I've been taking a few minutes here and there to check out the extensive casual gaming library that shipped with my new computer (an HP Pavilion). I haven't quite worked out how the payment part is supposed to work, but I've been able to play several games without paying a cent, though I'm forced to watch a brief ad before the game begins.
At any rate, I've been impressed with the high quality of the games available. One in particular caught my eye, a charming little adventure game named Natalie Brooks: Secrets of Treasure House. It appears to be an expanded version of the current crop of "find the object" type games that are showing up more and more on casual gaming shelves. Although there are some of those types of segments here, there are also more conventional adventure-game like puzzles, and even the pixel hunting parts aren't nearly, NEARLY as bad as in past games. Here you have tips to find them, and since these parts are limited to one screen, it's relatively easy to pick them out (although it can be fun searching).
What I like about this more casual approach is the lack of "dead spots" in the game in which you have no clue what to do next. I'm currently playing Sherlock Holmes: Nemesis, which is plagued by that problem. The worlds are so huge to explore, that it's a real terrible feeling to think you must use trial and error to figure out what the next step should be (I use UHS). What I like about this new generation of casual adventure games is that they eliminate these tedious, frustrating parts and take you straight to the fun parts: puzzles. The best Nancy Drew games do this as well, always keeping you on track and giving plenty of direction as to what needs to happen to advance the story.
Is Natalie Brooks perfect? Definitely not. It's a fun diversion, but certainly lacks any elements that raise it above the rank of puzzle game. The story weaved around the game is very simple, and the characters are comical but not very interesting. Nevertheless, I see no reason why this type of game couldn't do more in these areas. It's always fun, though, to see the often surprising ways the developers try to integrate puzzles into the narratives. How else do you explain why suddenly a young girl has to activate lasers in her grandma's basement in order to find all five pieces of a key that will unlock a mysterious grate?
What I'm waiting for is for someone to pick up this format and really run with it--give us something on the level of Myst. Why not? The engine can obviously handle it; all that seems to be lacking is the ambition. I know what you're thinking--"well, then it wouldn't be casual." But I say, so what? If I were developing games like this, I'd buck the system. Make'em think it's a casual game, and then stun them with a good story and worthwhile characters. :)
To my mind, all that "casual" means is that it's easy to pick up and put down, not that it can't be challenging or engrossing. Like a good book, it ought to be possible to read a few pages or a few chapters, as you see fit.
On a side note, one thing that is outstanding about all the casual games I've played so far is the music. WOW. They have some amazing talent in this category! I was so pleased with the music in Natalie Brooks that I longed to import it somehow into iTunes.
I agree with you that casual doesn't have to necessarily mean "shallow". Our story lines can be deep and our worlds complex as long as they are easy to learn and play. In our games we take story very seriously. We research to create stories that have some "historical" depth and try to give the player a purpose for playing our games.
I think the adventure element of casual games is only just being developed. I think some casual gamers want an experience that they really "care" about and care to get involved in. This means thinking beyond the current game and perhaps even creating persistent worlds that exist outside of the game itself. Thanks for your insight.
I agree with you 100%, Robert. I think the term "casual" is probably not the best marketing term, but it does seem to mean something. I take it to mean three things. One, there's very little you need to know before you start to play the game. Two, you can quit at any time and not have to worry about consequences (i.e., the game will automatically save your progress; or simply not be built with a progressive model. It's also important in an adventure game to keep track of objectives and story, so a player taking a long break of a week or more can quickly get re-acquainted with the story). Three, it doesn't require a powerful PC, though I appreciate it when even a "casual" game offers more bells and whistles for those of us with gaming rigs.
I think the Nancy Drew series is a perfect example of a casual adventure series. I see no reason, however, why that concept can't be expanded to more mature topics. There are thousands of adult-oriented detective novel series out there, many more than the Agatha Christie games (I've yet to play the casual versions of these, but have played the more conventional ones). I think it'd be fun to revisit Doug Adams' holistic detective agency novels for a good casual adventure. The format would seem to lend itself well to that type of game.