Easily the biggest revolution in video games this past decade was the explosion of casual games. Between the success of the Wii, Rock Band, and cross-over titles like Puzzle Quest, two once distinct genres and communities are now beginning to find commonality. Jesper Juul’s latest book, The Casual Revolution, outlines the basic design principles of these games, corrects misconceptions about how they work, and makes the argument for designers to break out of their own perspectives. The last third of the book features interviews with casual game fans and the creative directors of some of the most successful games in the field.
Juul outlines two basic categories for a casual game: mimetic interfaces and downloadable casual games. In a mimetic interface, “the physical activity that the player performs mimics the game activity on the screen.” Bowling on the Wii or using a Guitar Hero controller are the prime example because the average person can look at the game and immediately grasp what they’re supposed to do. The other category is a “downloadable casual game”, which “are purchased online, can be played in short time bursts, and generally do not require an intimate knowledge of video game history in order to play” (5). A game like Bejeweled or Zuma can be understood quickly, unlike a lot of console titles which consistently presume that the player understands tenets of video game logic like “Go towards the shiny object” or “All bad guys drop ammo.” Common assumptions about the casual genre such as all gameplay must be short or that casual players don’t like challenge are untrue. Rather, it’s just that a casual game is very flexible about time commitments and difficulty. Juul writes, “a casual game is sufficiently flexible to be played with a hardcore time commitment, but a hardcore game is too inflexible to be played with a casual time commitment” (10). He uses the example of a game like Scramble, a coin-op game from the 80s. It’s an old game, but the simplicity of the design makes illustrating his point easier. You fly a ship around while bombing enemies, collecting fuel tanks, and seeing how far you can progress. The goals are explicit and only a narrow range of play styles (blow crap up, dodge bullets) will allow you to continue playing. Juul explains, “The problem with goals is that they may force us to optimize our strategy in order to win rather than do something else that we would prefer . . . games without goals or with optional goals are more flexible: they accommodate more playing styles and player types, in effect letting you choose what kind of game you want to play” (138). Examples of this principle in casual games would be Rock Band’s no-fail mode or Bejeweled’s untimed mode for those who just like to play without feeling pressured.