Platform guided player behavior which influences the popular taste.
If you’ve heard of anything related to Escape The Room in modern times, it most likely would have been about this fairly recent fad of the real world entertainment experience of games in which a team of players cooperatively discover clues, solve puzzles, and accomplish tasks in one or more rooms in order to progress and accomplish a specific goal in a limited amount of time.
But the escape games that I mention here are different ones. Ones you would know better if you were around the internet playing online games in late 2000's, up to early 2010’s. Most of these easily accessible games were Flash based games on various portals — Oh, those good old Flash game days! :’)
While these were a variation of the puzzle genre, the popularity of these games made them into a genre of their own.
The basic premise is simple,
An image is shown on the screen.
There are items in the image which you can click in a sequence in order to find the correct combination and get out of the situation.
Your goal is to escape that situation by figuring out the correct combination.
As they got more and more popular, the puzzles that they brought started getting quite obscure as well. While there were some good games, there was a so many such games which were releasing in those times that most of them ended up driving obtuse puzzle setups which basically turned the experience into pixel hunting for the stuff to click on.
Platform driven player behavior
In order to engage with these flash games in those times, players would have to be accessing them through desktops. Mobile devices weren’t a big thing then for regular gaming. Also, you should be on a particular website to access the games.
Thus, the players that were playing these flash games were mostly ones with access to desktops — which meant, possibly when they’re at some place like work. This meant that the time when people would play these games would be in between their other tasks, as a break, and not a full fledged longer sessions. It also meant that they had more attention to give since they’re accessing these while sitting in front of their desktops and giving proper attention.
Also, the web portals didn’t allow seamless saving for you to have a longer game which you can play for an extended period of time. Of course there are examples of games that did, but it was more common to not have that feature. The fact that players were not really looking for a game with longer engagement during their work/study breaks made it less valuable to have the whole save and continue game system.
This meant the games that were short and snack-y in their nature would be of higher appeal to the players.
Apart from this, the portals which hosted these games were ad monetized and it was valuable for the portals as well to make the players switch between multiple games during their single session as that was the time they could show advertisements.
This also meant the portals need to have many games so that they can redirect players to lot of options easily. And for the developers it meant that they should produce the games faster in order to have a big pool of games available.
All this vicious cycle of drivers between the users and the platforms meant that the bulk production of games had to be
Of a short duration.
Super cheap to produce.
Engaging enough for a desktop environment.
The escape room puzzles made a good fit since they would be puzzling enough at a cheap cost. Which also meant that the quality of actual puzzles went for a toss because of mass production, and in order to just make a ‘puzzle’, they did go overboard with the logic.
So, it could be said that because of the way the platform functioned, the games in these times thrived by targeting higher cognitive load, short play times, produced cheaply.
Mobile platform driven behavior
When it comes to mobile, the device is always available with the users. The use case of mobile games is still to spend your break time, but this break may not necessarily be where the users have a lot of attention to give.
While with the snack-y nature of web games, it was still okay to have a decent cognitive load, it is entirely opposite when it comes to the mobile phones. When it comes to these mobile games, the users don’t want heavy cognitive load.
Since the mobile games are accessed by downloading from the app stores, it is okay for a longer progression here. Even though the main interaction and game mechanics should be low pressure, they should have a decent amount of progression in the game itself which makes it worth enough to play the game for a longer time, over multiple sessions.
The attention spans on the mobile games are lower, so in order to keep the players hooked for them to engage with the longer progression, there have to be many more quicker reward moments in the game.
While the web portals had options to ad monetize mainly through making the players bounce off into more pages, on mobile platform, there is value in continuing your play since there are opportunities for interstitial and rewarded ad placements. However, for a strong ad monetization, it still makes sense to have multiple games that you can cross promote which would keep your audience in same ecosystem.
These behavioral changes that are brought by the platform mean that the bulk produced games here will have to be,
With a significant progression.
Low cognitive load.
With quicker and frequent rewarding moments.
Cheap to produce.
Enter new age hyper casuals
The hyper casual trend started with the mobile games a few years ago, with the likes of Helix Jump, Tenkyu, Baseball Boy, and countless more examples.
However, in the recent times, there’s this new wave of hyper casuals that has been trending. The ones which lean towards the ‘experience’ style of gameplay rather than a traditional, challenging ‘gamey’ style. These are what I’d refer to as the new age hyper casuals here.
Some of the examples would be the games like Build Roads, Tie Dye, Fruit Clinic, and many many more that you can see on the stores these days.
The hyper casuals trend in mobile games started off with developers aiming to bulk produce cheap games which can be good enough for the players for their short break times, in between their work, commute, or on the toilet seat.
Just like their web portal counterparts, these games started off with the puzzle elements, and as the player behavior was being shaped by the mobile platform, they evolved. So at this point, most of these hyper casuals are structured
To have minimal challenge — there are just a few basic controls which are mixed and matched across different scenarios.
To be super rewarding — the low challenge feeds into this part as well since you can easily win and progress.
To have some extent of progression — the long term meta is mostly simple using unlocks and collection mechanics, or basic base building for vanity sake.
To be cheap to produce — the quality of art in these games is of a cheaper quality as compared to other high budget games.
Now, just the way those escape games went ridiculous at some point with their themes, the themes on the new hyper casuals are also going to the absurd territory. Some are working, while others might not, but that’s what the whole race to the top charts has made this into.
But is this working?
Short answer — yes.
Just like every other fad that trends, it is supposed to go away soon. It was the similar thought when the hyper casuals came to the scene with their bulk releases couple of years ago. However, what has sustained them till now, is the evolution that they’ve gone through.
Just the way in which the escape games that evolved from the puzzle games on the portals and kept being popular, the new versions of the hyper casuals have evolved to target the player behavior more accurately based on the platform.
When the product evolves over time, it’s not a passing fad anymore. There can be other qualms on the kind of games that these hyper casuals are coming up with — which for a game ‘purist’ kinda person, would not be considerable as games in the first place. Also, the bulk production and then the heavy cross promotions and ad spends has turned the top free charts into a playground that’s limited to the ones that can afford.
But at the end of the day, there is value in the ad spends on these games, because the developers would be making profits from them. If not, they wouldn’t have kept showing money here. So, while this can be a bit irritating to find these cheap-ish quality games on the top charts for someone who is into making games, one has to understand that it is something that the audience has grown to like and engage with.
How long will this go on?
Short answer — can’t say.
The way in which we use the mobile phones, and the attention spans that we’ve got has shaped the games on this platform. Going forward, the user behavior with the mobile phones might change, and the games that understand and adapt to these changes are going to be successful as always.
Comparing this to the web portal based escape games, those games then fizzled out since the platform became redundant. The same style of games weren’t suitable for the masses on the new mobile platforms.
So, while it cannot be said for how long the same kind of hyper casual bulk produced games are going to lead the top charts, as long as our mobiles are being used the way they are, these kind of games are here to stay.
Escape the room kind of puzzles became very popular when the online gaming through web portals was a popular pastime.
As the platform evolved, and to keep a faster production process, these games went crazy with their themes and mechanics with obscure references and driving pixel hunting behavior.
Nowadays, the new hyper casuals seem to be on this track.
The motivation for making these games comes from the value that developers see in bulk production — similar to those web portal games.
Although, the mobile platform’s user behavior is not conducive to complex mechanics and obscurity.
Thus, the current trends of games are aiming for trivial challenge, faster gratification, and moderate degree of progression.
It is definitely working for now, but if the user behavior with mobiles changes, then the games that adapt to this changing landscape will succeed in this space.