This looks at one last game, then talks about some conclusions I’ve drawn. Monster Manor is the most complex of the games, so it has the longest entry.
When I first booted up this game, which is an exploration-heavy RPG, I thought it would turn out to be my favorite because it has a lot of depth. Really, it’s now my second-least-favorite. It has too many mechanics that don’t add anything to the experience. It also has the most unpredictable playtime of any of the games, because of these mechanics.
In Monster Manor, every person you’ve met with Streetpass has a piece of flooring that they can lay down in a mansion laid out with square shaped tiles. The floor pieces are Tetris-like bits that you need to arrange together. In this way, you explore a mansion that’s filled with creepy ghosts and other Halloween staples.
It’s, in theory, beneficial to arrange like room colors into larger square shapes, because this causes a treasure chest to appear. But eighty percent of the time the treasure is just crap you don’t need. The real benefit of arranging like colors together is that monsters only spawn when transitioning a border between two colors. Or sometimes they spawn on the map in visible locations that you can choose to power through or build around. Or sometimes on later floors they just spawn whenever. And every fifth floor there’s a boss.
Sometimes you can encounter another person in a room, and they’ll team up with you to fight. This is good because it makes fights much easier, but it’s random. Other times the person you meet will give you a puzzle box instead. Solving puzzle boxes is a timed task, so now a game you might have just been playing idly requires a hundred-percent of your attention instead, without a really good warning.
Chests mostly contain weapons. There are at least a dozen different types of gun in the game, and a couple blade type weapons. The weapons have elements of Light, Cold, Fire, or Wind, and really cute graphics. They are all basically useless as far as I can tell. As you use a weapon, it levels up, and a leveled up weapon is so much vastly better than a non-leveled weapon that I’m beating everything with a gun that I found on Level Two of the manor while I’m up on Level Twenty-Two. The gun is maxed out, so I hope I haven’t screwed myself in the end, but even after aggressive upgrading (done by mixing two weapons together) my next-best weapon only does one point of damage to most monsters I encounter now.
Sometimes when you open a chest, instead of another Ovenator or some useless garbage, you get a Plaza Ticket, and then the game says “You found a Plaza Ticket! That earned you a Plaza Ticket!” That seems like a no-duh statement, but what it’s actually saying is you earned the “Achievement” of finding the ticket, and that earned you an additional ticket. I think. It’s confusing.
I still play Monster Manor because the core mechanic of arranging tiles to discover rooms in the creepy house is still fun. But unlike the other Streetpass games, I have completely lost sight of my goal. Every other Streetpass game shows an overall map (or the notebook, in Flower Town) showing what I have done in the game, and what is left to do. Monster Manor does not do this. There’s thirty floors, I think? I think I’m almost done? I don’t know. I guess since the point is “escape a creepy place,” it’s supposed to be disorienting. Well, mission accomplished.
Design Lessons for a Very Casual Game
Takeaways from all this rambling: Even though Mii Force is much more twitch-based than the other games, I’d consider all of the Streetpass games to be “very casual” in terms of their approach. This is about the design, not the people that play them. Collectively, I’ve probably spent a lot of time in them. So I think there are some design lessons that are potentially useful to apply to other casual social games from these experiments.
Attention is a big currency in a casual hand-held game. It’s OK if a game needs all of my attention to be played properly. But if it’s going to require that, I like to know that up front, and for it only to require that attention in short bursts. An individual play round of something like Flappy Bird or Theatrhythm, just as examples, does require all of my attention. But those individual play sessions or attention bursts are pretty short and occur at predictable times of my own choosing.
It’s important that a game like this, which is designed to be put down often and picked up later, has a good mix of long-term and short-term goals. A clear short-term goal makes me want to pick up the game right away to accomplish it quickly. A clear long-term goal is best communicated by a road map or chart that indicates my progress. In Flower Town my short term goal is usually “grow a new flower” and is a goal I can accomplish almost every play session, so I’m very bought in. In Warrior’s Way there’s no good way to achieve a short-term goal without many sessions, so the game’s gotten boring by comparison even if it’s about a more “exciting” topic (taking over the world versus planting a garden). In Monster Manor, I have interesting short-term goals, but I’ve lost sight of my long-term goal. In Find Mii I’m reminded every session that my long-term goal is to rescue my Mii, just so I didn’t forget, so even if it’s less deep as an RPG it’s more effective at communicating how to win.
Leaderboards can be a useful way to motivate players, but they only work if it feels as if the player looking at the board has a chance somehow of being on the board. This is why Mii Force’s leaderboards, which are per level, are useful, and Warrior’s Way’s boards are not. This is also why I prefer customized leaderboards that just contain my friends to global leaderboards on other games. Beating my friend’s score feels both achievable and more personal, but beating some rando’s worldwide high score just feels impossible.
Finally, I think I’m more attached to casual games like this when I feel as if they are customized to me in some way. Flower Town has me bought in because I am creating “my garden,” which is different from the gardens of others. The most interesting thing in Monster Manor is the unique ways that I’ve arranged the different floors, but nothing else in the game feels customized by comparison.
Taking these basic principles:
- short and predictably-timed bursts of attention,
- clear long and short term goals,
- carefully compared competition, and
- personalization for a feeling of ownership,
I bet there are a lot of cool casual game designs left to develop. It’s definitely given me a lot to think about just writing all this out!