From Russia with Love

When I traveled to St. Petersburg to give a lecture at the Game Developer’s Conference last week I thought I might be able to leave a little wisdom behind. There has been a string of finely crafted clones coming out of Russia of late, but I wanted to know if an original, hit, casual game could come out of this fractured union. So I went to Russia thinking I’d help enlighten them, and to perhaps discover the next gameLab. Instead, I discovered something remarkable about myself.

As I stood waiting for an elevator to take me up to the studio where much of art for Mystery Cases Files: Huntsville was created, I was dubious. The walls and floors showed terrible wear. The tiles were cracked and broken and several layers of linoleum showed through to the bare concrete below. The elevator itself was a Soviet antique with a bright green LED for a floor indicator that looked like a prop out of THX-1138. I was scared. But my host, a bright young Engineer working for Nikitova Games, assured me it that was safe.

This was the Russia I envisioned as a young college sophomore reading Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn. I fully expected the crumbling vestige of empire-great statuary, mammoth orthodox churches, and ornate bridges spanning the turbulent Neva River. And I got those in spades. What I did not expect was so much talent, and passion and pure gaming knowledge. After spending an afternoon with the people of Nikitova. it was clear to me that Russia, with its wealth of relatively cheap technical and artistic talent, is poised and ready to create a wave of great casual games.

But poised and ready is a far cry from done. The Russian development community has released some impressive knock-offs. Snowy Lunch Rush, Pantheon and Birds on a Wire are solid games that have differentiated themselves from their inspirations, but they’re not all that innovative (in terms of gameplay) and the Russians have yet to produce something ground-breaking all their own. Rainbow Web and Magic Match are two games that added innovative twists to proven mechanics, so they are the closest thing so far to an evolutionary leap forward. But they are evolutionary, not revolutionary.

I get a lot of game submissions, and let me tell you, most Eastern European and Russian developers have clearly not studied the casual games market, nor do they seem to know who plays casual games (at least here in the United States). If a hit is going to come out of Russia, then there are a few things I felt they needed to know-not out of arrogance mind you, I don’t pretend to be an expert by any means-my goal was to simply help enlighten them as to who the customer is here in the U.S.

Five minutes before my lecture I was shaking. I was so wired and exhausted. The jet lag had caught up with me and twice that day I almost fainted. I could barely hold myself together. I needed help, and like a miracle, help arrived. A tall Russian developer handed me a glass of amber liquid.

"Drink" He said. "Trust me."

And I did. I drank the liquid and I trusted the man.

It turned out to be Nikita Vladimirov from CTXM. Nik is vehemently opposed to being called a Russian. He claims to be a Soviet. He also claims that a mega-hit, triple-A casual game will come out of Russia in the next year. A bold claim, but there was no time to argue, my name was being called from the podium and it was time for me to go on.

I was greeted by an elderly interpreter and instructed to enunciate clearly and talk slow. Everything in Russian, he says, takes twice as long as its English equivalent (I note this as being a very interesting observation). I stepped up to the podium and saw that everyone was wearing headphones, meaning that they required the translation. Suddenly I was very nervous.

The audience for casual games, I said, is predominantly women. 76% of casual gamers are female. Gentlemen, I said, we must consider our wives, our girlfriends and our grandmothers. And if we lose sight of that, than we will waste time and sell considerably less product.

The crowd was overwhelmingly male, and they’re a rough-looking and rather disheveled bunch. Had this been twenty years earlier these guys would all be conscripts guarding some remote border, and it’s both amusing and fascinating to me that they’re now designing light entertainment for American women.

Casual games, I said, engage our innate instinct to explore and stimulate our natural curiosity. They must instantly capture our attention, and offer players a sense of empowerment and control and order.

Casual games, I said, are kinetic, colorful and tactile. Audio and music trump art, and gameplay trumps everything. Gameplay, I said, is that vague and amorphous kernel of fun, it’s what the player does, it’s how she interacts, it’s how what she does with her mouse connects with her brain. Gameplay I said, is the relationship between what you do and what you think, and ideally this occurs on a subconscious level. Hit casual games can only be addictive and successful when designers focus first on gameplay.

I felt a bit stupid for saying this because these guys are not idiots. Many of the people in the audience I recognize as developers who have made some pretty decent games. But this is GDC, not Casuality. I have to assume that most of these folks come from the world of serious games. My goal is to reach one of them. Just one.

A good casual game, I tell them, makes the player feel like she has skill, it makes her feel good at something, it offers players a very shallow learning curve, provides them with some basic tools and powers, and then ramps up quickly to give them an opportunity to use those tools and powers; over and over again, without ever feeling bored.

The audience seemed to be getting it, and I was feeling the soft, warm glow of the whiskey.

Casual games must have broad appeal and be intuitive to all age groups, said David Fox, a game designer and engineer whom I respect and admire. If you want to test the marketability of a casual game, he said, have a nine-year-old play it, ask your mom to play it, ask your spouse to play it, and don’t answer any questions. If they want to keep playing and forget that you exist, you’ve got a hit on your hands.

Suddenly it dawned on me that what I was saying is universal, and that my lecture is not a lecture, but a mantra, and a reminder, to myself and to all game makers and game sellers everywhere. The Russians lack no special skills or insights into the U.S. casual games market, only access. Sure, they could use a little guidance, but so can we all. The Russians are as guilty of not paying attention to the customer as we are. I often hear that the casual games market is a democracy where winners and losers are elected with votes in the form of dollars. But in a political democracy, candidates (the equivalent metaphor for games in this analogy) are nominated by the people, not the power structure. The comparison does not hold up.

Going to Russia taught this game designer a lot more than I think I taught them. Because when it comes to game design and game development, we are all Russians. We are all foreigners. In the October 16th edition of The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell quotes Hollywood screenwriting legend William Goldman in his piece The Formula, about the quest to mathematically quantify what goes into a hit movie or song. What Goldman says about the movie business applies to our little business as well: "…nobody, not now, not ever-knows the least goddamn thing about what is, or what isn’t going to work at the box office."

The same holds true for us. There is no formula for a casual game, and I have nothing to teach anybody, especially the Russians. The desire to know, the desire to do better, and the belief that any job worth doing is worth doing right is the only universal formula guaranteed to yield results. Sometimes you have to travel thousands and thousands of miles to learn what you already know.

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