January 23, 2006


by peterb

Recently, I've been on a bit of a "casual games" kick.

The casual games market is on fire right now, and from the perspective of game design is kicking the tail of the "big box" hardcore PC games. It's like watching a bunch of nimble mammals dance around the legs of slow, lumbering dinosaurs.

I'm not speaking in terms of financial success here. I'm not a game publisher, so I don't know exactly how much money either of these groups are making. I can infer from the multiplicity of casual game developers that they are doing pretty well. But the more interesting point to me, as a player, is that the games are better.

Let's review. I'm about to paint in broad (very broad) strokes, here. Please stop and think before you post a comment saying that I am obviously a gay lamer, because Bladehunt: Deathspank 2: The Revenge was way better than some guy's freeware Visual BASIC "VBSudoku." Of course there are exceptions to every rule. I am comparing well-done casual games to well-done big box games in the abstract.

In my personal experience, the casual games:

One can ask the question "What makes a game 'casual'?" A snarky response is "Casual games are games marketed towards chicks." If this is true, then I'd say it is a leading indicator that women have better taste in videogames than men.

But of course, when I say "men" I really mean "teenage boys." The distinguishing feature, in my mind, that separates a casual game from a "big box" game is that it doesn't require a time commitment that only an obsessive 14 year old is capable of. I'd argue that, even though he would reject the label, Everett Kaser's puzzle games are all casual games, in the positive sense of the word. They are in no way lighter, easier, or somehow less "hardcore" than, say, Silent Hill 3. They just let me quit the game whenever I want, and don't punish me for having a life.

One common criticism of these games is that they lack creativity, that they are just rehashing some of the same concepts over and over. There's some truth to this. The line back from Atlantis to Luxor to Zuma to Puzz Loop, just to take one example we've talked about here before, is painfully obvious. But this isn't unique to casual games. To give an easy example, Knights of the Old Republic, an A-list game that many people (including me) enjoyed immensely, had a Towers of Hanoi puzzle, and it doesn't get much more derivative than that.

All of which brings me to a game called Oasis. I'd heard it recommended, tried the demo, and liked it enough to buy it. From the 50,000 foot level, this game is to Civilization as Strange Adventures in Infinite Space is to Master of Orion. In Oasis, play moves quickly. The boring parts are all omitted. Regrettably, it's Windows-only. The developers indicate that they'd like for there to be a Mac port, but no port is yet scheduled.

On each board, you have to uncover squares to find resources, or deploy them. You can find cities, followers, ore mines, and a number of other items or terrains, and you can "spend" followers to work the ore mines to discover technology, or to build roads connecting the cities. At a predetermined time, the barbarian hordes invade. The better a job you've done connecting your kingdom and researching technology, the more likely it is to survive the attack.

I showed this game to a number of other people. Unfortunately for me, one of them was Jonathan Hardwick who, within 1 minute, observed "Dude. It's MINESWEEPER." I hemmed and hawed a little bit, and tried to dodge the bullet. But here's the thing: he's right. Is this game deserving of the "it's an uncreative knockoff" criticism I mentioned above? Have I been taken for a ride? Did I spend my hard-earned $20 on a humilating sham?

No, I did not. Oasis is "Minesweeper With Stuff", in the tradition of "Capture the Flag With Stuff". I was taken aback for a bit, but eventually settled down, and decided that there's no shame in this. The graphics, the music, the sound, the plot, the additional gameplay mechanics, and the difficulty all combine to make this more than the sum of its parts. I paid $20 for a jazzed up version of Minesweeper, and I'd do it again. I plan on paying $20 for Diner Dash, a jazzed up version of Tapper. That's the thing with jazz. Sometimes it doesn't matter if the theme is simple, as long as the improvisations are good.

I can't blame anyone for being impressed with the big box dinosaurs. There's grandeur in dinosaurs, and there's grandeur in the big box games, with their built-by-committee mis-en-scenes, their baroque, sent-from-1994 full motion videos, and their seemingly endless committment to supporting bleeding-edge technologies, even at the cost of shrinking their own market and degrading the average user's out-of-the-box experience. I play the dinosaur games, too, sometimes.

But if you asked me to lay my money down and guess where mainstream PC gaming is going to be in 10 years time?

I'm betting on the mammals.

Posted by peterb at January 23, 2006 09:34 PM | Bookmark This

Well, I could not agree more.
I like dinosaurs, but I have the tendency to get bored quite fast. Games like Oasis just perfectly fit my timetable. Just 10 minutes, no problem. Start, play a level, get back to work. No 5 mintues till you come to the start menu.
And honestly creativity isn't the first thing which comes to my mind thinking of 'normal' games. Once I get past the shiny eyecatcher it are the same principles as on my old commodore, amiga, atari ...(enter what you like); kick the bad guys ass, save the princess, get to lvl 100, lead miami to the superbowl (well, i liked the dolphin :-) ).
I like browsing the independent/shareware game market once in a while and I almost everytime find something interesting. (and getting a demo of just about 7MB makes it easy to just get a first impression of the game).

greets from germany
keep up the fine work guys

and maybe i see you on Travian :-)

Posted by leflon at January 24, 2006 08:06 AM

I agree with you completely, but I might not count since I'm one of those chicks that such games are probably marketed towards. In any case, I've been waiting for many years for someone to come out with a game better than Moria. Still waiting.

Posted by moondance at January 26, 2006 08:11 PM

I second all that. But Oasis is getting a lot of press, over my favorite two indie releases this year, doukutsu cave story and DROD:jtrh. Class acts in the extreme, both of them. DROD featured a slick and easy buying experience for $20.00. I just had to lay money down after playing the demo, and I haven't spent a better bit of cash this past year. The level design is far ahead of anything the 'pros' are doing, attempting, or dreaming yet.

This isn't an ad, so in the interest of a proper objective review - the sprites are a bit naff. (but I still love them)

Posted by chrisf at January 27, 2006 12:15 PM

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