Casual Lames

03 Jun / by: M&R / 21 comments /

Let’s face it: casual games are demeaning to the entire game development community.

In other media, “casual” products are more commonly referred to as “trash” — you have your trashy romance novels, your lip-synching boy bands, your cheesy reality tv and your god-awful Uwe Boll flicks. In other words, material that’s been cynically engineered with no goal beyond appealing to the lowest common denominator: people who aren’t literate in or knowledgeable about the medium enough to know better, and/or people who have terrible, terrible, appallingly terrible taste.

Perhaps taking these people’s money is part of an ongoing effort to bankrupt them — and in doing so remove them from the collective gene pool of consumers. It’s much more likely, however, that the driving force behind the creation of such questionable “entertainment” is simple greed rather than any more lofty quasi-eugenic goal.

In other media, these lesser forms are at least acknowledged as crass cash-grabs. (Try saying that 3 times fast!) In game development, we have seminars to help people get better at churning out boring crap that appeals to illiterate consumers.

Being Flash/web developers, we’ve come into contact with quite a few casual-games types, and the sad thing is that most of them seem to genuinely believe that they’re doing good. They’re not just trying to make a quick buck, they’re trying to make games for everyone. Is that such a bad thing?

Yeah! The very fact that everyone has to be able to understand your game means that you’re limited to using only what can be understood by the most illiterate, least-skilled person — in other words, left-clicking on differently coloured shapes.

This is an industry which openly acknowledges the fact that requiring the player to grasp the concept of right-clicking will alienate the majority of users. Is catering to such a market charitable, or is it exploitative? If your average user can’t handle anything beyond clicking the left mouse button, their time would probably be better spent learning basic computer skills rather than revelling in addictive colorful-particle-firework-flavoured instant gratification.

Then there’s the other half of the story: as developers, do you really want an audience so oblivious that they eagerly consume blatant clones of existing games? An audience so devoid of interest in game aesthetics that one of their most desired features is (apparently) jungle/Egyptian/Aztec-themed 3D backgrounds? An audience so lazy that almost any action or decision on the part of the player must result in success, coupled with ridiculous amounts of positive audio/visual feedback, lest the player become frustrated by the fact that they may have to learn or think in order to succeed.

It’s one thing to avoid frustration for the sake of fun; both Space Quest and Monkey Island are great games, but the latter is much more fun/friendly since there’s no fear of sudden, arbitrary-seeming death. There’s nothing wrong with trying to make a game accessible, but when you can clear the first 10 levels and get the new highscore by randomly clicking, something is wrong. Can that really be called a game?

Just because there’s money in it doesn’t mean that it’s morally or ethically right. If we continue to pander to the barely-game-literate, how will they ever become more literate? Learning isn’t always easy; sometimes it can be quite challenging. But isn’t the challenge what makes it so exhilarating?

The casual games industry, and to a certain extent most of the commercial games industry, is in this way similar to the fast-food industry: churning out cost-effective products with an utter disregard for any factors beyond what will appeal to the greatest number of people. The result is an utter lack of any substance or value for the consumer — just empty calories.

comments ( 21 )

  • Hear, hear! Very eloquently put and well reasoned. I too, like bashing casual games for their pandering to the lowest common denominator, but I’ve never made the leap to it damaging the games industry as a whole by creating a generation of people who actively seek out this kind of vapid rubbish.

    It’s like the gaming equivalent of Mike Judge’s Idiocracy, only it might happen a lot sooner…

  • Nice rant.

    “Just because there’s money in it doesn’t mean that it’s morally or ethically right.”

    – I’d level this more at games which equate addictiveness to quality (MMOs in particular, but many games with a well paced “unlockables” system at a higher level than the core gameplay – Need For Speed etc.).

    I’m not sure why there’s an assumption that addictive games are good games. I mean, I’ve played games where the core gameplay is fairly crappy, and i’m getting no implicit joy from playing it, but dangle a carrot, and all of a sudden I’ll jump through hoops like an obedient idiot.

    Maybe, from the player’s perspective, if there’s a reason to keep playing and playing and playing, then they must be getting their moneys’ worth (even if the actions they’re actually going through are effectively grind-work). For the developers… well, addictive games suit a subscription based model very nicely, don’t they? We know from Pavlov and Skinner that it’s easy to tap into the obsessive-compulsive trait, and we use it to milk people of their money. I find that a bit distateful, personally.

    As for casual developers… well, one good thing I can say is that they’re acting as a gateway to people who are games-illiterate – they may become bored and look further afield (though there’s a good chance that they get bored and don’t come back at all). I just don’t understand why there have to be so many goddamn clones.

    “similar to the fast-food industry: churning out cost-effective products with an utter disregard for any factors beyond what will appeal to the greatest number of people.”

    Arguing with the bottom line, for me, has always been very frustrating and pretty much futile. You’re not going to be able to convince a studio head to work on a risky/artsy/innovative game unless they’ve got a Wright, Molyneux, or Miyamoto heading the project to give it a PR boost. The people who surround and supports development aren’t in it because they want to make something wonderful in of itself (or atleast, that’s just the bonus). The development is always the means to the ends – it’s a business endeavour. It’s kind of an unavoidable truth any place art and commerce mix (unless you’re fortunate enough to have an angel investor/other patrons and philanthrapists).

    It used to really annoy me when I worked in the industry proper because there was no way of getting around it. Then I kinda got over it, because I met so many people who had the same annoyance I did – they wanted to make self evidently great games, but all the choices were slapped around by higher execs who would bend to the bottom line – not even out of a sense of greed, but out of a desire to keep the company treading water. In the games biz, you have to assure investors and publishers that your game will make returns, and that very often has adverse affects on originality and the individual expression of the people making it.

    I stopped throing my toys out of the pram and started to understand this, and accepted it as the truth of bigger games companies. Then I just figured “If this is true in other studios, maybe the industry-proper is not where I’ll flourish?”

    I’m telling you this because I hope you’ll get over any irritation at what other people are doing, and just get on with doing your own work as best you can. It really shouldn’t annoy you – you’re not making this game to satisfy shareholders. You get creative satisfaction. Just spare a thought for people who would like to work on their own stuff, but are laden with too much responsibility to quit the stability of the nine to five.

  • Trying hard to figure out what you mean by ‘casual games’. Does your definition of the term include games such as Brain Training and Nintendogs on the DS, or are you talking more about the kind we mainly see on vomit inducing flash game sites?


  • I agree that the best revenge is living well, or in this case making a decent game.

    I don’t think being aware of the bottom line or trying to make a commercially successful game are problems, it’s when that’s the _sole_ motivating factor at work behind the entire game, and as a result you simply repackage someone else’s game.

    There are lots of profitable commercial games made, but at least _some_ of them appear to be the work of developers who care about games and who’re trying to make a good one, within the confines of the mainstream/FPS/etc.. yes, they want to make money, but they also want to make a worthwhile game. I’m not saying that all games should be highbrow or whatever, just that the developers should put a modicum of effort into making their games, instead of simply knocking off a cheap copy of an existing game.

    The problem is when developers exploit the ignorance of their audience by offering them cloned rubbish (albeit high-production-value cloned rubbish).

    For instance, PopCap cloned an existing game to make Zuma. This sort of thing is sadly very common, and I think it’s a real barrier in terms of establishing the legitimacy of video games as a medium.

    In the film world there are homages and remakes, but directors don’t go about stealing someone’s film outright, maybe changing the cast or lighting, and marketing it as their own.

    Even films like Star Wars or Kill Bill which contain a lot of homage/”unoriginal” material are still light years away from being clones of the films they borrow from.

    @Echarin: I like Brain Age/Brain Training, and more accessible titles like Nintendogs are definitely good for bringing more people into gaming. Puzzle Challenge (or whatever they’re calling Panel De Pon on DS), Tetris, etc.. simple, fun games are great.

  • very well put, I (and what I hope to be the majority of actual ‘gamers’, not just people who open miniclip from time to time) enjoy a challenge, I recently started to play pokemon again, not for the cheesy part that appeals to kids, but for the heavy strategy game that you can turn it into if you want

    anyway, nice blog

  • I think that you’re right, to a point, but Aubrey has a valid point as well. In all of my time spent debating (And mind, I’m an idealist at heart), I usually spend my time arguing from a standpoint of “What should be.” And that is a very difficult stance to take, since most people *aren’t* idealists, and realists simply don’t catch on to what you’re trying to say – In this instance, the casual game developers who don’t understand why you can’t simply churn a game out, have a few people enjoy it, and leave it at that.

    As an aspiring game developer myself, I’m a perfectionist. If everything isn’t scaled to perfection, I’m not happy. Others that I work with tire of my obsessive nature, and tend to circumvent the ideals that I work with. For instance, maximo and I are currently at work with a strategy game – One that I am not currently happy with, because it is one of these casual games, and it is headed in the direction where he and I will have to “Settle” for less than we want just to get it done and released. He is far more willing than I to do this, and I don’t blame him a bit for it – I want it released just as he does. But when I develop, I want to cram every possible uniquity (Ugh, is that even a word?) into each and every part of the game – I had aspirations when I was very young of RPGs with thousands of hours of actual play time, instead of the measly sixty or so that is listed on the box-backings. Mostly because even commercially-produced games (And particularly of-late) are ‘dumbed-down’ for the greatest possible customer base. They have to appeal to the lowest common denominator.

    And that’s not really the way things should be. But again, as Aubrey said, it’s very close to futile to argue with an idea, mostly because the idea will never argue back. It’s a beast that we can’t much kill – Except for one way, and that’s the way you two do it. That’s why I stick around with you guys, because I know that you two have something revolutionary on your hands, and that’s something that I want to see come fully to fruition. Whether for my own enjoyment or your success, I take it upon myself to get you guys known to everyone that I possibly can – Because I know that you guys are capable of making these amazingly detailed and intricate, yet deceivingly simple games, and it’s precisely the style that I want to see become predominant in the near future.

    And I share your view in many things. I dislike society as a whole. I really don’t like where we – As a western culture – Are headed. I don’t like that Paris Hilton stands to make money off of her prison stay. I don’t like that the norms in this ‘civilized world’ of ours are so terribly backwards from where we should be. But can I fight against it, as a single man? Well, yes, but there is only a certain amount of dedication that I am willing to put in to the ‘good fight’ without knowing for sure whether this crusade of mine will work.

    So, in either case, while swimming against the tide is certainly the most valorous way to go, it’s also in most cases the least productive. As Aubrey said, keep doing what you’re doing, and ignore the chaff. You two are gaming royalty and you know it – If you set the example for yourselves, the bottom will eventually fall out. And that, I think, will be satisfaction enough.


  • hmmm, i’m not sure if I agree here. I think that casual games, like any other games, have their place in the market. They are a great way to draw non-gamers into the gaming scene, and killing time is not always a bad thing.

    Myself, I enjoy watching cheesy unoriginal action films occasionally, the same way I enjoy playing games on my cell phone to kill time.

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  • I don’t think the casual consumer is as illiterate as you paint them to be. Complicated games have done well in the market. Titles like Aveyond, Tradewinds, and Fairy Godmother Tycoon have all been top 10 hits.

    I believe the difference is in why these people play games. Where you and I might play a game to see what new elements and mechanics it offers, and appreciate it at that level, many casual users play games merely as distraction or to pass the time. For example, they might talk on the phone with friends while they nurse a Bejeweled or Peggle game in the background. It doesn’t mean they’re not capable of more complicated games; it just means they’re not interested (most of the time).

    I think there is a case to be made that the baseline complexity of match-3 and other typified casual games is going up, too.

    But, yeah, there are a lot of problems with the casual market. There are certainly too many barriers to support creative game development. We prematurely ceased development on our last casual title to move on to other things (although we still monetize our experience by running an affiliate catalog on the Flashbang domain). If casual games aren’t your thing, as player or developer, just ignore them. The mere existence of the market isn’t actively dampening creativity elsewhere.

    I don’t think the casual market is antithetical to an indie market. Casual games are just popular/mainstream culture, and should be treated as such. That doesn’t make them intrinsically bad; everyone enjoys a crappy action movie, cheesy SF novel, or popular TV show now and again. Not every aspect of my incoming entertainment is high art. Sometimes it’s just that: Entertainment.

  • I hear ya, but not all “fast food” culture has to be empty calories — some of it can be like falafels. Just as cheap and tasty but sort of good for ya, too.

    It’s an interesting point with Zuma. The line between riffing off someone’s work and ripping it off often has to do with acknowledgement and how much more credit the clone gets over the original. Clone an existing success and market the hell out of it — little risk, high payoff. And when a clone adds nothing new, no new twist or take on it, it feels pretty predatory.

  • I think your blanket condemnation of casual gamers is a bit unfair, since the rest of your post seems to be targeting clones and match-3s specifically, which are less a product of casual gamers as they are the result of uncreative designers and money-hungry suits.

    Zuma was a clone of Puzz Loop, but remember that Puzz Loop would also fall into this category that you are condemning, even though it was a wholly original and creative game (despite it’s color matching roots). I don’t think the problem is in the casual gameplay… in fact, the Puzz Loop formula is quite good. The problem is the hacks who make a living off of stealing this formula instead of creating a new, equally innovative formula for themselves.

    The problem I see is that we are differentiating “casual games” at all. The industry has created a market that intentionally limits itself to braindead clickfests, even though many casual gamers are willing and interested in playing much richer and more immersive games (see The Sims, Nintendogs, Diablo II). The problem is that there are so few games that don’t rely on outdated and obscure gaming conventions that repel those who aren’t already assimilated.

    We need to focus on widening this selection, instead of segregating the “casual” market to simple action puzzlers. We need to consider casual gamers in every game that we create. We need to stop thinking of them as a hindrance and instead see them as a reason for improved interfaces, more coherent rules, and more innovative verb sets.

    The casual gamers aren’t to blame for bad casual games, the problem lies in the industry not understanding it’s audience. Maybe there need to be more conferences about fixing THAT. 🙂

  • […] The casual games industry, and to a certain extent most of the commercial games industry, is in this way similar to the fast-food industry: churning out cost-effective products with an utter disregard for any factors beyond what will appeal to the greatest number of people. (Link) […]

  • “morally or ethically right”– I’d be interested in hearing what everyone thinks about this particular part of the article.

    I agree that industry factors are making it difficult big companies to make creative, original games (too much risk etc.) and I’d like to see that atmosphere change, but what is right or moral when it comes to games? I’m assuming that most of us here would label games as a (present or future) kind of art. What is the bearing of ethics and morality on art? What are the ethical demands placed on an artist? Creation of new and original content, perhaps at the artist’s expense?

    I would argue that the (game) artist has an obligation to create works which uplift and enlighten as many viewers as possible– maybe “casual” games don’t do it yet, but they certainly reach a large audience. Do we deride a painting as “casual” if I, lacking an education in art, can grasp some of the feeling behind it in only seconds of viewing? Or if it appeals universally? I would argue that the artist’s greatest triumph is the expression of a universal feeling through a universally appreciable work.

    Sorry for the rant… I’ve just written this as it came to me. Thanks for the food for thought.

  • Wow you guys are very verbose! Good points made by all. I really don’t think I could add anything…

  • “Prolefeed – Rubishy “Entertainment” and spurious news which the Party handed out to the masses. ” ~Newspeak Dictionary

    OK, I wouldn’t go THAT far, however, some of these “casual” games can be just as bad as their TV equivalents. However, just like prolefeed, (although, without the government getting in the way), this stuff sells, so people will keep making it.

    @Daniel, I agree with the second paragraph. I would say a good game design strategy is to create an original idea, then try and make appeal to as many people as possible. See BlupiMania


    “The group will focus on creating highly accessible games that jump right to the fun, leaving all those pesky tutorials, backstories, and other distractions in the dust.”

    This is a good target. Super Mario Bros jumped right to the fun, leaving all those pesky tutorials and backstories behind… as did Pac-Man, Tetris, Street Fighter II, N, etc. You learned by doing, it’s called good game design.

    So why do I have the sinking feeling that the above quote is just marketing speak for “mindless clicking”? That they won’t jump right to the fun so much as lower the bar to try and convince us that yet another Bejeweled-alike is fun? Why am I so cynical that all I can think when I read that is color-matching and word games?

    Three words: Pogo dot com.

  • “Hardcore” snobbery akin to watching a French film simply because it is French.

  • The reason you have that fear, JBourrie is because it’s EA. 😛

    Also, Papamook, what if you’re watching a French film in French because you’re French? Is that snobbery? 😉

  • Haha…

    While the analogy is humorous (I’m always up for making fun of the French) it doesn’t quite fit this discussion.

    We’re (or at least I am) not saying that we need to make/play more innovative games “just because they’re innovative”. I’m not even saying that we shouldn’t play games that are similar to existing games. There are some quality games out there that add little (or nothing) to an existing genre: Metanets own N is a great example of an excellent game that, while not genre-defining, is still brilliantly crafted and a blast to play. What I’m saying is that the term “casual gamer” has become synonymous with “pattern-matching zombie”, and this doesn’t have to be the case.

    I keep picking on Bejeweled because it wasn’t that great to begin with, but even so it was at least somewhat original when it came out. I give them credit, just as I give the makers of Puzz Loop, Tetris, and Columns credit. The people I won’t credit are the makers of Jewel Quest, Chuzzle, High Rollers, Paris Hiltons Slutty Puzzler, Sweet Tooth, and the hundreds of other unimaginative clones out there. Is it snobby to expect that a game designer should actually take the take to DESIGN a game, instead of finding the easiest game to clone and cashing in?

  • Pretty soon it will only be independent designers who have the option of making innovative games (or the insanely successful people like Warren Spector and Will Wright). Given a choice between a game identical to a dozen other games that all made money, or an unknown game with an untested market, they’re going to go for the first one.

    I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with the tried and true formulas, sometimes you want to play games passively rather than actively and just click your way through. But when those games have a complete stranglehold on the market, you’ve got a problem.

  • …yeah, but then you get a flood of similar games, the market is saturated, and bigbusiness moves on to capitalize on the next big thing. That’s the way it goes.

    There’s always a thirst for innovative titles, but it’s a mere trickle of innovation quenches the thirst of the mainstream. The people who read places like this desire much more, because they have given the medium more attention, and have thus mined the last new-wave faster than others.

    So, yeah, you get this kinda outcry from “the snobs” (that’s some nice anti-intellectualism, by the way), but more often than not, what’s said in places like here trickles into the mainstream consciousness over time.

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