Casual ain’t crap

Over the years, I’ve often expressed my deep and profound respect for the casual gaming industry: a branch of game development that is so often vilified because it supposedly appeals to stupid and unappreciative gamers. Aside from numerous write-ups in places like Dev.Mag, I also tend to explain my stance when chatting to friends and co-workers about classic joys such as Bejeweled, Lode Runner and even Minesweeper.

Of course, my own humble words may be considered about as effective as hamster droppings in a hailstorm. After all, who am I to persuade people that these shiny, simple games aren’t every bit as heartless, money-grabbing and uninspiring as popular culture makes them out to be? What self-respecting developer would create a game using only an elegant ruleset, a super-friendly interface and a streamlined routine that can see a session’s completion in as little as five minutes by practically anyone? The sheer nerve!

Contrary to popular belief, this isn't the only end goal for gaming.

I know that there are many cash-ins out there, and quite a few projects on websites like Facebook are the sort of things which make me silently throw up in my mouth until the mess starts dribbling down my chin, but this doesn’t mean that the casual game market as a whole should be maligned by developers. I recently had a delightful exchange with Jason Kapalka, a PopCap co-founder who confided that many PopCap employees — despite their drive to make “light” and accessible games — are gigantic fans of hardcore titles such as roguelikes and in-depth strategies. The devs that they employ certainly aren’t stupid, and even their most outwardly simple titles are created with determination and purpose: design decisions are made carefully, and everything is polished to a shine to make for a well-balanced and rewarding game experience.

Casual game development is one of the best ways to train up good game development skills: offhand, one can reason that it teaches you how to be nice to players, encourages you to make your games function on a very raw (and fun) level, and even frees up a bit of time to let you focus on alternative game design skills such as writing and level design.

Many people play and enjoy Minesweeper, yet it can still be maligned in "serious" game discussions.
Many people play and enjoy Minesweeper, yet it can still be maligned in "serious" game discussions.

Of course, casual games are a breeding ground for not only refinement, but experimentation as well. Consider Flash portals like Newgrounds and Kongregate which host thousands of online games, many of them under a megabyte and requiring only a few minutes of very simple play. Sure, there’s a bunch of pretty epic titles in the list, but many of them are designed to marry charisma, accessibility and a completely new play style to appeal to anybody who has half a mind for experimentation but not a lot of time to pour into anything.

… and consider the original game prototype for World of Goo, which basically consisted of stacking a tower of icky blocks to see how high you could go without the whole thing toppling over. What a simple, charming, casual game concept!

If you still think that casual games are limited to the realm of the uninspired and money-hungry, it’s probably time for a radical paradigm shift. Defining what a casual game is can be a difficult task in itself, and standing on the hardcore pedestal is one of the single most limiting acts that you can take as a gamer and designer. Don’t fall into this trap: keep your mind pried wide open and remember that you don’t need an insurmountable wall of complexity and prestige to prove a game’s worth to anyone.