Jesper Juul’s New Book ‘A Casual Revolution’

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.

Within these two categories are 5 basic components that make up the way that a person engages with a casual game. First you see the game’s fiction, the content and artwork that might attract you to the product. Then you actually try the game and see how difficult it is to learn to play. Once you learn this, you gauge how well it fits into your own life and its interruptibility. Is it going to be unplayable if you often need to turn the game off randomly? Then you will keep playing if the game has just the right difficulty. Finally, you continue playing if you like overall content, graphics, and juiciness (positive feedback) of the game (30). While all video games feature some form of positive feedback, sometimes to excess, the difference between a hardcore game and a casual game is traditionally that the feedback does not occur inside the game. Juul writes, “Juiciness in casual games generally addresses the player directly. In the Peggle example, the first bonus sign, the “EXTREME FEVER” sign, the rainbow, and the final score tally are all elements in screen space. In film terms, hardcore game design has diegetic juiciness, which is juiciness within the game world, but casual game design is characterized by nondiegetic juiciness, which is juiciness that takes place outside the game world. Hardcore juiciness takes place in the 3-D space of the game; casual juiciness takes place in screen space, but addresses the player in player space” (49).

This is where the necessity for understanding player behavior leads to understanding the appeal of a mimetic interface. Juul describes two ways to approach a game: the player-centric view, in which you interview players and see how they engage with a system and the game-centric view, in which you play yourself and state your own opinions about something. A mimetic interface inherently drags the player out of the game and into the living room. One of the basic tenants of this is that the game can be a lot simpler in terms of design and presentation because the game itself is occurring amongst the players. Mimetic games do four things: use pre-existing knowledge of the player, remain easy to grasp and begin playing, shift the focus to the player space in which game is played instead of the game world, and shift focus to existing social relations in that space (119). Juul writes, “Game designer Chaim Gingold has coined the term magic crayon to describe how taking away possibilities from the player can make it more likely that the player will produce something pleasing. Mimetic interface games are generally such magic crayons: they make it easy for players to experience competence – to play tennis well, to complete a rock song, to perform a choreographed dance” (114). Gestures on the Wiimote can be done sitting on a couch, for example, or by using a Guitar Hero controller, which only means that you can follow along with a song instead of introducing your own musical variations. The satisfaction from doing this comes from the satisfaction of the motions or being with friends, not necessarily the game’s feedback or the challenge alone. In the interviews at the end of the book, the creative director of Relentless Software (creator of Buzz!) puts it this way: “The chance of my video game being able to entertain you and make you laugh more than your friends sitting next to you is slim to none. I am not going to be able to do it because I am not there; I am just a fairly simple computer program that reacts to a set of statistics. But the person sitting next to you knows you, and likes to make fun of you. You’ve got a lot of history together” (178).

Juul follows this up with some data from a survey of 182 voluntary players at a casual gaming portal. The average age of respondents was 41. 93% were female, 2% played at work. 98% play them at home. 35% play several times a day for at least one hour. 14% play for more than 3 hours. 81% said it was very important that a game can be turned off or shut down at any time. 48% said they dislike games that are too hard, 29% said they hated games that were too easy. Only 56% considered casual games to be video games. Most defined video game as something you do on a console (154). There is also a section about the evolution of game design that is mostly recycled material from some of his other lectures and books. Apparently people still like to fight over who invented which game design first, but I never could figure out why anyone would care since game designers steal from each other all the time. Match 3 games phased out of popularity around 2008 to become a niche genre, management titles like Diner Dash stole their thunder, then came hidden object games like Mystery Case Files. Puzzle Quest eventually came along and reinvigorated the formula. Match games are also now considered traditional, meaning that they will appear on your cell phone and pre-installed on many machines (100). There’s also a nice big graph showing the evolution of controllers and how they have been getting more complex over the years and how casual games worked around that problem (106).

The book’s overall theme is that video games are simply learning the same lesson that board game developers learned a long time ago. Parker Brothers, as one of the original founders of board games, made plenty of complex games that took a long time to learn. But to keep sales coming, they had to adapt by making games more attractive with culturally relevant themes like Monopoly that can be understood by anyone within a matter of minutes. (75) Video games, with their increasingly complex controllers and reliance on 20 years of a specific branch of game design, inevitably just painted themselves into a corner. Juul concludes, “The casual revolution is the moment we realized that the primary barrier to playing video games was not technology, but design” (146).