The golden glow
Of the many casual game developers out there, Popcap is easily the most impressive – and least casual. Its early games were standard fare, but the first, Bejewelled, caught the attention of the internet (and in particular the comedy site Old Man Murray) in a big way.
Popcap quickly made its name by taking relatively well-worn concepts, but polishing them up until they shone. Rocket Mania was simply Pipemania with rockets, but the added explosions and extra speed made it more fun to kill a few minutes with.
Zuma, which was little more than an older game called Puzz Loop (something that the original developer wasn't too happy about), switched the action to firing coloured balls around Aztec theme tracks.
As the games rolled on, the production values became better and better, until Bookworm Adventures raised the stakes for the whole genre. It took two and a half years to create, and a budget of $700,000 – nothing compared to a mainstream game, but phenomenal money for a casual title. Five minutes play shows that the money wasn't wasted… but we've been talking too long without getting to the big one: Peggle.
Please, bow your heads. Peggle is easily the best casual game in years – a beautiful mix of pinball, pachinko, glorious graphics, and the most heartwarming chorus of Ode To Joy ever seen in a game about unicorns shooting silver balls at silver pegs.
It demonstrated the art of casual games like few others, not least by making it clear that what gets removed from a simple title is every bit as important as what gets added. The original 'clear all the orange pegs' mode was originally only going to be one of many, in a much larger game that took in several ball-shooting activities.
The extra time and attention turned a minor diversion into the most addictive game of the year by a good long margin. It spawned a sequel, Peggle Nights, and a Half-Life/Team Fortress 2 themed spin-off made free as part of the Orange Box.
Needless to say, this hardly hurt its position as the casual game of choice around the 'proper' gaming world.
As casual games have moved away from being simple puzzles, we've seen an unusual trend – games that try to feel more than simply a quick diversion. On PC, this is usually done by adding a story mode of some description – or at the very least, a campaign.
Gabriel Knight designer, Jane Jensen produced two of the more narrative focused offerings – Inspector Parker and BeTrapped – which met with a decent amount of success. Inspector Parker was a Clue-style game which charged you to solve mysteries via very literal deduction – removing possibilities until all that remained was the truth. BeTrapped was effectively Minesweeper, with the twist that the levels were rooms in a house, and there were conversation-driven adventure bits between stages.
Another popular style was invented by the mainstream industry, and about as snobbish as things get. Assorted developers would produce a (usually barely quarter-arsed) tie-in to a PC game that you could play on your mobile phone. How seriously was this usually taken?
Five words. Prince of Persia: Harem Adventures. Want to hear the plot? Of course you do: "The Sultan's wives have been kidnapped by the Vizier in order to carry out experiments on abstinence. The Sultan's real mad! He no longer knows how to express his desires. Seven female prisoners - and only you can set them free and bring them back to life!"
No, but seriously. Die
Casual games on phones
There are fantastic casual games on phones, especially when the iPhone enters the picture. A combination of touch screen interface and the goldrush taking place in the iTunes Store means that you don't need to be a big developer to come up with something interesting and inventive. You can also make fart apps and flashlights, but that's besides the point.
Some of the best include Trism (a match-three derivative), the liquid-manipulating Enigmo, and Topple, where your growing Tetris structure has to contend with physics as well as your own careful building. It's the closest the iPhone currently has to the phenomenal World of Goo – easily the best commercial casual game since Peggle. Unless you count Peggle Nights. But that would be gratuitous. (Peggle!)
World of good
Outside of web browsers, the biggest boost to the PC casual games market is the Xbox 360 – more specifically, the Live Arcade. Microsoft's XNA development platform makes it easy to develop for both PC and console simultaneously.
Simple games tend to do the best in the Live Arcade – polished, low budget, ideally based on something that stimulates the nostalgia glands until they throb – making the jump across to PC a no brainer. The time-warping platform game Braid is one of the most exciting of these, and you can't beat a quick blast on Geometry Wars.
World of Goo is however the current state of the art as far as casual games go. It's simultaneously as simple as things get – sticking lumps of goo together to solve problems – and phenomenally complex, with its level designs acting as metaphors as much as challenges.
It's the perfect example of how sweating the details can create something truly compelling, whether it's the way the mouse cursor stretches and deforms as you fling it around the screen, or the ease with which it trains you to think in terms of imaginary physics. Whether it meets your personal definition of a casual game or not, we don't know. For us, it's proof that there's nothing casual about them.
For more rough and ready fare, the Flash portals are always on hand. The games are usually simple to the point of sounding banal, until you see the fiendish strategy behind something as simple as rolling a cube around a grid, or the satisfaction of beating a friend's high score.
Auditorium is simply the latest in a long line to catch our attention in the office. All you have to do is turn light into music via carefully redirecting its streams – but 'all' isn't quite the word.
The future of casual games is in no doubt. Like all indie releases, no individual title is guaranteed a giant slice of the big cash pie, but there are so many developers looking to be the next big thing, and so many customers willing to drop a few quid on something to distract them, that the major portal sites and successful companies aren't going anywhere.
In some cases, they're even eating seemingly bigger developers for lunch – PopCap acting as a publisher as well as developer, and Mumbo Jumbo acquiring former FPS stalwarts Ritual (Sin: Episodes) to produce simpler entertainments. In many cases, the games that we get out of the process are nothing but bland rubbish that really, the world didn't need another copy of.
When it works however, magic can be born. We've all got dead time on hands to fill, we've all had moments where our screens simply stared back. When you're only one click away from the perfect distraction, the perfect distraction's going to find you soon enough.
First published in PC Format Issue 225