The Dumbening

Like out of some kind of cheap summer horror flick, it is upon us like a ravenous monster threatening all of gaming kind. No one knows where it comes from or completely understands the nature of the beast. However, the reasons it has found its way onto this plane of existence go something like this:

  1. Game developer realizes that no game is going to please everyone, so they need to target a niche.
  2. Game developer wants to make a lot of money (perhaps because they anticipate the development cost of their game will run into the millions) so they go for the biggest niche possible.
  3. The “casual gaming” niche, made up of people who don’t normally play games, is identified as being a much bigger niche than people who do.
  4. Game developer thus develops a casual game which, as any anonymous Wikipedia contributor knows, features:
    • “Extremely simple gameplay, like a puzzle game that can be played entirely using a one-button mouse or cellphone keypad.”
    • “Allowing gameplay in short bursts, during work breaks or, in the case of portable and cell phone games, on public transportation.”
    • “The ability to quickly reach a final stage[6], or continuous play with no need to save the game.”
    • “2D, abstract graphics.”
    • “Some variant on a “try before you buy” business model or an advertising-based model.”

Basically speaking, they’re doing their damnedest to make the next great version of Gems because by their reasoning that’s where the money is.

Business-wise, this casual gamer model of development makes sense and (unfortunately for the core gamer) seems to produce genuine results. However, does it work because there really is a massive pile of dummies out there who are just itching to spend their money on something extremely simple, or is there more at work here?

I don’t think even casual gamers need or want “extremely simple gameplay.” Such gameplay has the inherent problem that, being extremely simple, it has little long-term appeal. Even the casual gamer should have trouble enjoying a game once they realize that there’s really nothing to it.

Instead, consider that all the casual gamer really wants is a game that is easy to play. There’s a distinction between “easy to play” and “extremely simple gameplay.” An easy to play game does not repel the user on the very interface level, while an extremely simple game is simply a shallow game.

There should be such a thing as a game that is both “deep” and “easy to play.” This would be a game with a shallow learning curve to understand the GUI (the means of interacting with the game) while having a relatively deep game mechanics (the intellectual meat of the game itself).

For a gamer designer, this is business as usual – most of the job is about constructing an accessible GUI to present a game. However, it’s a lot easier to put together to make a simple game accessible to the player than a sophisticated one. The deeper the game’s mechanic, the more ingenuity you need to present it well, and most would abandon a deep mechanic long before the GUI is mangled to the level seen only in Derrick Smart’s ambition.

That more designers are not willing to take up this challenge gives me hope to one day develop games myself. It’s very much an industry where everyone who is working in it is terrified of the thousands beating at the door to take their place. However, if so few of those thousands are actually capable of presenting an adequately advanced game, maybe I’ve got a chance after all.

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