Monday, July 28, 2008

Casual Games for Casual Gamers


By Alex Kierkegaard

Lol, yeah. You know who they are. The "quirky" indie game lovers. The XBLA "arcade" game hipsters. The Mini-Yous and the Mini-Mes. Et cetera. But don't let my derisive tone fool you -- this is one of the most important articles you will ever read on this website, or any website for that matter. If you understand this one thing, you are only one step away from understanding everything (that step I'll leave for another day -- got to save something for later, to keep you coming back and all).

So what are the causes of the mini-game phenomenon? Because it is a phenomenon -- and a recent one at that. I am racking my brain trying to remember any mini-games from my youth, or any mention of mini-games in the specialist press of my youth, and I come up with nothing. Yet ask any indie hipster gamer about their favorite recent games and most of what they'll come up with is, effectively, mini-games. So what happened in the meantime, eh? Why are we being told by these self-styled "intellectual gamers" that the future of our hobby is no longer to be reached by increasing complexity, but by reducing it?

Well, because they are stupid, man -- because complexity is too complex for them. Because they haven't yet realized that progress in electronic gaming has always been synonymous with increasing complexity, whereas the mini-game phenomenon is nothing but a denial of this progress -- a denial of the future. And this is what all their arguments against complexity basically amount to:

Random indie hipster: "Man, KOF XI and Arcana Heart look cool and all, but all those bars and meters on the screen are too confusing for my tiny retard's brain and Homer Simpson-like attention span. Everyone I play against wipes the floor with my face before I've even located my sprite on the screen, let alone figured out what all those freaking meters do."

Me: "Well then maybe you should try Street Fighter II: The World Warrior."

Random indie hipster: "Man, Supreme Commander looks cool and all, but I keep getting slaughtered online -- haven't won a single battle yet! There's so much stuff to keep track of -- and in real-time too! -- that the whole thing ends up too confusing for my tiny retard's brain and Homer Simpson-like attention span."

Me: "Well then maybe you should try Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty."

Random indie hipster: "Man, Deus Ex looks cool and all, but wtf, it's not enough that I have to run around corridors shooting stuff, now I have to actually think too? All those skills and high-tech gadgets and sneaking around and intricate interactive plot choices are just too confusing for my tiny retard's brain and Homer Simpson-like attention span."

Me: "Well then maybe you should try Wolfenstein 3D."

Random indie hipster: "Man, Galactic Civilizations II looks cool and all, but seriously, who the fuck can play these games? Who can keep track of all these factors -- planetary management, economics, ship design, politics, etc. -- in a game that goes on and on for days? It's just too confusing for my tiny retard's brain and Homer Simpson-like attention span."

Me
: "Well then maybe you should try Defender of the Crown."

Random indie hipster: "Man, Ketsui looks cool and all, but Jesus Christ with these fucking bullets already! There's just too many of them for my tiny retard's brain and Homer Simpson-like attention span."

Me: "Well then maybe you should try Space Invaders."

Random indie hipster: "Oh wow, you're right. I'd never heard of those games you mentioned. From what I gathered from Wikipedia, they must be perfect for my tiny retard's brain and Homer Simpson-like attention span. The problem is that my local supermarket doesn't stock them anymore, so it's impossible for me to find them. And besides, from Wikipedia pictures I saw, they look... old and ugly. So what I want is all the world's most ambitious and talented developers to stop designing newer, more complex games, and go back and endlessly rehash decades-old games, only with shinier, higher-resolution graphics, gritty, realistic proportions, and perhaps random motion-sensing gimmicks. Yes, that's what I'd like! In other words, I want the videogame industry to halt all progress and instead endlessly repeat itself in order to accommodate little ignorant, lazy retards with bad taste like me."

Me : "Well then maybe you should go fuck yourself."

But enough with the joking and the name-calling -- there is an important point behind all the infantility, and that point is that increasingly complex games are necessary in order to sustain the interest of an intelligent human being. Electronic games are like toys in a way (and forget about what Wikipedia tells you on the differences between toys and games -- listen to what I am telling you here) -- you buy one, you play with it for a while, and then eventually you want something bigger and more intricate, something that does more stuff. It is vitally important that the new toy should do more stuff, since, except if you are feebleminded, a different shape or color will simply not satisfy you, at least not for long.

This is essentially the same sentiment that Pauline Kael expressed in one of her essays, circa 1969 -- only in respect to movies:

When you're young the odds are very good that you'll find something to enjoy in almost any movie. But as you grow more experienced, the odds change. I saw a picture a few years ago that was the sixth version of material that wasn't much to start with. Unless you're feebleminded, the odds get worse and worse. We don't go on reading the same kind of manufactured novels -- pulp Westerns or detective thrillers, say -- all of our lives, and we don't want to go on and on looking at movies about cute heists by comically assorted gangs. The problem with a popular art form is that those who want something more are in a hopeless minority compared with the millions who are always seeing it for the first time, or for the reassurance and gratification of seeing the conventions fulfilled again.

Kael here was speaking out against the lack of ambition in the movie industry; against the endless rehashing of simplistic movie plots, which, sooner or later, kills the interest in movies in every experienced viewer. What she craved was the same thing that any intelligent person craves from any medium or activity: more depth, more complexity, a steadily increasing intellectual challenge in other words, something to keep her brain power constantly engaged. And since the essence of movies is in their plot, she was in effect asking for more thoughtful, more intricate plotlines -- something beyond the "movies about cute heists by comically assorted gangs" that might have satisfied her in her youth, but could hardly be expected to do so for ever.Getting back to games, and since the essence of games is not in their plotlines but in their rule systems, we see that asking for more complex games means asking for more involved such systems. It's not that we don't like simple games, you understand -- it's that they already exist, and that we've already played them . And now, of course, we want something more.

The whole idea of a mini-game is in fact a farce, if you stop to consider it for a moment. A mini-game is nothing other than an older game, repackaged and resold to a new audience. Spacewar and Pong were not considered mini-games when they originally appeared, but they are now. You could stick them into a Super Monkey Ball sequel if you wanted to, and then stick that onto a cellphone, since Super Monkey Ball itself is by now nothing but yet another mini-game. A mini-game containing mini-games! Are we excited yet?

This is why I have little interest in most of the hundreds of indie and doujin games that are released each year -- because I've already played them. The hipster kiddies fall over themselves in order to praise them, because a) They weren't around to play them when they were originally released, so they think they're something new, and b) Because they are under the false impression that the indie game is the videogame equivalent to the indie movie , and that therefore praising it will confer on them an aura of coolness and sophistication or some shit.Yet there is no equivalence! Independent movies can be made on a shoestring, because an intricate plot requires nothing but imagination. This, as a rule, does not work in the domain of games, because more complex games require more complex rules, and more complex rules require, by and large, bigger teams of developers. They require, by and large, bigger budgets. There are exceptions to this rule, in genres in which by their nature jacking up the complexity is -- pardon the pun -- not such a complex undertaking (see STGs, platformers and puzzle games for example), but if you want to keep increasing the complexity of such inherently complex games as Deus Ex or Civilization -- therefore pushing back the boundaries of what's feasible in the realm of interactivity itself! -- two guys in a garage will simply just not do, except perhaps if they are extremely smart and hard-working, and prepared to, like, work nonstop for a decade.

The absurdity of the very concept of the mini-game can be seen in its full glory by considering Made In Wario (aka WarioWare, Inc.), a game that went beyond collections of mini-games in order to give us a collection of microgames. If mini-games represent a step back, microgames represented a step so far back that they ended up going back before even the beginning (the games it contained, in other words, were conceptually simpler than even Pong or Spacewar). Therein lay Made In Wario's brilliance; it carried the absurd concept of the mini-game to its absurd conclusion (it was, in other words, so bad that it ended up being good). But there is nothing more to say about Made In Wario; it was a mere stunt, fun for as long as the novelty lasted (a few hours at best), but nothing more than that. These so-called "microgames" can never hope to captivate the imagination of a human being any more than a mini-game can -- except perhaps if that human being is a child or feebleminded.

So let me hear nothing more against complexity again. There is indeed good implementation of complexity (as, say, in UFO: Enemy Unknown, Alien vs. Predator, or Homura) and bad implementation of complexity (as in Colonization, Cyborg Justice, or Radiant Silvergun), but the difference is a matter of aesthetic judgement on a per game basis. It is, in other words, debatable. Complexity itself, at least as far as intelligent human beings are concerned, is by definition a good thing -- if for no other reason than because it's interesting.

2 comments:

Chronic said...

Another Take
by Michael Thomsen of IGN

This week in Seattle Casual Connect, a games conference focused on celebrating and expanding the presence of "casual" games, has been running to largely deaf ears in the gaming media. Last week was an orgy of gaming news, previews, videos, and demos at E3 where an entire community of eager console gamers turned their attention towards the Los Angeles Convention Center for information about this year's hot Xbox and Playstation shooters. The disparity in coverage between the two trade shows couldn't be more striking. While many core gamers will openly profess their admiration for such "casual" fare as Tetris, Zuma, and Peggle, the recent success of Nintendo's Wii and DS has been cause for much resentment between core gamers and those casual oafs they fear are ruining their beloved pastime. But what is a casual game to begin with? What really separates a "hardcore" game from a "casual" game? What does this "casual" game renaissance mean for the future of the industry?

While many will claim that hardcore games are about complex gameplay systems and sophisticated narratives that heathen casuals could never comprehend, the biggest difference can be reduced to escapism. Since the things that trigger escapist impulses in a person are entirely subjective, the reality of the debate over hardcore versus casual is really all sleight of hand. In Grand Theft Auto, for example, hardcore players will champion all of their completed missions, unlocked items, and proficiency in driving and killing. So-called casual players, will likewise look at the same gameplay mechanics, art design, and gameplay world and decide to just take turns racking up the highest wanted rating with their friends. Hardcore players will spend more time mastering the gameplay systems to become demi-gods in the gaming world, while less-inclined players will invest the bare minimum in the story and game world; instead plucking the low-hanging fruit of cheap thrills by stealing a corvette, running over 10 pedestrians, and earning a police helicopter to chase after them.

Grand Theft Auto, like Madden, Halo, Starcraft, World of Warcraft, Mario, or almost any other allegedly hardcore game can be played casually or with a hardcore fixation. All of these games can be highly rewarding for people just interested in dabbling a little bit, without demanding a player immerse themselves in the game lore and peculiarities of its weapons balancing system. Likewise, Zuma, Bejewelled, Snood, Text Twist, or even good old fashioned pinball, can all be played with the same level of minute attention to detail and highly attuned skill comparable to that of any old dog still uploading maps over Battlenet. Setting aside obvious aesthetic differences for a moment, is there really anything fundamentally different about the gameplay systems at work in a hardcore game when compared to a "casual" game?

In GTA, when you send an input into the game world, pulling the trigger, the response comes back quickly in the form of an animation, say a gun being fired. When players have learned to time their inputs in accordance with the game rules (i.e. don't shoot walls and garbage cans, shoot at people), players are rewarded with a more elaborate consequence in the form of a reward (i.e. an obstacle is removed on the path towards the level objective). In Zuma, the same core feedback loop is also present. You send an input into the game space, by aiming and firing a brightly colored ball. The game responds immediately by showing a consequence to your action, putting the ball in a new position in the winding coil of other balls. When player learns to send inputs into the game in accordance with the rules of the game, they are rewarded. Instead of death animations, small chains of similarly-colored balls disappear, and the player gets closer to the end-level objective.

So when we deride "casual" games as being insubstantial or insignificant it can't be for any inherent lack of sophistication in their gameplay systems. Is there really more at work in Halo than there is in The Sims? The only possible source of scorn left is aesthetic displeasure. Again, here the argument is largely based on the demographics of people playing hardcore or "casual" games. To be reductive, hardcore games are for men and casual games are for women and small children. To wit, hardcore games tend to have grizzled protagonists with guns to spare and a free-wheeling attitude about collateral damage. "Casual" games are appointed with pastel color schemes and basic geometric shapes that wouldn't be out of place in a mobile in a baby crib. Hardcore games want players to completely lose themselves in a lushly composed world and invest in a sprawling narrative. "Casual" games have no such illusions of story-driven immersion and present their gameplay systems with the least amount of artifice possible.

But games are about play more than they are about story. When the medium realizes its fullest potential, there will be ways that gameplay can be used to actually communicate a story in the same way that Eisenstein and DeMille first proved the language of film could be used to tell stories that pushed beyond the limits of phantasmagoria and disjointed action scenes. Hardcore games frequently present an illusion of story, but it is almost entirely relegated to non-interactive or marginally interactive parts of the game. You don't play the story in Metal Gear Solid, you play the dead space in between the cutscenes. Still, a strongly defined narrative backdrop can be greatly persuasive in convincing players that more is happening in the game world than there actually is. Look at the hardcore reception to Puzzle Quest, a Bejeweled clone with an elaborate RPG story jammed in between stages. The games are, minor variations aside, essentially the same, yet one represents the end of the industry while the other is a fetishized fanboy favorite.

Now that the industry has rediscovered the value of actively promoting content for people of all ages, man and woman, hardcore gamers are rallying. This E3 proved an especially stark example of just how fervently opposed to non-narrative gameplay experiences the entrenched hardcore gamer can be. The backlash for not showing a new hardcore Wii game at their media briefing was actually strong enough to elicit an apology from Nintendo president Satoru Iwata. Likewise, Microsoft earned derisive groans from the gaming press when they unveiled their new Avatars system and a more ambitious approach to casual gaming with Lips and You're In The Movies (one of the best games I saw at E3).

Here the term "casual" becomes an epithet for the core gamer, used to invalidate an experience that he perceives as encroaching on his ability to transport himself into another world. It doesn't matter how infinitely replayable and viscerally rewarding games like Wii Sports and Wii Fit are; they are ruining gaming because they lack a story and a post-apocalyptic fantasy setting. Yet, it's in the "casual" space that some of the most important advancements of the medium are being made. Games have long been stymied by a painfully limited set of genres. There are MMO's, FPS's, RPG's, action games, and fighting games to name only a few; but really all of these sub-genres exist in one larger category of combat games. Each sub-genre has significantly different approaches to how the combat is implemented, but combat is always at the heart of most hardcore games. In other words, hardcore games have long been stuck in one painfully limited genre, which goes a long way towards explaining why few people in the mainstream have ever bothered to consider the medium as anything more substantial than a toy for boys.

What would we think of movies if the only ones being written about and celebrated were Michael Bay and Chuck Norris movies? "Casual" games have long been the domain of true genre differentiation. Here you'll find puzzle games, music games, communication games, sports games, narrative games, and action games. The rapid transition of the industry from focusing predominantly on hardcore combat games to a more encompassing suite of games for everybody (where have I heard that before?) isn't a negative at all. It's a vital and necessary step forward for a still immature medium.

The key to driving the evolution of gaming will be in creating new and more elaborate systems of play. The longer we celebrate combat games as the legitimate heirs to gaming greatness while ghettoizing those poor non-combat games to the "casual" backwater, the longer we damn ourselves to a future where GTA passes for storytelling and PVP'ing passes for interaction. Speaking at Casual Connect earlier this week, Paul Thelen, founder of Big Fish Games, objected to the term "casual" to describe the content his company distributes. Thelen made an analogy to music, where there's no distinction between hardcore and casual, "The word 'casual' is a very broad term." It's not just broad, it's fundamentally inaccurate in terms of describing gameplay mechanics, and it's dismissive of some of the most important advances in gameplay design of the last several years.

Ten years from now when we look back on this era, will we remember Metal Gear Solid 4's weapon customization system or the birth or real analog control in Wii Sports? Will we remember the staged friendship between Elika and the Prince in Prince of Persia or making exuberant fools of ourselves with friends in Rock Band? Pushing a new button in a different combination to unleash an attack animation is not an evolution in game design, it's redundancy embodied. The era of the mainstream game is coming, and there's very little about it that's casual. These games carry just as much possibility for high-level play and have similar gameplay systems embedded beneath their approachable aesthetics. A paradigm shift is coming, and it's not going to be about casual and hardcore. It will be about creating genuinely different gameplay experiences that can appeal to all 7 billion people in the world, not just the few hundred million who have an apetite for violent escapism. When that day comes what will we sound like when we try and marginalize it with the term "casual?"

BlankVoid said...

I have a Wii currently with about 5 or six games. I only turn it on every 6-12 months so im not really sure how many i have. This list goes something like this...

Wii Sports - Got with system
Wii Play - Purchased by Mother
Wii Fit - Purchased by Mother
Zelda - I bought!
Super Smash Bros - I bought this too!

And thats it...

Metroid i could never wrap my head around the freaky controls. Mario Galaxy was a snooze fest.

Zelda aside(and thats barely, it felt just like every other zelda too. Even the temples felt the same the new graphics were pretty though.), im unhappy about my Wii experience.

The Wii no longer has games really.

And even now casual games are creeping their way onto the PS3 and 360. Its sad...espeically after that top nintendo guy said that toys were better than games when talking about Wii Music.

What faith i ever had in nintendo has been reduced down to a tiny little sliver, and that sliver is simply for Zelda. (I kinda wish a Zelda would be put on the 360, simply so it could earn an M rating and be given the world it deserves.)

Casual games need to grow up.