playing Dumb or Playing Safe?
So how can you blur the lines without scaring away the casuals and boring the hardcore? Humphrey suggests “encapsulating the complexity” and a tremendously shallow learning curve.
There are two kinds of “encapsulation”: mechanical, and UI. Mechanical encapsulation consists of limiting access to more advanced functions; UI encapsulation involves simply not bothering the player with all of the available functions.
A typical advantage to the latter technique is that experienced gamers can just skip ahead and experiment, ignoring all of the hoops set out for new players. Optional mechanics – things that add value to play, yet are at no point required – are prime targets of encapsulation.
Humphrey also coined the “just-in-the-tutorial” system, which consists of pop-up explanations when the player reaches new concepts; otherwise the game largely leaves the player to figure things out. Experienced players can simply skip the windows. In a similar vein, “loading tips” – tips that pop up on loading screens – can hint at unseen depths.
Bones and Skin
Coming full circle, Humphrey contrasted casual themes with casual mechanics. A casual theme would be something like a serene tropical setting; a casual set of mechanics would be Solitaire. Core mechanics with casual themes strike Humphrey as very interesting.
He presented some traditionally “hardcore” games that were remade almost precisely, yet with a cute, colorful presentation. Superficially, they now resembled the common idea of a casual game. Yet is the shift in theme enough, Humphrey wondered, to make a game appealing to a casual audience?
The opposite approach – a casual set of mechanics trussed up in a core theme – seems proven well enough in the form of Puzzle Quest
Both cases involve taking a successful mechanic and presenting it to a new demographic. A potential problem in this approach is adapting mechanics to better fit the theme. What metaphors are most cozy or interesting to the target demographic? In addressing a casual audience, Humphrey suggests, anything involving food or shopping is a safe bet.