Monday, August 14, 2006

Casual Games, Serious Experiments

Casual games have become an industry buzzword in recent months. A few bean counters discovered that there was money to be made in them thar internets, if only we could tap into all the people who don’t play Counter Strike, or Battlefield, or Half-Life, or Everquest, or World of WarCraft. People who just want to play a simple game, with fun mechanics, for a few minutes at a time will actually pay money to do so. An industry is born, and with it comes all of the usual problems.

I don’t have to go into it: clones. Create or discover anything of significant popularity and you wind up with clones. Copycat companies spring up like weeds to steal, subvert, and ultimately destroy the core ideas that made the original so popular in the first place. Inevitably you wind up with an industry filled to the brim with sludge. The bejeweled are still there (pun intended), but so are all the rest. So where does the next great idea come from? Out on the edge, of course.

Edge of the World

At the edge of any popular industry is a small group of people looking for the next big thing. Saddled with an uneasy task, the fringe developers are not often ignored and shunned by the mainstream. Working on a shoe-string budget, often with hare-brained ideas, these innovators are the source of the next wave. These are the inventors, the research scientists, the garage bands, the weekend engineers, and the true indie developers.

When it comes to games, casual and hardcore are two sides of the same coin. Both are popular forms of recreation, indulged in by thousands. Both are big money industries, if you can get the magic spark in your game. Both have the same problems with clones, dross, and bloated industries. And both are carefully looking towards the fringes for the next big thing.

So where do we start? Well, from a casual perspective: innovative gameplay would be a good place to start. What better way to create something fresh than by adopting a new gameplay mechanic. Perhaps an innovative twist on an existing theme will be the breakthrough. Sometimes all it takes is looking at the problem from a different angle and coming up with a new way to use a stuck and mired interface.

Weird Science

If you have not, I highly encourage you to check out the Experimental Gameplay Project. Started in 2005 by four grad students at Carnegie Mellon University, their goal is to find and rapidly prototype as many new forms of gameplay as possible. It is now more than a year later and they are going strong. Encouraging game designers to be innovative and try new things, their site is a testament to practical testing of gameplay.

What they develop may never make it to the light of day as you see it on their site. Most of the prototypes they host are simple toys and games that you wouldn’t play for more than 10 minutes. But each is the practical application of an idea. Not all are good, and few make it to the realm of success. But if only one or two prove to be truly inspired, and go on to spawn new game ideas, then they have accomplished much more than an industry filled with Match-3 games ever will.

For games to live healthy, and move forward, be they hardcore or casual, there needs to people at the edges. Creative minds who can look beyond what we have and into what we could do.

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