In the era of omnipresent smartphones and tablets, these sacharrine treats are nigh-on inescapable, and as breakthrough hits are guaranteed millions of dollars in revenue (Candy Crush Saga alone generated $1.5bn last year), it's no wonder developers are employing increasingly clever psychological tricks to give their creations a crucial edge.
To find out some of the hidden rules of casual game design, we spoke to Steve Stopps, Nic Williams and Jonathan Evans of Lumo Developments, whose first game, Lumo Deliveries Inc, is being specifically designed for a “distracted” audience – people who want to play for short sequences during busy days. We also talk to Dr Simon Moore, a psychologist specialising in games.
Here are six of the key compulsion tactics to look out for the next time you're browsing the app stores.
Accepting a subordinate role
“When making short-session games, as a developer, you have to leave your ego at the door, to an extent," says Williams. The best casual game designers never assume that the player's attention will be fully on the game; they may be on the bus or even pushing a pram. The design has to fit in with this state of continuois partial attention. As Evans explains, “we gave our game a portrait, rather than landscape, aspect ratio, because with landscape, you have to bring your second hand into play, and we wanted you to be able to control it with one hand.”
Moore suspects casual developers may even start proving players with pre-game custimisation options to quickly profile them. “It would give vital personal information that may allow developers to tailor gameplay to encourage greater engagement – perhaps changing the colour of certain scenes to reflect their personality better. Also, asking the player questions suggests to them that you are interested in them as an individual."
Using colour cleverly
“Colour and colour combinations can impact on gameplay experience and player behaviour," says Moore. "There is a huge amount of psychological research on the effects of colour in many areas of our lives. We know from psychological research that people will eat less from a same-sized meal if it is served on a blue plate rather than a white plate. We also know that people will rate the opposite sex as more attractive when they are positioned next to a red wall.
"We know that extroverts and introverts respond differently to different colour combinations in environments. We have seen players of fantasy role playing games linger longer and spend more of their in-game currency in particular colour-combination merchant stores, for example.”
Don’t make them too exciting
Casual game users aren't like "hardcore" console gamers – they don't respond to the same levels of engagement. Moore says it is better to make games that provide what he calls “low positive emotion".
"Trying to create ‘exciting’ games is a bit of a red herring," he says. "Excitement is an elevated level of arousal – it is an intense emotional experience. It also expends a lot of energy, both physical and psychological. Extended periods of excitement produce tiredness and fatigue and this then leads to stress and withdrawal. Once you have been excited, you then need a bigger stimulus to get you as excited again.
"A more valuable emotional experience for players is one that isn’t tiring but that makes them feel secure, happy or pleased. You do not have to invest as much energy in this emotion and so you can experience it for far longer. I am not saying that games shouldn't have exciting parts – but games that just keep hitting the players with emotionally exhausting adrenaline scenes risk making the player to psychologically disengage with the experience.”
Reversing the flow
In another example of how casual developers tear up the rule-book, Lumo Developments has used a process it calls “reversing the flow”. “Traditional wisdom dictates that gamers must engage in a challenge, then get their reward, but we’ve reversed that," says Stopps. "So when you start the game, you’re given payment and told you have some deliveries to make – we’re starting off with the reward before you’ve done anything.” Evans adds: “It’s all about instant gratification at this stage, and then it flips – so you’re planning and design what your next rewards will be.”
Tapping into the conscious and unconscious
“We have two decision-making systems," says Moore. "System one is subconscious and intuitive (quick) and system two is more methodological and considered (slow). Games which incorporate both will produce the best gamer experience, in my opinion, as they will mirror what the player cognitively engages with in the real world.
"So, quick decisions like: 'Stand and fight or run and hide?' are exciting system one decisions, whereas those involving questions like, 'How will I earn enough money to buy that jewel-encrusted fluffy horned helmet?' are pleasing, as they give us a sense of purpose and achievement, which is more about system two. Skyrim does this quite well, as does World of Tanks."
Understanding cultural differences
According to Moore, there are differences in the way different nationalities engage with casual games. If let loose in a game with no directions, British and Japanese players will intuitively navigate in a clockwise direction, while Americans will, by default move anti-clockwise. Clued in Developers ensure that key elements aren't counter-intuitive for their target audience.
“In terms of east and west, there are big differences," says Moore. "Clan and team-based games are much more popular in the east then the west. We also know that when games have online team play options, most western gamers still play as individuals within that team (so show more selfish behaviour), whereas eastern players try to do more team-benefitting actions, even if that means personal loss.
"We also know that identity creates different game experiences – so people who are identifiable play differently than people who are anonymous. This is particularly true for female gamers – research suggests that women who play fantasy and first-person shooter games will play as aggressively as their male counterparts when they are allowed to be anonymous, but revert to less risky behaviour when they are identified as female.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010