I think we need to talk seriously about the custard pie shader.” Week one, day one, meeting one at Relentless Software, and I can’t help crack a grin at the things people say in development meetings. Hold the page, flick back a few chapters, and I’m in another meeting at another company, discussing the way flecks of fresh blood can be viewed using a character’s thermal imaging goggles. It feels strange to tell my parents that this is modern entertainment; but it is, I often enjoy it, and I helped create it.
Back in today, I’m a senior producer at Relentless in Brighton, developer of the Buzz! series of titles. Shipping with a pack of four colourful buzzer controllers, Buzz! has played a key role in the explosion of ‘casual’ and ‘social’ games over the past few years (or at least in the industry’s understanding of what those things can be). But in my shift from discussing blood letting to pie fights, I’ve naturally found myself pondering ‘what is this casual thing all about?’
I’ve come to the conclusion that today’s social games are a collision of two main influences, clamped around our creative thinking like the claw of some particularly persistent lobster. One pincer comes in the form of the peripheral-based exhibitionist games that bubbled up out of Japan in the late ‘90s. The other is Web 2.0, which continues to excite and entertain with new ways of communicating and informing.
Those peripheral-based games, which counted Konami’s Dance Dance Revolution and Sega’s Samba De Amigo among their number, changed the industry’s perception of what the public wanted – and what it was willing to pay for. Gamers (and I believe it was gamers who evangelised these titles to their ‘casual’ friends) threw down their pads and got funky with a dancing monkey. Nearly a decade on, we have thousands of non-gamer punters happily shelling out over £100 to enjoy two-player sessions of Guitar Hero III.
The stars of Web 2.0 – Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, Digg and others you’ll know well – have broken new ground in defining both entertainment and social interaction. But slipstreaming those frontrunners are casual gaming sites such as Miniclip, Neopets and EA’s Pogo.com, all hugely successful (the first two are global top-200 websites) yet largely unheeded by the ‘traditional’ videogames industry. These sites often offer a return to simple, well-honed, undemanding game mechanics (check out Raph Koster’s notes on the three line instructions of the original Pong arcade machine), and a similar reincarnation of the three minute gameplay ‘burst’ that served Atari’s world-changing coin-op so well. Can we call Pong the original social game?
Koster specifically is betting big that the next generation of websites and web games might seriously affect bottom lines across the traditional videogame industry. And this is developer as agent for revolutionary change. But in the short term, what Miniclip et al have done is to help remind game developers – and the public – that Half-Life and Halo are clearly not for everyone. In short, the modern ‘interactive experience’ as typified by Assassin’s Creed is revealed to be merely one answer, not the answer. Publishers’ accountants everywhere, take note.
Which brings me back to Buzz!, Relentless’ casual party quiz game that’s tickled millions of happy players – and also back to that lobster’s pincers. Peripheral-based; well, that’s pretty obvious. Web 2.0? Look to the variety of gameplay, aesthetically-friendly visuals, quickfire duration and, in its upcoming PS3 incarnation, a literal as well as metaphorical internet link. Players will be able to create their own quizzes on a website and share them with others, both on their own consoles and across the web, while in-game pages offer information about the online community – the social community that forms around any game.
For me, this is the beginning of a golden road – a pathway into a rich field of entertainment delights that are ripe for the picking. User-created content is a proven success; in truth it always was (starting with EA’s Pinball Construction Set). We, as an industry, would be missing a very large trick not to put creative tools in the hands of our customers – not map editors but simple, massmarket-friendly doors into our virtual worlds. Having recently listened to a group of four 20-something women create, discuss and amend their Mii avatars for well over an hour, I can say with some confidence that this is not hardcore. And it is the future.
Caspar Field is senior producer at Relentless. He was previously producer at Eidos and Argonaut and worked as a journalist for Edge and DC-UK