Casual Game Design: Designing Play for the Gamer in ALL of Us

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Casual games are changing the face of the game industry. They are bringing new players to games and reinvigorating former gamers. From the puzzle game downloadables that your mom devours to the Rock Band kit drawing a crowd at a party of twenty-somethings, these games share a focused simplicity that brings players of all demographics into the game. Casual games look easy and inviting to the player, but these games are deceivingly difficult to design. They need to cleverly mask their complexity so as not to frighten off players. This book offers insider tips and strategies on how to design casual games that appeal to all sorts of audiences (moms, and grandps alike!) The book focuses on how to create elegant games that draw in a wide variety of players, even ones skeptical of games. Designers will take away valuable insights and practical advice so that they can get started right away on designing - interviews with top game designers who have learned through experience offer pearls of advice for designers eager to break into this hot new field of gaming.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Gregory Trefry defines the attributes for casual games in his book "Casual Game Design" as follows:

- Rules and goals must be clear.

- Players need to be able to quickly reach proficiency.

- Casual game play adapts to a player's life and schedule.

- Game concepts borrow familiar content and themes from life.

I believe he has made a good approach in trying to define common aspects in casual games."—

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780123749536
  • Publisher: Taylor & Francis
  • Publication date: 2/9/2010
  • Pages: 264
  • Sales rank: 1,284,928
  • Product dimensions: 7.40 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Greg Trefry designs games large and small, from offline games to video games. Greg is a Senior Game Designer at the New York-based studio Gamelab, where he leads design on the Gamestar Mechanic, a large web-based multiplayer game and the popular Jojo's Fashion Show franchise of casual downloadable games.

Greg serves as the director of Come Out & Play, an annual festival of big games that brings together designers from around the world to turn New York City into a playground for an entire weekend. Greg also designs and produces big games, from low-tech events like CounterSquirt to large promotional Alternate Reality Games like Case of the Coveted Bottle.

In addition to designing games, Greg teaches and writes about games. He has taught classes on subjects ranging from game design to interactive fiction and alternate reality games at New York University's Interactive Telecommunications Program and Parsons the New School for Design. He has spoken at conferences around the world about games. His writings about games have been published in Adobe Think Tank, Notes on Game Dev and PopMatters.

Greg combines practical experience in game design with a background in teaching and theory. As both a professor and the director of the Come Out & Play Festival, Greg works with dozens game designers each year as they move from ideas to fully implemented games. In working with designers he brings a game designer's insight and a teacher's desire to help others produce their best possible work. This has given him a front-row view to what works and what doesn't in casual play and games.

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Read an Excerpt

Casual Game Design

Designing Play for the Gamer in All of Us
By Gregory Trefry

Morgan Kaufmann Publishers

Copyright © 2010 ELSEVIERCOMPANY
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-08-095923-8

Chapter One

What Is Casual Gaming?

Over the past several years, the term "casual game" has been bandied about quite a bit. It gets used to describe so many different types of games that the definition has become rather blurred. But if we look at all of the ways that "casual" gets used, we can begin to tease out common elements that inform the design of these games:

Rules and goals must be clear.

Players need to be able to quickly reach proficiency.

Casual game play adapts to a player's life and schedule.

Game concepts borrow familiar content and themes from life.

While all game design should take these issues into account, these elements are of particular importance if you want to reach a broad audience beyond traditional gamers. This book will look at elements that a wide array of casual games share and draw out common lessons for approaching game design. Hopefully it will be of use not just to casual game designers, but to all game designers and even general experience designers as well.

Everywhere you look these days, you see impact of casual games. More than 200 million people play casual games on the Internet, according to the Casual Games Association. This audience generated revenues in excess of $2.25 billion in 2007. This may seem meager compared to the $41 billion posted by the entire game industry worldwide, but casual games currently rank as one of the fastest growing sectors of the game industry. As growth in the rest of the industry stagnated, the casual downloadable market barreled ahead. Web games are turning from mild diversions into serious revenue earners (and major time suckers). Even the game console industry has been invaded by the ethos of casual gameplay. Nintendo, considered by many to be headed for irrelevance several years ago, has ridden the success of its Wii console back to the top of the game industry. They staked their future on capturing a broad audience with a brand of casual gameplay accessible to anyone. And it turned out to be a good bet. Other popular console titles with casual gameplay mechanics, like Guitar Hero and Rock Band, have captured the public imagination.

So, what could a downloadable PC game like Diner Dash, a viral web game like Desktop Tower Defense, and a console title like Rock Band possibly have in common? More than you might first think. While they have many differences, from audience to scope to platform, they share some key fundamental elements within their game design. Each has accessible content that helps players understand the gameplay. Each of these games can be picked up and enjoyed by novices within minutes. Each focuses on one clear game mechanic and polishes it to a shine.

But perhaps to better understand what we mean by "casual game," we need to take a short walk through history.

It Started in Solitude

You could say casual gaming began in 1990 when Microsoft started bundling Windows Solitaire with Windows. The mouse had only been introduced in 1981 and didn't really start achieving widespread use until the late '80s. Many people were still getting used to the idea of pointing and clicking to navigate their way through a graphical user interface. As Microsoft prepared Windows 3.0, executives were looking for an application that would help train people to use the mouse and literally "to soothe people intimidated by the operating system." They found it in Windows Solitaire (Figure 1.1), which can now legitimately claim to be the most played video game in the world. In terms of number of plays, hours consumed and numbers of players, Windows Solitaire dwarfs every other game, from Doom to Grand Theft Auto. According to the engineer responsible for building a new version of the game for Windows Vista, Windows Solitaire is the most-used Windows application.

Of course, video games existed long before Microsoft unleashed Windows Solitaire on the world, but they never reached such a wide audience, an audience that didn't even know it was looking for something to play. The version you find on your computer is a stripped down game, copying the rules of card-based Klondike Solitaire, but with the several added benefits that have defined casual games ever since. First, it's dead-simple to use. You don't have to install anything. It's already on your computer and when you call it up from the Windows menu, it starts nearly instantaneously.

Ease of use is an essential ingredient in casual games. The audience for casual games is a broad and general audience. They typically have no patience for juggling their way through eight different CDs to install a game only to confront confusing menus and options screens. They want to play, but they want to do it when the mood strikes them. So from the very get go, the game must be easy to get into, and this includes the installation. With Windows Solitaire, the deck is already shuffled and the cards laid out for you. Your first interaction in the application is actually playing the game.

Secondly, since you most likely already know the rules to Klondike Solitaire, the game has about a 10-second learning curve to reach proficient play. Even users unfamiliar with how to use a mouse in 1990 could understand the basic interaction scheme in a matter of seconds. So before you know it, you're cruising your way through your first game. This short time to proficient play is a crucial aspect of casual games. Players are not necessarily looking for a long, deep play experience. More likely, they simply want something to divert their attention or offer a few moments of relaxation. So games with familiar mechanics and rules often win out over deeper more complex games, as they are the easiest to learn. Games with new interaction schemes and mechanics can succeed, but they still need to offer some element of familiarity to the player, be it in content or theme.

A game of Windows Solitaire may take you anywhere between three to five minutes. You can start a new game at any time if you're frustrated or stuck. In fact, Windows Solitaire removes entirely the most frustrating part of card-based Klondike Solitaire: the shuffling. In the card-based version, you might take 10 minutes just to shuffle and lay out the cards, only to find you're entirely screwed within five moves. The computer obliterates that problem. What was before a ritualistic game—as much about shuffling and set-up as it was about play—becomes a fast-paced game of sorting on the computer. You can play over and over and over, all while eating your lunch with your free hand. This bite-sized chunk of play allows you to fit in a game between meetings or as a quick palette cleansing between filing TPS reports. The low requirements on your concentration enable you to play the game on a boring conference call or while listening with one ear to your friend drone on about his day. (Granted, your replies will no doubt take on that cold, glassy sound of divided attention.)

Windows Solitaire fits into your life when you want to play. You don't have to dedicate an entire weekend and go without showering to finish a game. You simply pick it up and play when you are bored. Since Windows Solitaire, casual games have served as salves against boredom. Initially, the game isn't really a focus. Only the most elegant and addictive casual games worm their way into players' brains and become obsessions. Most players don't follow release schedules, eagerly anticipating new casual games. Rather, they stumble upon them and become addicted. Casual games start out as curiosities and wind up habits.

Where Windows Solitaire for Windows differed from the original card game, it did so brilliantly. Anyone who has suffered through hand after hand to finally catch a winning spread knows what I'm talking about: the incredibly cathartic cascade of bouncing and shattering cards unleashed by the placement of the final king (Figure 1.2). This is the money shot after the power-moment of realizing you will win the game. The game is austere and almost entirely devoid of life other than this final animation. So when it happens, you feel that you've earned it. To this day, I still watch the entire animation play out, never clicking through it. Casual games are often spare, small games, but they know how to deploy the bling. Just look at PopCap's brilliant Peggle, a game that comprised almost entirely of sparkles. Each game ends with Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, rainbows and fireworks making you feel like the greatest player on Earth.

So in many ways, casual game developers all live in the long shadow cast by a simple port of a card game programmed by Microsoft intern Wes Cherry in 1989. Not only did it establish many of the tropes of casual play, it also served as a gateway drug for people who would never consider themselves gamers. These players would never have dreamed of picking up an SNES controller in 1990 and working through a 40-hour game, but they would fiendishly play Solitaire, racking up hours of gameplay in small chunks throughout their day or week. Eventually, many Solitaire players moved on to Minesweeper and Freecell to Bejeweled and Diner Dash and eventually even to Wii Tennis and Guitar Hero, without ever considering themselves gamers. And as they did, casual games evolved with them, rising to meet their new interests, skills and level of engagement.


Eleven years after Solitaire invaded our consciousness, another game came along and helped redefine the casual games: Diamond Mine, or, as you more likely know it, Bejeweled (Figure 1.3). In 2000, game designers Brian Fiete, John Vechey and former producer Jason Kapalka founded the game development company PopCap. Their first project was such a monster hit that it's easy to forget they've continued turning out best-selling and innovative casual games ever since. They originally launched Bejeweled as a Web-based Flash game, licensing it to game portals like Microsoft's Zone.

Bejeweled is an incredibly simple, yet elegant game. It presents players with a grid of colored gems. Players swap adjacent gems to form vertical and horizontal matches of three or more with the same color. Matched gems score and disappear in explosions of sparkles, and new gems drop in from the top of the screen. You score bonus points if you match more than three gems or if gems drop into new matches as they fall. Players can progress through levels by reaching goal scores. Or they can race against the clock, matching gems to keep pace with a timer. The game also includes an untimed mode with less pressure.

Initially some of the distributors that PopCap approached balked at the untimed mode, believing it held no challenge. PopCap, however, stuck to its vision. As Kapalka put it in an interview with Gamezebo, "We were having fun playing it and my mom was having fun playing it," he said. "Our theory was, if my mom, who doesn't normally like games, likes it, there must be something there. She may not know good game design, but she knows what she likes."

Bejeweled was a hit as a Web game, but PopCap had no way to monetize the game. The bottom dropped out of Web advertising in 2001 as the dot-com bubble burst. So PopCap decided to create a deluxe version of the game, with better art, more sounds and new modes, and sell it online. Many people were still getting used the idea of buying goods online in 2001, especially intangible things like downloadable games. There wasn't yet a firmly established market for downloadable games.

They priced the game at $20, a price even PopCap initially believed was too high. But it proved a sweet price and helped establish the market for casual downloadable games. Like Windows Solitaire easing PC users into the idea of the mouse, Bejeweled and other casual games helped ease many people into the idea of online purchases. Seven years later, players have bought more that 10 million copies of the game, downloaded it more than 150 million times and spent roughly $300 million on the game.

So what makes Bejeweled so incredibly addictive? Well, in part people really like to match and sort stuff. There is immense satisfaction to be had by turning chaos into order. Like Windows Solitaire, your progress in the game is largely based on chance, but players still feel a great deal of agency. That's because, unlike a game of pure chance that relies on a roll of the dice, your moves in Windows Solitaire and Bejeweled feel like your own. You choose the card to place and jewels to swap. This gives the player a vital feeling of control. Again, the game allows for almost instant mastery. Bejeweled's untimed mode enables the players to scale their level of involvement at any moment. Without time pressure, your job is just to keep looking until you find a match. You can perform this search at your leisure.

By charging for the game, PopCap helped establish casual games as commodities. Suddenly casual game players who previously played free games on their computer or the Web found themselves actually buying games.

Looking at it today, it can be hard to see Bejeweled for the innovative game that it was. The casual download market has been flooded with clones that copied every aspect of Bejeweled from the matching to the swapping to the gems. The mechanics of the game are now almost as familiar as Windows Solitaire. But at the time, Bejeweled felt like a new mechanic, albeit one that felt eerily familiar. With Bejeweled, casual players were willing to move beyond mechanics borrowed from card and board games and to embrace a game native to video games.

PopCap has pushed their flagship game onto multiple platforms, from PCs to consoles to cell phones. The game proved extremely adaptable to these different venues, particularly cell phones, showing again that people want games that slot into their lives at the moments they choose. Suddenly, subway cars and waiting rooms were alive with the tinkling sounds of jewels swapping and scoring.

The Next Swing in Casual Gaming

Nintendo took the next big step in casual games with Wii Sports. The game's release accompanied the launch of Nintendo's new gaming console, the Wii, in 2006. As of September 2008, the game had sold 30.87 million copies, including those bundled with the console.

As Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo began developing the next generation of consoles, everyone thought the major attraction of the new machines would be improved graphics and more powerful processors. This is the tack that Sony and Microsoft took with their machines, crafting them to push ever more pixels. Nintendo, however, followed a very different course.

At the time, Nintendo's sales had fallen far behind Sony's Playstation and even Microsoft's Xbox. Many analysts were writing off the company. Nintendo realized that to grow their audience and market share, they needed to bring in new players. Instead of trying to take a bigger piece of the gamer pie, Nintendo decided to make the whole pie bigger. And who did they focus on? Casual gamers. These people weren't wowed by higher resolution graphics. Like Windows 3.0 users discovering Windows Solitaire for the first time, many probably didn't even realize they were interested in playing games. But when presented with the Wii's surprisingly intuitive magic wand and the play it enabled, they were intrigued. With a clever marketing scheme and great word of mouth, the Wii became a phenomenon largely on the back of the title Wii Sports. The public was enthralled with the idea that you swung the almost magical Wiimote just like you would a real tennis racket to play Wii Tennis. Suddenly casual gamers who would have never bought a console were lining up to get hold of a Wii.

Wii Sports was designed as a flagship game, bundled with the Wii to demonstrate the capabilities of the Wiimote. Nintendo wanted to make a game that leveled the playing field between casual players and hardcore gamers. By introducing a simplified controller with a unique, but intuitive, control scheme, Nintendo put all players on the same footing. Nintendo producer Katsuya Eguchi, the man in charge of Wii Sports, said, "Initially, our goal was to create something very simple that anyone could just pick up and play, and because everyone knows sports, we thought that would probably be the best setting."


Excerpted from Casual Game Design by Gregory Trefry Copyright © 2010 by ELSEVIERCOMPANY. Excerpted by permission of Morgan Kaufmann Publishers. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

It Started in Solitude
The Next Swing in Casual Gaming
Casual Queens versus Genre Kings
Why Now?
The Game Mechanic at Work
The Role of the Game Designer
The Responsibilities of the Game Designer
Becoming a Game Designer
Play Is the Thing
The Liminal Moment
The Rush to Complexity
The Push toward Simplicity
Patterns of Play
Tapping Play for Games
Defining Games
Bejeweled : The Casual Ideal
LEGO Fever and Luxor : The Necessity of Constraints
Snood : Matching as Means to an End
Klondike Solitaire vs. Spider Solitaire : More Choices, More Complexity
Drop 7 : Foiled by Randomness
Wurdle vs. Bookworm : The Replacements
Jojo ’s Fashion Show : Sorting the World Through Play
Mystery Case Files: Huntsville : Simple Seek-and-Find
Azada : Introducing Logic to Seeking
Diner Dash : Spinning Plates
Cake Mania : Managing and Matching
Managing Attention
Natural Feedback
Scaling with Skill
Whac -A-Mole : 30 Seconds of Primal Pleasure
Wii Tennis : The Swing Is the Thing
Diner Dash : Pushing Your Luck
Tetris and Crayon Physics : Two Approaches to Building
Creative Construction
Bouncing , Tossing, Rolling and Stacking
Bow Man 2 : Experimentation and Repetition
Paper Toss: Simple Choices with Unclear Outcomes
Jenga : The Inherent Drama of Gravity
World of Goo: From Toy to Game
Peggle : Balancing Mystery and Legibility
Apples to Apples : Reading People, Not the Game
Rock Band : Becoming a Band
What to Wear : Tapping the Wisdom of Crowds

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