Friday, July 27, 2012

Dragonvale, Pocket Frogs, and Tiny Monsters: What Does Imperatrix feel makes a good casual game?

After purchasing my iPad2, one of the very first things I did was start to download all kinds of mobile apps. I had never owned a smart phone, and I had never played any Facebook game other than Rainbow Unicorn Attacks (Always I wanna be with you....).

At this point, I had been designing mobile games for months. Immediately, it became very clear to me that I hadn't the foggiest idea what I was doing.

I asked my teachers to delay several assignment due dates for me as I set out to figure out what casual gaming was all about. I had formed countless opinions concerning what made a good casual game, and all of them proved wrong.

I had to study mobile games; my target audience is non-gamer women aged 30-55. Mobile devices are the only potential gaming system they'll ever had. So I had to figure out why they placed- what pleasure they got from their games- and I had to try and see if I could find any casual games I liked so that I could relate to them. That's not to say that my ideal casual game is their ideal casual game... Only that I needed a control before I could study my variables

I initially assumed that Pocket Frogs was going to be my favorite game. I like artificial life games, and this game let me collect and breed frogs. A Chinese business woman in my demographic couldn't put the game down for two hours straight. Yet later on I grew irritated with the game and deleted it.

What happened?

The Chinese business woman I mentioned didn't look for /games/, she looked for time wasters. The primary mechanic for the frog game was mindless and tedious. It didn't require any planning, coordination, learning, creativity, or skill. But that's okay- the people who buy it re trying to blot out boring parts of their lives from their memories. Instant motion, instant gratification, with no memory, no past, no future- that's as pleasurable as it would be for an earlier generation to plop down in front of a TV and zone out.

And yeah. That IS something people need. I can try and woo them into liking games with more substance... Which Pocket Frogs tries to do by giving long term breeding rewards in exchange for short term mindlessness... And that's a completely valid game. It's not like I'm saying "I found out they were really all fake gamers who just like mashing buttons". No, these people are some of the hardest to design good games for...

 Because you actually have to get at the heart of instant pleasure, and design something that gives it. They have no patience. They give you twenty seconds maximum to present them with a good product. They are extremely picky, they cluster on certain games and share through word of mouth, and they can play hours each day on commute. These people need a service games provide, and they are a very finicky market with high standards- THEIR standards, not the average gamer's.

Everyone has a different technique for zoning out, and mine wasn't games, so I didn't enjoy Pocket Frogs. I prefer to daydream or pet my cat. Everyone needs zone-out-time now and then and games can be a good medium for delivering that experience. Still, there are countless different kinds of games, and since there's no need for my to specifically gravitate towards a game I find no pleasure in, I think I'll just ignore zone-out-games for now and focus on the genres I do like ;)

For awhile I played Tiny Monsters and Dragonvale and enjoyed both. I played for several months actually, each. I just uninstalled Tiny Monsters. I will keep Dragonvale.

Both games involve maintaining a park of fictional creatures to earn gems, food, and money. They are breeding and collection games. I have never paid a dime for either. These games make money by letting you hurry up your progress. If you are patient, you get everything free. If you don't want to wait, you pay.

At first, Tiny Monsters, which is essentially a clone of Dragonvale, was winning. It was more directed. The graphics were much better, and that is extremely important to my target audience, who thrives on first impressions and visual appeal. It had more variety. It was newer. The interface was sleeker. The company had a lot of similar products on the market already to draw in audience members from.

As time went by, however, a marked difference emerged. Tiny Monsters fell behind. Way behind. I started to resent playing it. At first I thought this was just because Dragonvale was older and had more content. Then I played Tiny Zoo, which had a lot of content, and grimaced in distaste.

I just uninstalled Tiny Monsters today, after months of trial period. I will continue to play Dragonvale.

What happened? | Dragonvale and Tiny Monsters both make money based on a mixture of hiding a player's net ROI (or lack thereof) through incremental purchases, and relying on player impatience. They tap into the player's need to collect something. Their gameplay is almost identical.

The pleasure they give, I have decided to call the 'Water Your Plants' plesure, or the 'Morning Routine' plesu. It is the simple pleasure of going wbout your house every morning, watering all of your plants, and then checking up on how they are doing. Now and then they give you good or bad surprises by wilting or growing flowers. After watering them you put them out of sight and out of mind till the next morning, when you come to check up on them again.

This is pleasurable. It's a routine that involves minimal effort, over a long period of time, with a low fuzzy hum of pleasure being delivered in a small dose each morning. These games give that pleasure. Once or twice daily you log on,check your monster park, make some adjustments and plans for the next day, look at any special offers, and then tuck it out of sight and out of mind for the rest of the day. If you really get addicted to it and want to 'garden' nonstop, so to speak, you'll get impatient with the gme's pace and strt paying for a few things.

But if all this truly is the same, how could Tiny Monsters make me angry, and Dragonvale give me pleasure?

Easy. The symptom is a difference in pacing between the games. The cause is a difference in ideology. The creators of Tiny Monsters know that people pay money to collect things, so they withhold everything as long as possible to try and get the player to buy. Dragonvale gives the player everything the player wants, one item at a time, and waits only long enough for that 'victory' to be enjoyed before delivering the next item.

In Tiny Monsters, end game monsters yield less 'bang for your buck', slowing down collection progression to a rate of a single new monster per week, and an equally long time maturing them to adulthood. I still haven't gotten all of them even in baby form, and there is never enough food. Farms don't produce enough crops, so I can't get high level monsters, so I can't afford more habitats, so I can buy more baby monsters.

In Dragonvale I had a single high end monster very quickly. I get four new monsters a day, and one of them is usually either neat, or the monster I was actually looking for. Simple game play additions really extend the options available to me. Basically I can start collecting wherever I want, whatever I want, and get it fast. But to get one of everything, I have to work at it. And to get multiple of anything, I have to plan.

Both games release numerous new creatures per month. In tiny monsters, twenty new monsters will come out before I can even get the first parent monster i need to even breed the final monster i want... And it will take days to get it to adulthood. In Dragonvale, I can make a choice as soon as it comes out whether I want to focus on it, or work on another project.

Dragonvale gets pacing right. There is a lot more 'land' in the game, a lot more 'projects' I can have going on at the same time, a lot of different things I could work on, and most importantly, I can get what I want relatively quickly. I have freedom in how I want to play. I can check up on the game once per week or once per hour, and there exists a play style that will suite me. Tiny monsters has only one setting: be on it all the time, so that you'll get bored. Or, never get on, and never have enough resources, and you'll still get bored. Then you'll buy something.

I don't have to buy anything, Tiny Monsters. I bred twenty giant flowering tree dragons. And you know what? if I ever do get every dragon in the game, all I'll do is sit down and start twiddling with everything to get it perfect. I will start decorating things and trying different combinations of dragons till I find a play mode that pleases me. And with new dragons coming out every few weeks, there will always be a new toy to play with.

I do not make micro transactions, so I am not either game's target audience. But I am an important audience. I am the audience that goes out and tells everyone else about a great game I've found. I am the Critic. I am the audience that knows the company's name, researches them, and realizes they aren't a one trick pony or copy cat, but rather a talented group of creative fellas who makes high quality good games for every audience.

Tiny Monsters, you fail. Dragonvale, you graduate with honors. Pocket Frogs? Eh. You weren't the game for me, so I couldn't judge you.

Dragonvale makes me happy, because my plants are always bright and chipper.

Casual gamers are not fools, or suckers, or easy to swindle. They play a game to /get/ something out of it; they don't play games to give designers money. Tiny monsters is run like a pyramid scheme. Dragonvale is a game.

If you like mindless games, try other games by Backflip studios. Paper toss and their ninja game are phenomenal. Unlike Tiny Monsters, Backflip doesn't treat you like a sucker who pays to collect things... They treat you like a person who has a need, a need for fun games... And they understand that they have to give you good products to fill that need if they're going to expect you to buy anything.