As a devout gamer and a 30-something with a demanding job and family life, I just don’t have time to play through multiple 40-hour campaigns or grind to Level 70 anymore. Yes, I’m still playing games in my free time, but instead of talking about The Witcher, Sins of a Solar Empire, or S.T.A.L.K.E.R. at the office the next day, I go on about Audiosurf, Zuma, and Guitar Hero. This has led me to an important conclusion: traditional “hardcore” PC games can learn a few things from casual games to help them remain relevant to gamers and their maturing lifestyles.
Casual games immerse players quickly in the fantasy they expect and want. Within seconds of booting up Guitar Hero, I am playing music and feel like a rock god. Compare this to the out-of-box experience of a typical 4X game or even Relic’s own Homeworld series. Why does it have to be over an hour before I feel like a brilliant space commander? Complex menus, self-indulgent narrative exposition, and drawn-out tutorials often get in the way of immersion.
Casual games are also extremely easy to revisit after long periods of not playing them. I don’t have to remember the exact twists and turns of the narrative to know who I am or why I should care. I don’t need to relearn the intricate hotkey controls needed to stay competitive in multiplayer matches. And I certainly don’t need to remember the exact shopkeeper to bring the gemstone to so that he can forge it into that magic hammer to smash the gargoyle statue that protects the hidden fortress that is buried underneath one of the 300 caves I explored six months ago. Intuitive controls and useful quest logs can go a long way toward mitigating some of these problems for hardcore games, but there is more we can do. Television uses recaps to catch people up (e.g., “Previously on Lost...”), which is not a perfect solution but is far better than most games. If we hope to keep aging gamers’ attention, we have to find ways to quickly and easily put players back in the moment with the information they need to keep playing.
With Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II, Relic hopes that by adopting a design philosophy of shorter but more numerous missions, players will make faster, more meaningful progress while feeling they’re taking part in an epic campaign.
The most important design tenet hardcore games can take from the casual market is how quickly meaningful progress can be made. In some form or another, all good games are essentially reward treadmills, where the prizes are feelings of self-empowerment, mastery of dexterous skill, or narrative discovery. The quicker a game can offer those rewards—and offer them on an ongoing basis—the more likely a player is to come back again and again. If it takes two hours to get that next piece of sweet loot or unlock the next mission in my favorite game (if I only have an hour to play games on any given night), how likely am I to keep playing?
I grew up on hardcore PC games and I don’t want to stop playing them, but my lifestyle and their game designs are starting to conflict. Unless hardcore games start to adopt some of the design philosophies of successful casual games, gamers like myself are more likely to stay up late playing Zuma than Crysis. But hey, what’s not hardcore about playing Zuma every night until 2 a.m.?
Octboer 31, 2008