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GDC: Casual Games For 'The Blue Ocean': Seven Creators Speak

At GDC on Tuesday, a session on designing casual games for the blue ocean -- or untapped markets -- brought creators from PopCap, Pogo, Rebel Monkey and more together to discuss what casual gamers are expecting.
At the Game Developers Conference, a Casual Games Summit session on designing casual games for the blue ocean -- or untapped markets -- brought consensus on what makes a good casual game, but little agreement on where the unexplored blue ocean might truly lie, as seven sucessful creators discussed the relevant issues. While suggestions of what might represent true blue ocean were a bit thin on the ground -- looking at which established genres have fewer players, and conversely avoiding oversaturated genres like Match-3 were tossed around. Few true innovations were mooted. Quality and polish were frequently cited as differentiators. Another suggestion was marrying established genres, ala Puzzle Quest. One reason for that, per EA/Pogo creative director Todd Kerpleman, is that casual game players have expectations for their games -- they "value [originality] differently" than game designers, and what "what they are expecting" from games -- particularly those like card and board games, which make up eight of the top 20 titles on Pogo. When games don't behave as players expect, they "feel stupid and embarrassed and blame the game." To differentiate from other games, rather than concentrating on the design of the game, Kerpleman suggests that spending time on interface -- "simple and slick and clever" and AI opponents is a better use of time. Nick Fortugno, chief creative office and co-founder of Rebel Monkey, suggests that finding a new narrative for casual games is a bigger opportunity than finding a new type of game. Time management games, like the immensely successful Diner Dash, tend to be service industry-oriented. A new narrative is new gameplay, says Fortugno. The drive toward innovative narrative was echoed by Jane Jensen, who designs games in the popular hidden object genre -- where players simply identify objects displayed on screen in complicated but clear images. These games are "simple and easily understood, which is the game designer's holy grail." Narrative doesn't just help differentiate your game -- it also suggests progression, says Jensen. "The player should always know, 'What am I trying to accomplish, how far have I gone and what do I have left?'" Stories also hook players during the free trial phase. Miguel Tartaj Casanova, CEO of Kat Games, uses story "to hook with the story, and do it fast... Give them a reason to play. This is a very sticky vehicle because they player will really wonder what's next." The plot of his game Dream Chronicles began with the disappearance of the main character's husband -- "even before leaving the house, you have a reason to explore." According to Jensen, "You can't look at a game and say, 'That's making a lot of money, I'll make that' ... [if you don't appreciate a genre] you shouldn't be designing for it..." This was repeated by Michael Wyman, CEO of big splash games, which develops the Chocolatier series. "It's really important that your yourself are drawn to this type of game," says Wyman. PopCap's CCO Jason Kapalka agreed, noting that he is drawn back to the Match-3 genre not purely because of its commercial potential but because he can continually think of new permutations. One interesting bit of advice from Wyman is "make your game way too easy." Says Wyman, "I don't know how to emphasize this strongly enough. Tune until you feel your game is ridiculously easy and then go back and make it one-third easier again." In casual gaming, particularly in the simulation genre his games inhabit, "If you follow what's going on you're going to succeed, and you should." The Q&A session began with a question about audience issues -- stereotypically, game designers are men (as were six of the seven panel participants) and the target audience for casual games is women. Jason Kapalka notes that at PopCap, "We know the stereotypical thing is that we should be designing for soccer moms. We joke about that all the time... But if we go too far with that it's become really painful, we do this weird pandering thing." The team aims instead to make a game that engages the developers. Fortugno suggests that rather than considering who your audience is, look at the games they play and try to understand what makes them compelling. "What about these games seems to be appealing?" 


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