Creating Engaging Casual Games

The general perception of casual, mobile or social games seems to arguably be that they do not have a deep narrative structure; their stories are not as engaging,  their worlds not as captivating.

Casual games tend to be enjoyed in short bursts; bitesize experiences that can be enjoyed by a wide audience in their spare time. In a modern world where free time is precious, it can be difficult to make an impact on a player in such a way that your game will be memorable – the sort of game that they will talk about to their friends and enjoy for an extended period of time.

Ensuring your game has an emotional impact on a player can be a great way to encourage this, and it is not always the rule that shorter, more casual games need be any less engaging. Many games that would classically been confined to a ‘home’ platform (i.e. PC or a console) can now be enjoyed on the move – either on a smart phone or a handheld gaming device. Take The Walking Dead as an example – a game that initially released on PC, but then went on to release in the Appstore 3 months later – recieved an average of 85% review scores on PC and then went on to receive a rating of 4 1/2 stars on the Appstore. This shows that hugely emotional and immersive experiences can translate across to a inherently social and casual platform. Perhaps this game is not our typical example of a ‘Casual’ game, but it certainly displays that content with a deep narrative structure has an audience on these platforms. This is especially true for content in episodic format, as it fits the ‘bitesize’ nature of casual and mobile games.

Stories as a Tool to Captivate Audiences and Create Emotional Experiences

One of the strongest arguments for the use of storytelling in games is that they can be used to captivate audiences. This is a goal for all game designers, not just designers of casual or social games. It is arguably more important however in over saturated markets, and the smart phone app stores are most definitely a fine example of this. There are manarticles online discussing the over-saturation of app stores, and the difficulties that many fledgling developers face. Creating stories that will captivate your audiences is one of the ways to really stand out.

Understandably some of the most highly rated apps out there have a great combination of story AND gameplay – but a large percentage of the content on these stores (or Facebook, and other similar platforms) still focus on a predominantly puzzle format with a simple set of gameplay mechanics. These might still be successful, the “Angry Birds” and “Cut The Rope”s of the world, but it takes a lot to stand out from the crowd with this formula. Taking advantage of the interactive nature of games, we can make the audience feel responsible and directly involved in the events. This creates an experience that is much more captivating and memorable.

“The next revolution in games isn’t technological – it’s emotional” – David Freeman, 2004

David Freeman argues that there are 9 reasons why we should aim to create emotional experiences in games – these apply to casual games just as much as any other genre.

Expanded Demographics”
To reach the maximum audience, it is necessary for developers to broaden their horizons to more varied target audiences, and creating emotional experiences will aid in this. For example, emotional experiences will help to bridge the gap between films and games, and more complex narrative will bridge the gap between novels and interactive narrative.

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Better Buzz”
As with the film industry, a more emotional and immersive experience will create better word of mouth for the video game in question.

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Better Press”
More immersive experiences lead to press coverage, either better or generally more of it. Press coverage is one of the main ways to increase the hype surrounding a video game, and can do wonders for a game’s sales – as seen with notable “emotional game” Max Payne. (Gamespot, 2002)

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So Games Don’t Seem Amateurish”
This incorporates both the visual and narrative aspects of a video game. With the advancement of smart phones, current casual game developers are creating games with the look of films already, and those that fail to live up to current technology tend to lag behind in sales. The current market fails to incorporate narrative that matches up to that of films, however, and creating emotional experiences will contribute towards this.

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An Inspired and Dedicated Creative Team”

Combining fun gameplay with a complex and emotionally engaging narrative encourages creativity in a development team, as they know they are creating something that “has depth, meaning, and impact”1 (Freeman, 2003).

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Consumer Loyalty to the Brand, Which is Worth a Fortune”
“People seek out branded experiences that touch them emotionally”. Evidence of this can be seen in video game versions of film releases, where fans continue to be loyal to the brand they have become immersed in, in film form.

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So You Don’t Burn Billions of Dollars of Potential Profit”
Case studies have shown cases of eagerly anticipated video games disappointing fans of previous editions in the series due to narratives that were lacking. One example of this is Metal Gear Solid II, in which the story didn’t “live up to its best standard”, despite being a successful game in terms of gameplay and visuals. (Freeman, 2003) (IGN, 2001) This part of the series sold “a million less units in the United States than its predecessor”. If the narrative had matched the emotional level of its predecessor, a greater profit could have been made.

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Competitive Advantage”
In a time where most of the front running games in the industry sport top-of-the-range visuals, developers must do something special to stand out. There is also an abundance of games spanning a wide range of genres and gameplay styles, meaning that games with an emotional connection with the player will have a competitive advantage.

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So You Don’t Come In Last”
Creating deep emotional player experiences in games is a technique currently being used by game developers and is being recognized more as an advanced tool to increase player immersion. Game developers that fail to recognize the usability of emotion in games will begin to be left behind.

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In summary, when a game incorporates emotional experiences, the game is opened to a wider audience whilst creating allegiance to a brand that the development team will feel passionately about. This can only lead to a more compelling player experience and an elevated level of player immersion, which in turn results in higher levels of profits for the developers of said game.

1 Freeman also states that he isn’t “knocking superficial entertainment”. “Uplifting people and giving them an arena for play by creating fun and exciting entertainment experiences – from games to roller coasters to river raft rides – is, to me, extremely worthwhile. But many creative teams find renewed inspiration when they’re also creating experiences that enrich the interactive participant”. (Freeman, 2003)

 Using Stories to Creating ‘Viral’ Experiences

Adding a narrative element to a game that would otherwise have none can help to create the ‘Viral’ effect that so many developers hope for when developing their game. ‘Going viral’ can mean the difference between being an Appstore hit, or barely being noticed at all. When developing games which link to a company or brand, clients will often require some form of narrative to help players engage with their game. Below you can see a pitch document created for a Facebook game used to advertise Staffordshire University.

The client required a narrative link to the brand to prevent the game from seeming shallow, and to help the audience link the gameplay to the company that were being advertised. A relatively simple game was created in terms of gameplay – the player is required to use the mouse to guide a spaceship through an asteroid field, avoiding collisions with the asteroids. However, to give depth to the game a narrative was created involving space cadets from the university. This also allowed more marketing links to be created between the game and the brand – such as the tagline “Lightyears Ahead!” – used to describe both the gameplay and the students who attended the university.

Time to Reflect

Another argument for deep narrative in casual games is that in some ways the story can be strengthened by the episodic nature of these casual games (if not in the way they are delivered, then in the way that players enjoy them). In order to get the most from ’emotional experiences’, players need time to reflect. Emotional experiences and deep narratives often contain complex themes, contrasting concepts and turning points that impact the player.

‘Time to Reflect’ is covered in part by Chris Skaggs of Soma Games in his interesting presentation at Casual Connect Seattle, July 2012. You can view this in full below, along with his presentation slides.

This Post Is Also Featured On Gamasutra

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