10 Ways to make a bad casual game

This is my personal adaptation of keynote presented at Casuality Europe by Jason Kapalka, co-founder and chief creative officer at PopCap Games during Casuality Amsterdam, on February 8, 2006.

Yes, a bit old, and not exclusively Flash-oriented, but these rules did not change during the last three years, so… here they are:

1) Make it really hard!

Not enough playing time in your game? Kick it up to SUPER MAX DIFFICULTY!

Make people fail each level 5 or 6 times, at least.

Punish newbies with violent death. They deserve it! Heavy Weapon was probably too hard for new players…

What to do instead…

Don’t punish new players who click around randomly at first. Give them time to experiment.

No casual game ever failed for being too easy. But plenty have failed for being too hard.

Games that depend entirely on skill can be intimidating. Games that rely entirely on chance can be boring.

Bad tutorials can make an easy game seem much, much harder. Lavish lots of time and energy on teaching people how to play.

2) Have a dozen mediocre game modes instead of one good one

Which of these modes is good? Which to play first?!

Difficulty level… do I want Easy? Normal? Hard???

If you can’t decide on one version of the game that’s actually fun, just throw every iteration in there! Quantity will make up for quality.

What to do instead…

Extra modes do provide value, but focus on making sure the main game is as good as it can be.

Selectable difficulty levels are problematic. New players have no way to know what subjective terms like “Easy” or “Normal” mean in this new game. Avoid if you can!

Be sure to explain alternate game modes as clearly as you can before users have to choose what to play. But see Rule 8! Nobody wants to read!

3) Make it a 600mb download that requires 2 next-gen video cards and 4gb of RAM and test it on just 1 computer

3d texture bump mapping is awesome, let’s toss that into our Solitaire game just for fun!

Nobody still uses a modem anymore. Do they?

QA, shmoo A. It works fine on my computer. Anyway, we can always patch it later.

What to do instead…

Don’t use 3d. Or have a 2d fallback mode.

Remember that every extra technical requirement you add shrinks your potential audience for the game… whether that is a newer processor, more memory, a larger download footprint, etc.

Test thoroughly.

Beware of requiring weird plugins or the like for your web game. Users are not keen on installing the latest JVM. Similarly, any apps you require to be present on the user’s machine for a downloadable game, whether that is the latest version of DirectX, or some arcane video player, are problematic and risky.

4) Price your game at $35. Or $3.50. And sell it only from your myspace home page

I dunno, that price just feels right to me.

We don’t need no stinking contracts or partners! We’ll launch this game on our own!

Someone offered us a deal! No time to read the fine print! Sign!

What to do instead…

If you price too low, people will think your game is probably garbage.

Be polite and reasonable when talking to publishers. It’s a small industry and word gets around if you’re difficult.

Consider your upsell incentives very carefully.

5) Use the Right Mouse Button

Making critical control elements rely on the right mouse button or the mouse wheel is cool. Doesn’t everybody have an RMB?

For that matter, why not use the keyboard to control stuff too?

Mouse AND keyboard at the same time? Even better! How about a flightstick?

What to do instead…

Casual game players prefer to use a mouse, and they don’t like to right-click or use the mousewheel or keyboard.

Many players run games in windows… be aware of the interface problems this poses.

Players do not generally have the patience to master complex or fidgety control schemes… if they don’t “get it” in 5 minutes they will move on.

6) Give it a terrible name or theme

Everyone knows casual game players love dungeons. In space. With robots. And skulls. Right?

How about a game with robot skulls… in a SPACE DUNGEON?

Remember to use words that resonate with your target audience, like “blood,” “war,” and “assault.”

What to do instead…

Pick an easy-to-spell, easy-to-pronounce title.

Make sure you can trademark the title.

Find non-violent, bright themes that appeal to casual gamers.

Make sure your theme meshes well with the mechanics of the game.

7) Award low scores

It’s not logical to award 10 points when 1 point will do.

It doesn’t matter if people think the game is low-scoring.

Touchy-feely psychological factors have no place in game design!

What to do instead…

Award lots of points!

Set up as many combos and bonuses as you can, to reward the player for anything positive they do. Reinforce with audio and video.

If something “feels” fun, pursue it whether or not it seems to make sense in “normal” game design terms.

8) Expect users to read

If the game is complex, we’ll just put a few pages of instructional text at the beginning.

What do you mean you didn’t get that part? There’s a three-paragraph pop-up that explains it!

It’s best to explain everything all at once so people understand the function of every single thing in the game before they start playing.

What to do instead…

Use as little text as possible.

Show, don’t tell. Use illustrations and animations whenever possible.

Lead users by the hand… make the instructions interactive and engaging.

Use big, readable fonts, and pay attention to layout and typography. Don’t make whatever text you do have hard to read.

The more text you have, the more difficult it will be if you ever have to localize it.

If you’re producing a game in a language that isn’t your native tongue, do not skimp on getting a good writer who is fluent. Writing very clear instructions in a very small space is NOT an easy task, and style matters.

Be careful with stories. It’s very easy to put in way too much text, so that people will just ignore or skip it. You should probably never have more than a single screen of story stuff at any given point, eg. between levels. Keep in mind some people will skim or skip it no matter what.

9) Make it challenging and cerebral

People LOVE really hard, really challenging mental puzzles. The kind that can totally stump and/or frustrate you for HOURS.

Well, some people do, don’t they? People who play Sudoku or the New York Times Crossword puzzle?

What do you mean those people aren’t the same ones playing casual games? That’s just crazy talk!

What to do instead…

Strive to make games compelling, addictive, and replayable.

Avoid stumping the player so that they can no longer proceed in the game.

Be generous with hints. Let them play the way they want to play.

The model for most casual games is closer to Solitaire than the New York Times Crossword Puzzle.

Remember that many casual players want to relax when they play a game… they don’t want to be challenged, frustrated, or agitated. This is in stark contrast to the typical console title, which is aimed at producing excitement.

10) Ignore what everyone else says about your game

What the hell does my MOM know about games, anyway?

These testers have been playing the game for 6 months now! So I trust their opinion on how new players will feel.

If you don’t get it, you’re… you’re just stupid!

Use the Mom Test.

Get fresh audiences frequently to see how newbies will respond to your game.

The less interested and experienced a person is with games, the more you should listen to their comments about your game.

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