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GDC: Meretzky Talks Casual Game Design Principles

Veteran designer Steve Meretzky, now VP at Playdom, asserted casual’s place at the design table at GDC on Monday, declaring: "Games are for everyone."
Defining a casual game as “A game intended for players for whom gaming is not a central part of their lives,” Steve Meretzky, VP of game design at Playdom and Infocom design veteran, kicked the off the two day Casual Games Summit at GDC. Further describing the qualities that a casual game should possess, Meretzky, who is working on social network-based and other casual games at Playdom, said they should be quick and easy to begin playing. “It’s myth that casual games have to be simple,” he added. However, they should reveal their complexity gradually. Casual games should be non-punitive and non-violent. They should support short play sessions and be free or relatively inexpensive. Refuting the idea that games should bigger, longer, harder, and more complex to be considered good, Meretzky said, “Games have been played across the ages. Games are for everyone.” He further elaborated on the fundamental design qualities of casual games. Foremost they should have the lowest possible barrier to entry. This means designing games that are quickly learnable or games that are based on already familiar concepts taken from traditional games. They should have a simple, intuitive UI and control scheme. “Avoid the keyboard as much as possible and ideally just use the left mouse button,” Meretzky said. A good casual game design should permit (but not require) short play sessions and creative gains can be had by fitting short play sessions into a larger context such as an advancing narrative or online leaderboards and achievements. Designers should adapt to their games to their audience, matching the look and theme to their demographic without being condescending. “Your audience is not dumb, and they’ll know when you’re designing down to them,” Meretzky cautioned. Kenny Shea Dinkin, VP and creative director of PlayFirst, encouraged designers to look to the popular arts for ideas on connecting with the mass market. Television, popular movies, and novels can be useful guides but designers should avoid adolescent and niche material. The audience for casual games responds well to everyday themes and is increasingly open to an adult presentation on par with prime time TV. He also examined the various graphical styles that characterize casual games. Hi-gloss, candy colors are very appropriate for arcade-style games and developers should feel free to employ high-end graphic and particles effects to create eye-popping images. Games with humorous characters are good fit for bouncy, 2D cartoon landscapes. However, when examining the elements that make up successful games, “It’s not clear that characters are the most important,” Dinkin said. On the opposite end of the spectrum, games that utilize pre-rendered 3D, photographs, and realistic textures to create hyper-real graphics have also found their place.

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