I’ve spent a rather alarming amount of time lately with a couple casual games that scratch the same itch for me. I’ve talked briefly about Recettear, the RPG where you run an item store. I ended up taking the smart phone plunge a couple weeks ago (much to my chagrin) and wasted no time buying Game Dev Story, a type of sim/RPG where you run a development studio. I’ve had a ton of fun with these games, and that’s been surprising to me. But first, a little backstory.
I generally don’t like The Sims- type casual games where you have to do menial tasks. I have absolutely no interest in Farmville, Cityville, or any other Ville that Zynga may have in their stable. Similarly, I didn’t go anywhere near the Harvest Moon or Legend of the River King games. Animal Crossing held my attention for about 5 minutes, and I also tired of The Sims once the life of my Sim became just as pointless and repetitive as my actual life.
With that being said, I’ve plunked almost 20 hours into Recettear, a game where you spend most of your time buying items wholesale, stocking your shelves, and haggling over prices with your customers. Oh, there’s an actual RPG component where you take control of an adventurer and explore dungeons for better items and equipment to sell, but by and large you’re spending time in your shop. Now, it certainly helps that Recettear is a simply adorable little game, improved tremendously by a legitimately funny translation. The game also has a charming look to it that brings to mind the Dragon Quest series, albeit not as imaginative. I found myself getting positively giddy when I would buy a piece of equipment when the price was low (say, 20% of the base value) and then selling it for huge profits when demand had increased (to the tune of 300% base value). It’s the type of game that I’ll boot up on my laptop while watching something like WWE Raw, only to find out that three hours have passed and I didn’t actually watch a single match.
But if Recettear is a low calorie meal of an RPG game, Game Dev Story barely registers as a Wheat Thin. It has much more in common with Facebook casual games, because all you do is make decisions and click on options. You’ll hire a staff (hopefully balanced with a good coder, writer, designer, and sound engineer) and get to work on a game by picking the genre and type. Once that’s done, all you have to do is assign who will work on which elements of the game and then name it when it’s time to ship. It really couldn’t get any more simple than that. But it’s also highly addictive. My first company– Strawberry Cow– cut its teeth on the PC with Lemur Island, a point and click adventure game. Once the Intendro Entertainment System (read: NES) was released we found decent success with our historical action game Azteka and its sequels, Azteka 2 and Azteka Legends. But Strawberry Cow became a household name based on a fine line of RPGs and sims, like Bushido Quest, Grand Journey (and its online sequel, World of Journey), and Sim Director. We had our failures, as well, of course. Our marathon racing game, Run, Fatboy, Run! didn’t resonate with consumers. And our attempt to make a mascot franchise went cold with the abysmal sales of Dash Otter.
I’ve been thinking a lot about these games, especially when I watch my girlfriend play Farmville, or my best friend messing around with The Sims 3 or Café World. When you look at all of these games objectively, they aren’t all that different. They have a simple premise, easy controls, and all involve building something, whether it be a business, a game, or a house. So why, then, am I so into Recettear and Game Dev Story and turned off by Farmville and Harvest Moon?
I think it all comes down to personal preference. I really couldn’t care less about growing plants or feeding cattle. I grew up in Texas, and my high school had a very successful FFA (Future Farmers of America, for you Yankees) program. I got my fill of that just from attending the school. In the case of something like The Sims, I don’t get into it because I don’t even like the idea of starting a family and building a house in real life, so why would I want to do it for entertainment purposes? But I love RPGs, and I’ve played a ton of them, so the idea of flipping the script and playing a lowly item shop proprietor is a really cool, unique thing for me. I’m also an aspiring game designer with a labyrinthine knowledge of video game history, so playing a game where I can make games and use all that game history to my advantage (I didn’t waste time on the “Virtual Kid”, for example) was an awesome experience.
As hardcore gamers we tend to disavow the casual games market. There may be good reason for that, as there’s very little there that is aimed at us. But Recettear and Game Dev Story are wonderful casual games for a hardcore market. And as I think about it, Dragon Age Legends was a really fun social game for us, as well. While we’re at it, Game Dev Story would make a great social game, too. These casual games may not end up being in my best of the year list, but I’ve had so much fun with them that they definitely deserved a write-up. If you haven’t checked them out yet, I suggest that you do.