Over the last few years two very different approaches to the game business have risen out of the mayhem of the ever-shifting market for mobile games. Between them they affect the design, development, marketing and monetisation of games in profound ways. Game developers, whether they are on mobile or not, can learn a lot from looking at the strengths and weaknesses of both models.
Beyond the Hype of Hypercasual
Hypercasual has burned bright in the last couple of years, rising and arguably falling in a relatively short period of time. What is clear however is that this type of development has a razor-sharp focus on delivering the simplest, most scalable and lowest cost of iteration possible.
It would be easy to dismiss this as a race to the bottom, with games becoming simply a vehicle for delivering more ads and indeed, there are strong arguments to say we have passed the saturation point for this approach. Eric Seufert argued in Nov 2019 that Hypercasual had already peaked. However, despite this I still believe that there is something to learn from this mindset.
The typical “fidget-spinner” experience supplied by games like Ketchapp’s Basketball to Color Road (Voodoo) and Plank (Kwalee) fill a very specific need to “fill-time-now” with something that feels new each time we try another game. The drive towards simple single-action scalable mechanics without unnecessary fluff is arguably a perfect form optimised to the mode of use of mobile devices.
Creating games like these, which can still stand out, requires the developer to deliver no-nonsense immediate satisfaction that players understand instinctively, and which continues to deliver fun every repeated play.
Hypercasual design lessons:
1. Just one interaction to play: i.e. tap, hold, drag, release, swipe, flick, scrub, thumbstick, draw, scratch, shake, etc
2. Play always leaves ‘Unfinished Business’ and failure is always something where the player feels they can do better next time
3. Light touch competition helps – only where there is some kind of score/time/grind/etc
4. Kill early (don’t waste time on mechanics which don’t work)
5. Stop! Less is more (and cheaper)
Key to hyper casual development comes from testing early so you can triage concepts that don’t meet the target Key Performance Indicators. Testing can even start before you start coding based of mock-up store pages or gameplay videos so we can avoid committing expensive resources like coders until the developer already has an idea of likely user acquisition cost and demand for the game.
Breaking Down ‘Games as a Service’
The opposite end of games development strategy is arguably from Live Ops based experiences, or Games as a Service (which Jagex has coined as Living Games). GAAS are designed to retain players for years. However, that also means that they first have a significant development cycle to get to launch, and then also require extensive on-going development after their release; a potentially massive undertaking if done poorly.
The core design philosophy of these games is often based around the idea of scale through layers; more players, doing more things, more often, for longer. Done right these games can deliver experiences which can last years, not just days.
Games like Fortnite, Golf Clash and RuneScape have created an ongoing persistent experience which continues to deliver ongoing value to players who love them. Done badly, this form of game can generate considerable frustration and resentment, as we have seen with Star Wars Battlefront II and Anthem.
Games as a Service projects have to find the balance between the smallest possible viable product and still having enough of a lasting playing experience out of the box to sustain players to the next release.
Traditionally, this requires quite an extensive development cycle with Alpha, Beta and Soft Launch testing cycles, before the likely success of the game can be measured. Too many big games have been developed only to fail on full launch even with such testing.
Games As A Service Design Lessons:
1. Simple (but extensible) mechanics are important to bring players onboard; and sustain grind over time
2. ‘Unfinished Business’ keeps people coming back; but must be reinforced with a sense of purpose and progression
3. Competition and collaboration are important and that means some kind of score/time/grind/etc
4. We need ongoing, regular, predictable surprise including events and promotions which the community anticipate and look forward to each and every month
5. Living Games need to understand player lifecycle and their daily routines to avoid burn-out
Key to GAAS development is taking the time to understand what keeps player playing and being able to predictably and repeatably deliver ongoing experiences which repurpose and extend the initial deliverable. In ways the community will value.
Given the surprisingly similar design lessons from both these approaches; one could be forgiven for thinking it is an easy thing to create some middle ground of simplified gameplay with added retention mechanics – but so many attempts at this have failed.
Slapping retention mechanics onto hypercasual games tends to have disappointing results; perhaps because this moves them further away from optimised fidget play and lack enough emotional engagement to support any retention.
As often is the game we need to match the core gameplay with the expectations and needs of players at the heart of the experience – we can just bolt things on. Similarly, we can’t just strip away the core values players care about in a GAAS games to broaden their appeal.
We need to look differently and there is a new form of Hybrid games emerging which combines light, fast replay experiences with mechanics which offer some emotional engagement and even compelling upgrades through In-App Purchase (not just Ads).
One of the best examples of last year is probably Archero from Habby. You play a simple archer hero moving through waves of enemies, upgrading their skills along the way.
At the heart of Archero’s design is an understanding that players can crave immediate and escalating challenges and rewards; and see that develop over each session of play. The use of in-game strategic choice, equipment-based, RPG-like permanent upgrades and a chapter-based level design combines to create emotional reasons to engage in the game immediately as well as offering a real sense of purpose and progression.
The gameplay mechanic has the traits of a hypercasual experience; but using the extensibility in its design to create player-led decisions with a content loop which makes the rewards meaningful over consecutive play throughs. Archero isn’t perfect and the game kind of runs dry after a point; but there is great potential, perhaps through some kind of social-based metagame.
Designing with the layered approach taken by many GAAS games with mechanic, context and metagame can be a powerful way to sustain player engagement over time. Combine this with the development lessons from hypercasual, i.e. isolated testing of first the mechanic, then its extensibility, then the context and finally the metagame could significantly reduce the risks (and costs) for the development of any game.
Test Led Development
In the end, its worth thinking about the core ideas that these approaches deliver and how we can apply them to the games we make.
Hypercasual development reminds us of the value of keeping costs low and proves a method so we confirm that we have the right design before we commit funds and developers. It relies on us making a hypothesis and testing against pre-defined data points it before committing further resources.
In contrast, Games as a Service reminds us to focus on the long term engagement and delivering ongoing predictable regular updates from a combination of scalable activities, promotions, content and feature releases; building value by focusing on experiences players love.
The opportunity for disruption lies where we apply the principle of hypothesis and test for each stage of a game directed at delivering positive player emotions. Starting with the initial vision, to the mechanic, the context and the metagame we can test against KPIs, iterate or discard and build based on a strong foundation in evidence.