Civsweeper

Recently, I’ve been on a bit of a “casual games” kick.

The casual games market is on fire right now, and from the perspective of game design is kicking the tail of the “big box” hardcore PC games. It’s like watching a bunch of nimble mammals dance around the legs of slow, lumbering dinosaurs.

I’m not speaking in terms of financial success here. I’m not a game publisher, so I don’t know exactly how much money either of these groups are making. I can infer from the multiplicity of casual game developers that they are doing pretty well. But the more interesting point to me, as a player, is that the games are better. Let’s review. I’m about to paint in broad (very broad) strokes, here. Please stop and think before you post a comment saying that I am obviously a gay lamer, because Bladehunt: Deathspank 2: The Revenge was way better than some guy’s freeware Visual BASIC “VBSudoku.” Of course there are exceptions to every rule. I am comparing well-done casual games to well-done big box games in the abstract.

In my personal experience, the casual games:

One can ask the question “What makes a game ‘casual’?” A snarky response is “Casual games are games marketed towards chicks.” If this is true, then I’d say it is a leading indicator that women have better taste in videogames than men.

But of course, when I say “men” I really mean “teenage boys.” The distinguishing feature, in my mind, that separates a casual game from a “big box” game is that it doesn’t require a time commitment that only an obsessive 14 year old is capable of. I’d argue that, even though he would reject the label, Everett Kaser’s puzzle games are all casual games, in the positive sense of the word. They are in no way lighter, easier, or somehow less “hardcore” than, say, Silent Hill 3. They just let me quit the game whenever I want, and don’t punish me for having a life.

One common criticism of these games is that they lack creativity, that they are just rehashing some of the same concepts over and over. There’s some truth to this. The line back from Atlantis to Luxor to Zuma to _Puzz Loop_, just to take one example we’ve talked about here before, is painfully obvious. But this isn’t unique to casual games. To give an easy example, Knights of the Old Republic, an A-list game that many people (including me) enjoyed immensely, had a Towers of Hanoi puzzle, and it doesn’t get much more derivative than that.

oasis

Oasis

All of which brings me to a game called Oasis. I’d heard it recommended, tried the demo, and liked it enough to buy it. From the 50,000 foot level, this game is to Civilization as Strange Adventures in Infinite Space is to Master of Orion. In Oasis, play moves quickly. The boring parts are all omitted. Regrettably, it’s Windows-only. The developers indicate that they’d like for there to be a Mac port, but no port is yet scheduled.

On each board, you have to uncover squares to find resources, or deploy them. You can find cities, followers, ore mines, and a number of other items or terrains, and you can “spend” followers to work the ore mines to discover technology, or to build roads connecting the cities. At a predetermined time, the barbarian hordes invade. The better a job you’ve done connecting your kingdom and researching technology, the more likely it is to survive the attack.

I showed this game to a number of other people. Unfortunately for me, one of them was Jonathan Hardwick who, within 1 minute, observed “Dude. It’s MINESWEEPER.” I hemmed and hawed a little bit, and tried to dodge the bullet. But here’s the thing: he’s right. Is this game deserving of the “it’s an uncreative knockoff” criticism I mentioned above? Have I been taken for a ride? Did I spend my hard-earned $20 on a humilating sham?

No, I did not. Oasis is “Minesweeper With Stuff”, in the tradition of “Capture the Flag With Stuff”. I was taken aback for a bit, but eventually settled down, and decided that there’s no shame in this. The graphics, the music, the sound, the plot, the additional gameplay mechanics, and the difficulty all combine to make this more than the sum of its parts. I paid $20 for a jazzed up version of Minesweeper, and I’d do it again. I plan on paying $20 for Diner Dash, a jazzed up version of Tapper. That’s the thing with jazz. Sometimes it doesn’t matter if the theme is simple, as long as the improvisations are good.

I can’t blame anyone for being impressed with the big box dinosaurs. There’s grandeur in dinosaurs, and there’s grandeur in the big box games, with their built-by-committee mis-en-scenes, their baroque, sent-from-1994 full motion videos, and their seemingly endless committment to supporting bleeding-edge technologies, even at the cost of shrinking their own market and degrading the average user’s out-of-the-box experience. I play the dinosaur games, too, sometimes.

But if you asked me to lay my money down and guess where mainstream PC gaming is going to be in 10 years time?

I’m betting on the mammals.