How casual gaming silently swept the world
12th Apr 2009 | 08:00
Minesweeper to Peggle - how many of these do you play?
A history of casual games
Casual game. It's such a horrible, snobby little phrase. There's something so patronising about it – as if just because it doesn't offer 70 hours of story, or a hundred rendered cut-scenes, that makes it somehow less of a game.
It completely ignores the fact that many of the people playing them can burn through more hours in their company than any World of Warcraft player, not to mention show up any hardcore gamer in a direct competition.
The biggest problem with 'casual' as a definition is that it means nothing. You can fire up Fallout 3 for a casual amble around over lunch, but that doesn't matter. A lack of complexity doesn't make a game more casual than a more complicated one, as proven by the fact that we can teach a computer to play Chess at grand master level, but we don't have a prayer right now of getting a good game of Go out of one.
Pick up and play?
Quake Live lets you jump into a game straight from the web browser, but nobody's going to call its twitch deathmatch a good casual time-killer. Instead, when we say casual, what we're thinking is 'I know it when I see it'.
What we don't necessarily see is just how big a market it is. Over 70 per cent of the people who play and pay for the likes of Peggle are female, and wouldn't count themselves as gamers. Their games are there to fill a few boring minutes here and there, not to become a lifestyle. Even so, we guarantee you've got one of the world's biggest casual games on your PC right now.
Interestingly, Minesweeper and Solitaire were never intended as the productivity assassins we all know and love, but as that most hated of genres 'edutainment'. When Windows first hit the streets, everyone was used to command line interfaces, and needed to be trained in how best to use the mouse.
Minesweeper was built as an easy to understand application that used both mouse buttons (left-click to uncover a square, right-click to place a flag), while Solitaire demonstrated the art of dragging and dropping. The fact that they were on every desktop when office workers got bored was simply a bonus, and not something that went unnoticed.
Several games of that era, including the original Leisure Suit Larry games, featured a 'boss key' which the player could press to pretend to drop out of the game at a moment's notice. (We have something similar in the office, which makes Microsoft Excel look like Team Fortress 2, just in case someone catches us working instead of playing games.)
Aside from these early dalliances, casual games never really found a home on the PC at this point. There were simple games, usually distributed shareware, but they were thought of in different terms. As systems became more powerful, several problems became obvious.
Early PC games could be an absolute nightmare to get running, and tended to be expensive. Arcade games looked prettier on damn near everything else, and the PC's perceived role as the computer that helped with the homework and did the accounts didn't exactly help.
When we went in search of games, we wanted meatier fare – adventure games, role-playing games, strategy games. If you wanted something simple, you bought an Amiga, or God help you, an Atari ST. Or of course, a console. Even now, the mere words 'casual gamer' may as well mean a random person on a train, staring intently at a Gameboy, lost in the world of Tetris.
Portable consoles were perfect for casual games. No set-up, no high-end hardware, nothing to lose except a few minutes of your time. You could switch them on, play until you didn't need to any more, and shove the whole thing back in your pocket.
Simple games like King of the Zoo that could never have held anyone's attention for more than a few minutes had a purpose. We're still not at the point where we can do that with our PCs, but in recent years, we've seen something almost as good. Instead of handheld consoles, we have web browsers.
Instead of paying £20 to £30 for a console, the world is our oyster. There were casual games before the internet – puzzlers like Supaplex, or The Incredible Machine, or Pipemania – but it was the internet that really created the genre.
Glorious time wasting
Whatever genre a casual game falls into, it's going to share a few basic traits. You're always able to try before you buy – either a selection of levels, or 60 minutes worth of the full game. It'll be cheap, so that you can finish a trial, say "Yeah, okay," and buy it without any great soul searching. If it's successful, it's going to be surrounded by a billion almost identical clones.
The portal sites that house these games online always choose quantity over raw quality, and developers are always looking out for the next big thing.
Popular targets include Diner Dash (seat and serve an endless stream of customers), hidden object games (the challenge usually being to spot that the candlestick or whatever you're looking for is actually 20ft tall and makes up part of the skyline) and anything involving making words out of a jumble of letters.
These games may look good, but they're hardly difficult to churn out – especially if someone else has done all the hard work of coming up with a fun premise. The most common clone in recent years is the 'match-three' game; a board of mixed symbols which you have to put into horizontal, diagonal or vertical lines of at least three. This sounds simpler than it is.
Bejewelled popularised the basic game, while the follow-up, Bejewelled Twist, switched the action from swapping coloured gemstones to spinning them clockwise. This apparently minor twist instantly makes the game more tactical, and puts the focus on getting certain colours in the right order instead of simply racking up the points.
A more advanced variant is Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords, which wrapped the same basic idea into an RPG world, threw in spells and inventory items, and made the gems do different things when matched. Matching the colours charged up spells, diamonds added extra experience at the end of the battle, and skulls dealt damage to your opponent. Same basic idea as Bejewelled, yet different enough to be its own thing entirely.
The sequel, Galactrix, does something similar by swapping out the square board for a hexagon, adding gems from any direction, and being set in space rather than a fantasy kingdom.
How casual games have moved on
The golden glow
Of the many casual game developers out there, Popcap is easily the most impressive – and least casual. Its early games were standard fare, but the first, Bejewelled, caught the attention of the internet (and in particular the comedy site Old Man Murray) in a big way.
Popcap quickly made its name by taking relatively well-worn concepts, but polishing them up until they shone. Rocket Mania was simply Pipemania with rockets, but the added explosions and extra speed made it more fun to kill a few minutes with.
Zuma, which was little more than an older game called Puzz Loop (something that the original developer wasn't too happy about), switched the action to firing coloured balls around Aztec theme tracks.
As the games rolled on, the production values became better and better, until Bookworm Adventures raised the stakes for the whole genre. It took two and a half years to create, and a budget of $700,000 – nothing compared to a mainstream game, but phenomenal money for a casual title. Five minutes play shows that the money wasn't wasted… but we've been talking too long without getting to the big one: Peggle.
Please, bow your heads. Peggle is easily the best casual game in years – a beautiful mix of pinball, pachinko, glorious graphics, and the most heartwarming chorus of Ode To Joy ever seen in a game about unicorns shooting silver balls at silver pegs.
It demonstrated the art of casual games like few others, not least by making it clear that what gets removed from a simple title is every bit as important as what gets added. The original 'clear all the orange pegs' mode was originally only going to be one of many, in a much larger game that took in several ball-shooting activities.
The extra time and attention turned a minor diversion into the most addictive game of the year by a good long margin. It spawned a sequel, Peggle Nights, and a Half-Life/Team Fortress 2 themed spin-off made free as part of the Orange Box.
Needless to say, this hardly hurt its position as the casual game of choice around the 'proper' gaming world.
As casual games have moved away from being simple puzzles, we've seen an unusual trend – games that try to feel more than simply a quick diversion. On PC, this is usually done by adding a story mode of some description – or at the very least, a campaign.
Gabriel Knight designer, Jane Jensen produced two of the more narrative focused offerings – Inspector Parker and BeTrapped – which met with a decent amount of success. Inspector Parker was a Clue-style game which charged you to solve mysteries via very literal deduction – removing possibilities until all that remained was the truth. BeTrapped was effectively Minesweeper, with the twist that the levels were rooms in a house, and there were conversation-driven adventure bits between stages.
Another popular style was invented by the mainstream industry, and about as snobbish as things get. Assorted developers would produce a (usually barely quarter-arsed) tie-in to a PC game that you could play on your mobile phone. How seriously was this usually taken?
Five words. Prince of Persia: Harem Adventures. Want to hear the plot? Of course you do: "The Sultan's wives have been kidnapped by the Vizier in order to carry out experiments on abstinence. The Sultan's real mad! He no longer knows how to express his desires. Seven female prisoners - and only you can set them free and bring them back to life!"
No, but seriously. Die
Casual games on phones
There are fantastic casual games on phones, especially when the iPhone enters the picture. A combination of touch screen interface and the goldrush taking place in the iTunes Store means that you don't need to be a big developer to come up with something interesting and inventive. You can also make fart apps and flashlights, but that's besides the point.
Some of the best include Trism (a match-three derivative), the liquid-manipulating Enigmo, and Topple, where your growing Tetris structure has to contend with physics as well as your own careful building. It's the closest the iPhone currently has to the phenomenal World of Goo – easily the best commercial casual game since Peggle. Unless you count Peggle Nights. But that would be gratuitous. (Peggle!)
World of good
Outside of web browsers, the biggest boost to the PC casual games market is the Xbox 360 – more specifically, the Live Arcade. Microsoft's XNA development platform makes it easy to develop for both PC and console simultaneously.
Simple games tend to do the best in the Live Arcade – polished, low budget, ideally based on something that stimulates the nostalgia glands until they throb – making the jump across to PC a no brainer. The time-warping platform game Braid is one of the most exciting of these, and you can't beat a quick blast on Geometry Wars.
World of Goo is however the current state of the art as far as casual games go. It's simultaneously as simple as things get – sticking lumps of goo together to solve problems – and phenomenally complex, with its level designs acting as metaphors as much as challenges.
It's the perfect example of how sweating the details can create something truly compelling, whether it's the way the mouse cursor stretches and deforms as you fling it around the screen, or the ease with which it trains you to think in terms of imaginary physics. Whether it meets your personal definition of a casual game or not, we don't know. For us, it's proof that there's nothing casual about them.
For more rough and ready fare, the Flash portals are always on hand. The games are usually simple to the point of sounding banal, until you see the fiendish strategy behind something as simple as rolling a cube around a grid, or the satisfaction of beating a friend's high score.
Auditorium is simply the latest in a long line to catch our attention in the office. All you have to do is turn light into music via carefully redirecting its streams – but 'all' isn't quite the word.
The future of casual games is in no doubt. Like all indie releases, no individual title is guaranteed a giant slice of the big cash pie, but there are so many developers looking to be the next big thing, and so many customers willing to drop a few quid on something to distract them, that the major portal sites and successful companies aren't going anywhere.
In some cases, they're even eating seemingly bigger developers for lunch – PopCap acting as a publisher as well as developer, and Mumbo Jumbo acquiring former FPS stalwarts Ritual (Sin: Episodes) to produce simpler entertainments. In many cases, the games that we get out of the process are nothing but bland rubbish that really, the world didn't need another copy of.
When it works however, magic can be born. We've all got dead time on hands to fill, we've all had moments where our screens simply stared back. When you're only one click away from the perfect distraction, the perfect distraction's going to find you soon enough.
First published in PC Format Issue 225
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