10 Ways to Make a BAD Casual Game

Jason Kapalka
Casual Connect Magazine, Summer 2006

Adaptation of keynote presented at Casuality Europe in February 2006.

When we founded PopCap Games in 2000 and launched our first title, Bejeweled, we had little idea our modest jewel-swapping game would help to pave the way for a whole new genre of “casual games.” Of course, the DNA of the casual games industry goes back much further than this: to seminal puzzle hits like Tetris and various ‘80s arcade games; and to the “try before you buy” model of ‘90s shareware, typified by the breakout success of Doom.

But it took the widespread Internet access and e-commerce technology of the new millennium to really create fertile ground for the wild growth of the casual genre. Suddenly people who had discounted video games as toys for hyper-caffeinated teenage boys—the stereotypical “soccer moms” and bored secretaries, along with millions of other non-gamers—were finding games they could enjoy on the Web, with instant purchase just a credit-card number away.

Since then, PopCap has gone on to create nearly two dozen more games—including Bookworm, Zuma, Insaniquarium, and Chuzzle—and has grown from a three-man basement operation to a 50-person office in Seattle, with branches in San Francisco and Ireland. And the casual games market has grown alongside us.

As far as game design goes, nobody has ever found a surefire formula for creating a great new game—casual or otherwise. But over the years at PopCap, we have discovered a lot of ways to ruin one. Following are ten of the worst things you can do with your casual game design:

1. Make it really hard!
A lot of developers have picked up habits from the hardcore console or CD-ROM gaming markets—bad habits for casual games from which users typically are looking for a more easy-going, relaxing experience.

Don’t use Ninja Gaiden or Nightmare-level Quake as your model for game difficulty. Don’t punish newbies with violent death. Don’t make people replay a level a half a dozen times before they can solve it.

No casual game has ever failed for being too easy.

2. Have a dozen mediocre game modes instead of one good one.
While variants and bonus games can help add perceived value to a game, there’s a big danger if you can’t decide on the single best default mode for a game. New players have no way of telling which mode is the right one for them.

You need to direct them to the best experience your game has to offer right off the bat. If you can’t decide which of your game modes is the best, it probably means that none of them are very good.

3. Make it a 600MB download that requires 2 next-gen 3D video cards.
Casual gamers have old computers and they never upgrade their drivers, DirectX, or anything. Depending on the portal, up to a quarter are still using modems to access the Net. A similar number have video cards/drivers that simply will not support 3D in any reliable way. 

If your game is a huge download that simply crashes if you don’t have modern 3D equipment, you could be locking out up to 50% of your potential audience right off the bat.

Design your game for the hardware your audience has, not the hardware YOU have.

4. Sell your game from your MySpace home page.
Do your research and find out what e-commerce model will work for your game. The standard for downloadable games now is the one-hour trial with a $20 registration fee, but even that is not written in stone.

Be careful with your business decisions if you are looking for a publisher. It’s a small industry, and publishers have a lot of games to choose from now. If you are difficult to deal with it will get around fast. On the other hand, think twice before accepting the first deal offered—particularly if it involves an exclusive.

5. Use the right mouse button.
Or the keyboard. Casual game players don’t often give a complex control scheme a chance. If they don’t “get it” immediately they will move on to something else. Remember that many of them are not terribly familiar with computers in the first place, let alone the standard FPS mouse-keyboard config.

Use simple mouse controls and a single click to control everything.

6. Give it a terrible name or theme.
Themes that work well for Xbox or PC gamers are generally not so hot for casual gamers. This includes a title with any combination of the words Blood, War, or Assault, and themes featuring robots, bugs, skulls, or robot bug skulls.

Good names and themes are usually simple, straightforward, and cheerful (like Bejeweled or Zuma).

7. Keep the scoring really low.
When we were testing an early version of Dynomite, basic combos scored just one point apiece, and average games ended with a score in the low hundreds. Just adding a zero to every number resulted in players perceiving the game to be much easier and more enjoyable.

There are tons of seemingly illogical psychological factors like this at work in the perceived fun of a game. Don’t ignore them! Make every single act in the game enjoyable for the user, whether or not it “makes sense.”

8. Expect users to read.
Have a complicated game? Must users read pages and pages of tutorial text to figure it out? It won’t happen. The more text you put in front of them, the less of it they will read. Casual gamers will read a line or two of instructions . . . MAYBE.

Your best bet for tutorials are visual and interactive. Ideally the game is so intuitive people will figure it out without ANY instructions. On the same topic, keep the back-story to a minimum—a screen or two before the game at most.

9. Make it challenging and cerebral.
There are lots of good hard mental puzzles out there, and they have their audience. For the most part, it’s not this one. Casual gamers are looking less for the New York Times crossword and more for Solitaire.

Many casual games players cite relaxation as the major reason for playing games. For them, “mindless” is not a negative description for a game. They honestly want an activity that they don’t have to think too hard about.

10. Ignore what everybody else says about your game.
Just because casual games are “indie” productions doesn’t mean you can ignore your players’ needs and desires. If you decide that you don’t need or want input from anyone else, don’t be surprised if your game ends up with a very small audience—that is, you.

When PopCap started, we used the “Mom Test.” If our own moms could figure out a game without our help, that was a good sign. If they kept playing it after we left the room, that was even better.

Seek out feedback from as many people as you can at all stages of your game development. Most especially pay attention to the comments of people who do not regularly play games. They are much closer to your “real” audience than your hardcore game developer buddies.

11. Rules are made to be broken!
A brief perusal of PopCap titles will reveal a fair number of games that don’t follow all of the above suggestions, and there are several hit games from other developers that fly in the face of them as well. If your game is awesome, don’t worry too much about whether it follows this or any other set of rules. Just finish it and get it out there!

Jason Kapalka is Chief Creative Officer and Co-Founder, PopCap Games.