The hard-core, male-dominated realm of multiplayer gaming might seem a world apart from so-called casual games—the simpler titles, easy to pick up and play, that, in recent years, have appealed to nontraditional gamers. But Dan Irish, chief executive officer of the Vancouver (Can.)-based Gnosis Games, believes the classic titles of the former genre have a lot to teach new generations of game designers.
Under Irish, the little-known Gnosis is attempting to apply principles from classics such as Doom and Quake to enhance the current casual gaming experience. "Casual games still lack a sense of community and good ways to find new people to play with," says Irish, a former producer of the immensely popular Myst series of adventure games. He wants to create similarly devoted followings around seemingly innocent casual games.
That might seem to contradict the easy come, easy go philosophy that underpins the genre, but casual gaming is unquestionably a booming segment, and Gnosis wants in. Worth some $300 million two years ago, the market is expected to grow to $1.15 billion by 2011, according to market researcher DFC Intelligence. And, the emergence of games on social networking sites such as Facebook creates an important platform for attracting new casual players. (The Scrabulous board game on Facebook is played by some 500,000 people each day, for instance.)
Facebook Levels the Playing Field
But most casual Facebook titles involve asynchronous play, meaning players must take turns and can only play with established friends. There is no easy way to find other competitors, especially those with similar skills. The game play experiences, meanwhile, are mostly disposable, lacking any way to display the achievement of a hard-fought gaming session.
Irish says Gnosis's games will be different. His company's titles—which will be available on Facebook for free with more in-depth versions available for purchase for PCs—incorporate the technological lessons learned from more than a decade of creating intense multiplayer games. "Facebook levels the playing field for small developers," he says. "We think we can innovate our way into the top 10% of casual gamemakers."
Earlier this month, the company released a series of three Facebook-based minigames, which make up a compilation dubbed the Candy Arcade. The games range from simple—Pinata Bash! has players hit colorful characters to receive pieces of candy—to more complex: Seek & Find, for instance, involves a series of increasingly difficult matching puzzles.
Multiplayer Elements Make Games Stickier
On the face of it, the brightly colored, kid-friendly characters of these minigames have little in common with the grizzled protagonists of multiplayer shooters. But Candy Arcade incorporates a complex set of features found in many multiplayer games for the PC: Players can trade bits of candy, compete for trophies, and see dynamic leaderboards of high scores, all in the name of creating a Candy Arcade ecosystem. It gives people a reason to play again and again.
Gnosis is well-placed to try grafting the technology underlying multiplayer games to casual titles. Its sibling company is Threewave Games, a well-known multiplayer developer and design firm that has contributed to mainstream blockbusters from established players such as Id Software and Electronic Arts (ERTS). Irish claims this experience gives Gnosis an outsize advantage.
"Multiplayer elements will help make casual games stickier," he says. Future Candy Arcade minigames that allow matches between equally skilled players will be even more compelling, he adds. "No matter how good the content is, if a player has no chance or has beaten the opponent immediately, it's not fun".
Cheaper and Faster to Market
It's still too early to tell if Candy Arcade will be a success. The games were released earlier this month and are currently being played by about 2,500 people a day, says Irish. The company is now working on a range of new minigames to add to Candy Arcade and could put out as many as 12 more before the end of the year.
As others have pointed out (BusinessWeek.com, 3/3/08), lowered development costs have helped spur innovation in a broad range of industries. A casual game can cost less than $100,000—and take two weeks to develop, while multiplayer titles take a minimum of nine months and can cost millions. "I'd rather iterate a casual product four times before it becomes successful and have that experience and knowledge than spend months on a more complicated title only to have it fail," says Irish.