Designers of casual games must stop copying each other and look to new ideas, says Chris Early

CASUAL CONNECT: ‘Innovate, don’t iterate’ says Microsoft casual boss

Chris Early, the general manager of Microsoft Casual Games, this morning warned the casual games industry of indulging in too much imitation of well-worn concepts and challenged its designers to start thinking about how the field can introduce new concepts.

In his keynote at Casual Connect Europe West, Early gave attendees a tour of current trends in the games industry, concluding: "The one thing you shouldn’t do is iterate. Don’t copy. Go a step further than iterating. Think about how we as an industry will take the things from the real world and use them to change our industry."

Early singled out six trends or games that were proof of ways both casual games, and the wider games industry, can push itself to come up with new concepts or ways of delivering concepts that can engage players:

I) Virtual pet Webkinz was his first example. The toy line features animal plushes sold in toy stores – each comes with a code used in an online Webkinz world which gives young players virtual pets and credits to look after them. The key to its success was the way it created a casual game with a physical real world crossover, and gave value to the meta game in the form of an actual possession kids own.

II) Facebook and Myspace, meanwhile had "plenty going on that which is recognisable as a game, and others barely recognisable". Users compare details with friends, the way players compare stats in online games – but the likes of Scrabulous and Vampires have introduced asynchronous play. "Players don’t have to be be on at the same time but can still play together," said Early. The pyramid structure of the latter – which asks people to build a vampire army by ‘biting’ people on their friends list – also introduces a pyramid structure and persistent data, and leaderboards.

III) Third example Puzzle Quest, Early said was a great example of something which takes a well-worn idea – in this instance the ‘match 3’ mechanic seen in the likes of Bejewelled – "and wraps things around it". The RPG structure means that playing the puzzle game "has value, because it moves along the story or the player’s character evolves". This "moves the meta game to a value system" he said, pointing out that playing a minigame was a ‘miniwin’ every time for the player as it offers progression.

IV) Meanwhile Kart Racer, said Early, subverts the MMO structure. "When you think of MMOs they are built for people who have lots of time and money. But people with good jobs and busy family lives, and money to spend, can’t lose 40 hours a week playing an MMO – so those online games have alienated those with the most money to spend." Kart Rider, which lets players enter a virtual world of kart racing, changes this model, said Early and "is one of the first not to [do what typical MMOs do]" by breaking the process down by providing shorter sessions and making money through microtransactions.

V) 2K’s 360/PC shooter Bioshock was another example of subverting and changing the way typical games work, said Early. The game regularly asks players, when they hack into computer terminals, to complete a minigame challenge – but as in Puzzle Quest the game itself is similar, being a clone of the likes of Pipe Dream and Pipe Line. This also creates a sense of ‘miniwin’ for the player, giving a casual game value inside a hardcore game. Most interesting, he added, was what this meant for the way games could try this in future – whereas Puzzle Quest hinges on the ‘match 3’ mechanic, Bioshock’s hacking game is nothing compared to the main FPS element, so what if a developer did the same thing, but only released the minigame on a mobile phone, Early asked. "How cool would it be if I could play the hacking game on my phone when away from my Xbox?" he said. "The casual game play itself is fun but it also effects the core game and means my play time is valuable."

In fact, Early singled out the above as a key opportunity for those like EA and Activision looking to enter the casual space, saying they may be the most to gain by blending their IP across the casual and hardcore to secure audience attention. "People in the core publishing business know you can’t engage people all the time," he said. "So why don’t we take a casual approach and spread that IP out?. Early added that consumers like himself "would stay more engaged for a longer period of time" in something like Bioshock if it was possible to play it as both a console game and then ‘save up’ computer hacks while playing a mobile game when commuting.

VI) Early’s last trend to make note of was a well-worn one, looking at how the Wii, Guitar Hero and Rock Band have introduced physical play to games and drawn in those who wouldn’t usually play games. The key, he said, was that "It’s very approachable. I can have fun while trying to sing or play the drums."

Looking over his examples, Early said it probably wasn’t a great idea to pool all the themes – such as asynchronous content, minwins, persistent data and physical play – into one game, but added that all designers should look at what new games and games-realted services or toys do "through the eyes of a child" and use that approach as a way to inspire them.

He said: "I’m not claiming to have the answer to how we can discover innovative concepts – but my advice is to look at the world through the eyes of a child – don’t look at the world with tired eyes."

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