We’re living in ironic times, as far as gaming is concerned – computers are capable of draw-dropping, 4K resolution graphics; and yet, some of the most popular and lucrative titles are casual mainstream games with kid-friendly graphics. Think Flappy Bird, Angry Birds, and Cut the Rope, – these are extremely viral titles with cartoonish graphics, and gameplay so easy a caveman could play them.
What’s more interesting is that it’s not mainly kids playing these games – its adults. Here’s what is basically going on – despite modern technologies hardware capabilities, the vast majority of people are gaming on casual devices. Gorgeous 3D graphics are a niche audience – hardcore PC / console gamers – and thus, most gaming is done on phones. And most people with children let their children play games on their devices – which means they search for and install apps that look child-friendly.
So then, Mary Sue the Soccer Mom (PS: 52% of gamers are women, when you take casual games into the equation) has a smartphone full of cute games for her 6-year-old daughter to stay quiet in the van rides between soccer games – and daughter dearest really loves those cute pigs in Angry Birds. So much that they spawned a cartoon series out of this game, okay? And so Mary Sue the Soccer Mom shares this app on her Facebook, telling everyone how much her daughter loves it, and Mary Sue the Soccer Mom ends up playing it herself – see #5 in Popcap: the 10 secrets of casual game design. So now mommy and daughter dearest are both hooked on shooting angry exploding birds at big bad piggies.
What I’ve described above is exactly how these games go viral. The games are cute enough to attract children, yet the gameplay difficulty ramps up enough for adults to stay interested. It’s literally a two-step formula:
- Cute characters
- Simple skill-based gameplay
That is literally all you need – anything more complicated than that, and it’s no longer appealing. You’ll probably want to read BigFishGames – Game Design Secrets to Creating Irresistible Games (BigFishGames creates a lot of them). And if you start designing this type of game, and you start to think, “Wouldn’t it be cool if this game had skill-trees?”, slap yourself. You’re complicating things.
Remember the two-step formula, do not deviate from the formula. Are you ‘selling out’ your creativity as a game developer, exchanging your soul for ad revenue? Most definitely. But you can always dry your tears with wads of $100 dollar bills. And maybe, with any luck, you could someday afford to start up a game studio that creates the kind of games you want to play.
Now let’s examine how to maximize the cuteness factor of your characters. Cartoon-graphics by itself is not cute – Spongebob Squarepants is a cartoon character, but he’s not cute. This is cute:
- Round bodies
- Big eyes
- Unintelligible noises and babbling (bonus points for a detectable language structure, ala Minions)
In a nutshell, your characters should basically be drawn like babies, and sound like babies trying to talk. Just read The Elements of Cute Character Design if I’m not making enough sense. The reason you’re doing this is because cute characters work on a psychological level to your audience – people are instinctively drawn to babies, or baby-like creatures. Have you ever heard someone say, “You’re so cute I could just eat you up” to a baby? There’s actually a scientific basis for that.
So now you’ve got your cute characters. They’re more than cute – they’re freaking adorable. Mary Sue the Soccer Mom and her 6-year-old daughter are going to love them and buy all the merchandise when they spin-off into a cartoon series. So what about the gameplay? Well this is a bit more difficult, but you have some options:
- Smashing into things
- Solving things that smash other things
- Avoiding things that can smash you
Notice a key theme amongst all those? You guessed right – it’s smashing. For some twisted reason, people love to see cute things get smashed. It goes hand-in-hand with the “why do we want to eat babies?” phenomena I described above. So this could be, for example, your cute characters smacking against walls, getting squished by falling blocks, falling to their doom (bonus points for high-pitched ‘Nooooooooooo!’ as they plummet). Cute things getting smacked around just speaks to us.
The important thing to remember, though, is that you want to present your character’s various dooms as Looney Tunes style cartoon violence – so don’t have your characters getting sawed in half with blood shooting everywhere. Think more like when Sylvester gets a piano dropped on his head, and he goes all accordion-shaped and stumbles around with Tweety Birds spinning around his head.
Another thing you should bear in mind – clone everyone. “B-b-but I want to be original and unique…” – No. Stop right there. Clone everyone. Look at Goodgame Studio’s Big Farm – it’s basically FarmVille (which is basically Farm Town), and GoodGame Studios crossed the $1 billion dollars in revenue threshold in 2017.
Angry Birds? Clone of an old Flash game called Crush the Castle. Super freaking Mario? Clone of an earlier Nintendo game released only in Japan, known as Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic. Run 3? Who even knows, there’s so many endless running games out there. So swallow your developer’s pride and clone everyone. Don’t even think of it as cloning – just think of it as putting a unique spin on an already existing game concept, while shamelessly recycling a bunch of the same gameplay elements.
Honestly, nobody will care, unless your game is such a straight up rip-off that you get sued, like when Riot Games (developers of League of Legends) sued popular mobile MOBA Mobile Legends. In Riot Games’ defense, Mobile Legends was a literal clone. But the moral of the story is, if you’re going to clone Angry Birds, don’t call your game “Indignant Avians” – although I actually like that name better than Angry Birds.
In any case, to wrap this all up, what did we learn today?
- Soccer moms will market your game for you.
- People instinctively want to eat babies.
- Cloning other people’s ideas is a great idea.
So there you have it – good luck on your journey to cute casual game viral-hood!