Say It Ain’t So, Flo

I didn’t want to get back into gaming. After spending the better part of the ’90’s creating complex, labor-intensive adventure games, I was done. Burnt. Fried. Disillusioned. Games were becoming increasingly violent and ever more ridiculous. My dream of creating games with heart and soul was crushed. So I left gaming, became a stay-at-home dad and wrote the great American novel. My feeling was I’d never work in games again. But what happened? In a word: Flo.

My dear friend Greg Harper recruited me back into the games industry. He lured me back with this strange buzz word – casual games. "You’ll love them", he said. "They’re short, easy to play and they’re addictive as heck." I was skeptical but I agreed to take a look. And what did I see? The first casual game I ever played was Diner Dash. No, the original Diner Dash. Diner Dash 1. And I had an epiphany. I remember the moment as clear as day. Oh my God, I said. This is amazing. Sure, the graphics were low-end and the concept rather schmaltzy, but underneath the game’s exterior what I saw was a tremendous potential for a new kind of game. That afternoon I spent with Flo convinced me to relocate my family back to the West Coast from the East and change the entire course of my life and career. I kid you not.

The original creators of Diner Dash were the folks at the pioneering casual developer GameLab in New York. What GameLab did when creating Diner Dash was to fundamentally shift the paradigm for casual games. I will go so far to say that Diner Dash was for casual games what Citizen Kane was to film. It showed us new techniques  and  a different type of vision. A game didn’t have to be about falling jewels and spinning gems, it could be about us. It could represent real people. It could have a story. It could require a strategy that was not so abstract. Now in all fairness, there were other games and other developers doing similar things at the time, but Diner Dash was the hit. It was the game that broke through and became ubiquitous. It was a great game and a golden goose.

PlayFirst was smart enough to see this. GameLab made the game but it took the savvy and vision of PlayFirst to market it and turn it into the hit that it became. It seemed that a perfect combination had formed. A winning team. Smart, capable developer meets smart, capable publisher. It looked like the beginning of a beautiful partnership. But for some reason GameLab and PlayFirst never made another game together again and all the ensuing Diner Dash sequels were all created by developers contracted by PlayFirst. I don’t know what happened between PlayFirst and GameLab, but that’s not the point. Business is business and all’s fair in love and war. The two went their separate ways.  PlayFirst took the franchise and ran with it, and over the years they made some pretty good sequels, some of them even great. Wedding Dash, Dairy Dash – I actually loved Sponge Bob Diner Dash. It was a hilarious and perfect marriage of licenses.

But what’s happened since is that the goose has run out of golden eggs. The Dash franchise has, well, seen better days. I’ve been reading message boards all over the web that bear this out. Gamers who had once been huge fans have expressed increasing disappointment over what they perceive as mere re-skins. The games, they say, are more of the same with little more than aesthetic changes. Here’s but a few samples of what I’ve read:

"They need to end the diner dash series."

"Flo and Granny need to hang up their oven mits (sic)."

"I used to love Diner Dash but enough is enough."

"My favorite games used to be time management, with Diner Dash topping the list but with all the Dash this and that I lost interest in that series a long time ago."

Flo, as perky and fun as she is, cannot sustain the series on her own. She needs the help of game designers, not just marketing people. And I say this with love, because Diner Dash truly is among my all-time favorite casual games. I understand the allure of creating a franchise that lives on forever, but no franchise lives on forever without an occasional gut-job, a complete overhaul. Take the James Bond franchise as an example. As cool as Sean Connery and Roger Moore were, it took Daniel Craig and the right director-writer team to bring Bond back as a megahit, ultra-cool franchise.

In the case of Diner Dash, is it Flo that people come back for again and again? Sure, she’s cute but casual game characters are mostly window dressing. People come back to games for game play, not animated characters. Many of the Diner Dash sequels and off-shoots lack the spark of the original. To be fair it’s very hard to maintain that, and to repeat it, especially when the development teams themselves change. But obviously  something went right with the original Diner Dash. Both GameLab and PlayFirst brought something special to the table and the result was a huge hit that everyone loved. So here’s my fantasy. We can’t get the Beatles back together, but can we get the original Diner Dash makers back together?

When creating Diner Dash, GameLab began with a foundation for gameplay. They were thinking of Tapper, a 1983 arcade game by Bally Midway. The goal of Tapper was to serve beer and collect empty mugs and tips. "We were inspired by games like Tapper", said GameLab Founder Eric Zimmerman, "and originally thought of Diner Dash as Tapper with stuff – meaning, Tapper with more strategic choices. For a long time, the game was not very fun, and we were worried that it was too chore-like and repetitive. The shape of each level’s design as well as the user feedback for clicking and taking action is what helped push the game away from feeling like a set of chores and more towards being gratifying and addictive."

It took three designers – Eric Zimmerman, Nick Fortugno and Peter Lee, to make Diner Dash what it was, and that’s not uncommon. Great games are a collaborative endeavor often requiring several people with an emotional stake in the end-product.  Great games also require a strong publishing partner, and PlayFirst certainly played a role in helping to QA and polish Diner Dash, as well as getting it out into the world. So I want to thank both parties. Diner Dash helped me to see that the future of gaming (as I saw it) was in smaller games anchored by characters, story, arcade-like game-play and a quasi-realistic hook.

I do not want the Dash franchise to die. But I don’t know. Flo has officially jumped the shark. I’m not sure what’s next in store for her but please, don’t send her to Hawaii or introduce her little cousin Oliver. I’d rather see it die than go baroque.

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Vincent Carrella is a game designer, producer and writer whose debut novel Serpent Box has nothing whatsoever to do with games or technology. He’s the Director of Licensing. for 

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