Casual Gaming
By Tom Hume, Tue Feb 08 09:00:00 GMT 2005

With ever-more-capable handsets coming onto the market and confidence growing within the mobile industry, there's increasing interest in mobile gaming. However, the console games business may not provide the best model to follow.

A large proportion of the mobile games to emerge so far have been straightforward conversions of well-known classics, or fairly derivative arcade-style executions.These games typically follow the pattern set by the console games industry: a few big hits make up most sales, followed by a large number of low-selling titles, and, as with console gaming, there's often an expectation that slapping a well-known brand name on front of an otherwise run-of-the-mill title is a worthy exercise for all involved. So far, so good -- like most new media, mobile gaming is being shoehorned into a form set by its predecessors. But it needn't be this way.

Look at the direction that console games have taken: over the years, they've become more cinematic, narrative-driven and immersive. These qualities seem at odds with mobile: cinema and small screens are not natural bedfellows, and mobile games vie for our attention alongside all the other events and interruptions of everyday life. Short bursts of entertainment, delivered where and when the player demands, seem almost the exact opposite of the console gaming experience. So perhaps there's another model to look to: casual games.

Casual games are a much better match with mobile phones: typefied by long but shallow learning curves ("a minute to learn, a lifetime to master"), they use easily understood or familiar concepts, and can fit around the lives of their players rather than imposing on them. They're popular precisely because they're the opposite of "immersive" -- their familiarity and non-threatening nature provides an opportunity for games companies to extend their audience out beyond the traditional gamer demographic, and encourage those furthest from the profile of "early adopter" to do more with their mobile.

You'll already be familiar with some forms of casual games: crosswords and puzzles. These are of educational value (for instance, crosswords build on universal language skills, developing vocabulary and spelling), generate revenues through repeated play and appeal to a broad cross-section of society. In the UK, 25 percent of the population plays a puzzle every day, so for many people they are already a part of everyday life. And there's no reason why these formats shouldn't be improved as they're translated to mobile: co-operative or competitive play, or games which determine the skill level of an individual player and continually give them puzzles designed to stretch their abilities to the limit, are all possible.

Elsewhere there are other models for casual games, from the quick-fire play of Wario Ware, where individual sessions can last mere seconds, to the long-term care and cultivation that goes into a game like The Sims over a period of months. Both of these games let players put in as much or as little time as they like, and see proportionate rewards. Even a networked game of chess, with each player making a move a day, could be considered casual. The quantity of time spent interacting with the game itself could be minimal, but the ongoing investment of attention throughout the day as you think of your next move is significant -- the game doesn't end when you put your phone down or turn away from the screen. NationStates provides another example of this: players might have a single decision to make each day, but the consequences of actions are subtle and unfold over a long period of time, giving players much to think about.

So, what lessons can mobile games companies learn from this? Firstly, that the console games industry doesn't provide the only model for success in interactive entertainment. There are games out there with far broader appeal and a longer track-record of commercial success.

Secondly, that immersion is the exact opposite of what gamers want when they're on the move. Games companies should offer quick-fire experiences that can be picked up and put down as and when players want, and maybe keep half an eye on games which can keep players occupied mentally even when they're not in the process of playing them.

And thirdly, a corollary to this: that games demanding quick bursts of interaction needn't be shallow. It's possible to create rich experiences from quick-fire play.