Main Mistakes of Casual Game Developers as Beginners
Before I tell about your problems, let me tell you a little bit about you first. How do people get into this casual industry anyway? Many – from big games. Me, for instance. I came from such, and just by watching what’s going on up there these days (crises, pirates, low prices, approaching next-gen, etc.), I feel like I’ve left just in time.
The second part of the developers appears out of nowhere. Let’s imagine, some college friends get together and decide to take a course on programming, and get some cash from that. And, if lucky, – a lot of cash.
Both the first ones and the second will have to get upset – a lot will not work out. Not at once anyway. You don’t have to put up with that idea, just don’t chase “a lot and at once”. The idea of a developer who wants to get a lot of money at once usually goes like this: he sees that everyone around him is making their own Arcanoids, Collapses, Bejeweled, and he understands that they won’t work fast – all the fish places are busy, and, more than that, you have to deal with them long and hard. It’s much better to find your own niche.
By the way, Arkanoid, Bejeweled, and Collapses are the very niches that can be quite attractive for small teams these days.
Beginners think: “What if they get lucky like Virtual Villagers developers, for example? What if, suddenly, the originality of the idea hits the nail on the head?”
If you want an example of “a random nail on the head” – it’s better to look at Dream Chronicles and Chocolatier. On the other hand, the time for such “nails” now is very unfortunate. The tops jump with furious speed, tearing down everything that’s being released.
We have a very good example – Voodoo Dimension with its Master of Defense. They have probably made one of the most successful startups in the market, without even thinking that their modification of the Warcraft fashion will fit so perfectly the classic genre of casual strategy. And what do we have now? The game has been hanging in the Reflexive top for months and made a great name for the guys. But did they make a lot of money? No, alas, they don’t drive a Hummers or live in the Bahamas. They worked hard on their next game and have already released it by now, in the usual casual genre, with earning a lot more on it than on MoD.) Yes, the development paid off, but not much. Notice, this is almost an ideal example, when both high quality, original idea, and fortune worked at the same time.
So, my advice for beginners: don’t throw yourself into originality – you’ll probably just lose your time and energy. Choose one of the usual genres and try to do your best. It is better to spend time polishing until it shines and remodeling graphics and interface than to come up with a new game process. Be especially picky and painstaking about the interface. The slightest inattention can cost your game a lot.
I recall a lot of people at the forum were wondering what genre to choose. Basically, open Real Arcade and check out the tops at game-sales-charts.com, then choose what you like. I’d rather tell you which genres you should not choose.
It just happened so that most game developers are men. And again, it just happens so that casual games are mostly played by women. That’s the “disconnect”, you see. What is the first thing that comes to mind for any male player when mentioning small games? Tetris, of course!
And I just want to say it at once – Please. Don’t. Do. Tetris. Why? First of all, because Tetris is licensed, and no portal will take these mechanics from you. Secondly, on PCs, casual Tetris “died” a long time ago. It is quite curious that the genre created by Russians was killed by them. What comes to mind after “Tetris”? Lines. But this genre, too, if not dead, at least “mutated” again thanks to the comrades Nevosoft and Thunderstorm. So, without checking out Wonderlines and Da Vinci Secret, don’t even think about taking on Lines.
On the other hand, the genres in the casual market often change beyond recognition, so it is quite possible that in the next 6 months or so, Lines will turn into something completely different. Like Emerald Tale by Enkord, for instance, where the gameplay is very different without going beyond the boundaries of the genre.
What else comes to mind for a hardcore developer when mentioning “small games”? Minesweeper and Solitaire. And again, I do not advise to get into these. Although there were examples of “casualized” Minesweepers (BeTrapped!), they are considered unsuccessful. Solitaire genre, in its turn, sounds more like reality. The main thing is when you sell a game to casual players, you sell the gameplay first. You may have around 40 game modes, a powerful rating system designed to make you go through 1 level at a time, but you must always have single, complete gameplay, one clear goal, the path to which should be obvious.
The maximum is a choice of 2 tasks, when, again, it is quite obvious what the choice brings. So solitaires can be made, but only not the ones with a single level that must be replayed many times.
Yes, this is common advice, but if you only knew, how many beginners neglect it. And don’t forget about the breaks between the levels when a game counts points. Now everybody tries to fill such “breaks” with minigames. But it’s worth remembering that these minigames can take up a lot of time and energy, and I don’t recommend that you just cobble together them fast.
It’s better to have no minigames at all than poor ones. The player should always feel that he’s getting tougher, and such breaks between levels are the easiest way to remind him about that. I would also advise you not to deviate from the “levels-world” structure and the wave-like increase in difficulty without good reason.
Let’s get back to the genres. What other “small” game would every hardcore developer like to make? Arcade, of course! And again – arcade genres that I do not recommend: Pac-man and Digger – everybody had enough of running about, i.e. safely moved to handhelds where the mouse is not used. Supaplex and other variants of Boulder Dash, and everything that has more logic than arcade is hardcore which I will tell you about a little bit later. Everything that has even a hint of fighting and violence will not work. I don’t advise beginners to make scroll shooters now, except for “plastic” ones like Platypus.
There are still descendants of Mario, Sonic (see “mass murder by jumping on heads”). These may be fine, but there is one big issue. The fact is that casual players need a nice picture, attractive and elaborated character. Amusing bouncing balls/cubes and schematic levels do not work for them. Look at how the numerous platformers for Gameboy Advance are made, check out Turtle Odyssey and Turtix. If your artists can’t afford that level of graphics and animation, it’s best not to torture them. However, even if they can, it’s still better not to torture and take on an easier genre. There is a risk of spending a lot of time and money, and then throw it all away because of minor interface or style mistakes.
Now I’ll tell you about the ways that allow making “small games” while bypassing the casual market issues. I know 4.
The first is Adware. If you have rich uncle/auntie or brutally rich friends of your aunts/uncles, or your friends’ rich aunts/uncles or whatever – shake those people or the whole kindred on the subject of whether or not anyone wants to advertise their companies in your games. It’s clear that they’ve got the money for a reason – it’s not a treasure trove they found. And if anyone asks – make free games, stuff them with ads and spread to everyone. You can forget about casual publishers and portals like a nightmare.
The second way is hardcore. There are many good examples: Eets, Gish, DROD, Armadillo Run, Elasto Mania. Here, it’s own rules and genres. However, if you go this way, you should immediately think about your website promotion and hard work with the community. There’s Reflexive – a portal which is very much liked by hardcore players. Yes, and note that hardcore shareware can be well subscribed to CD, as the audiences are almost the same.
Now, Enkord has taken over “casual hardcore”, and are quite successful at it. So you can turn to them.
The third way is outsourcing. That is, nobody makes you “break bad” right away. Outsource graphics or sound at first, and you can gain experience and contacts simultaneously.
The last, fourth way is the consoles. First of all, PSP and DS. There are absolutely other types of casual games (LocoRoco, Lumines, Hot Pixel), but, on the other hand, familiar Luxor and Diner Dash are also quite successfully sold there. I don’t know much about this way (and I don’t actually know anyone who does), so I’m just pointing out that there is a way, and people take it.
Important: a few big and important tips now:
Look around you and see how many of you there are. To show each other your creations, you don’t need conferences. You all have messengers and phones. Here’s another hint: in almost every city you can find such quiet little coffee shops and bars. Discussing games there over a mug of beer is a pleasure. Ask for opinions, share experiences, offer features, and criticize with all your might. These are casual games, and it’s not so dangerous to show concept here, as in big games. Don’t be afraid that your ideas may be stolen. They will, of course, be stolen, it just won’t make you feel any worse, so don’t panic. The main thing is that the quality you invest in a game, can’t be stolen from you.
Also, note that you can share opinions about distributors, outsourcers, and portals. Note that you can disclose the terms and conditions of contracts to each other. Of course, I do not advise you to do this, as it is illegal, and if caught, some serious scratch will be left. But, I do not see the point of keeping silent about the truth: it’s the best way for you to understand the market almost without risking anything, without spending time on unnecessary “bicycle inventions” and failing many times. And, most importantly, the only ones who will lose because of this “wrong” behavior of yours, are those whose “business” is built upon brainwashing other developers, not having the full information. They are the only ones who will only gain from your ignorance of the market. The rest, both publishers and portals, will only benefit.
In the end, just hang out, look for friends – this is interesting! And do not hesitate to give away free keys to all sympathizers. I’m sure there aren’t many casuals among developers, so you’re unlikely to lose a lot of sales. This is a great way to make new friends and get feedback.
- Monitor the market.
Someone would say that this should be done by the producer, a project lead, or someone else from the outside. I don’t think so. Let the market be monitored by everyone in your team. This is not that difficult at all – one game per day is released at Big Fish Games. For each game, they have a demo video. What prevents you from watching that? If your game is of the same genre, let it be downloaded and watched by designers and programmers. If the setting is similar – by artists. It won’t take much time – about 10 minutes a day, and about an hour a week, when something suitable comes out. But it helps. And it helps well.
- Test it on a target audience.
The oldest story in the book, but, however, all the same, time after time, developers do not want to show their games to moms, grannies, sisters, wives, daughters, secretaries, accountants … well, girls. No need to ask them for critics, just let them play, start recording the game log and then, after collecting the necessary files, review this log in peace and quiet.
Simply put, steak. What? Anything! Shamelessly. These are casual games, and you are a beginner. If you manage to successfully (and properly) steal gameplay shticks, consider you’re already at your halfway point. Nobody will catch you red-handed, because no one will suffer from your theft. However, people may be offended, so sometimes it would be a good idea to gently ask permission, especially, if you know someone personally.
Now I would like to specify something to make it “softer”. “Stealing” is about any elements in the mechanics or the structure of the menu, bonuses or some gameplay details. But beware of taking the entire gameplay of the game which does not yet have “clean” clones from other companies. Try to be as careful as you can with the settings because there you can get good money, especially if you make 2 games with similar mechanics and the same setting. Learn more: Copyright Registration for Computer Programs and Information on game copyright from the Library of Congress.
- Learn from your mistakes.
If it seems to you that you have not done them, that it, most probably, means you just do not notice them. Like all people, you make mistakes continuously, and there’s nothing you can do about it. But there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. It’s just better to notice them than not.