Life is full of surprises. It starts when you’re young: Girls are icky and gross, until the day you realize you’d happily ransom your soul to the devil to get them to pay you some attention. Later, with the acquisition of your driver’s license and your first set of wheels you swear you’ll never become one of those minivan-owning chumps, and then one day you wake up with three kids, a dog and a need to get them all across town in 15 minutes. And because you’re a serious gamer, you blow off the casual genre as something fit for your mom and other people who have no concept of what “real” games are in the first place.
And then you catch yourself screaming obscenities at a cartoon dinosaur while multicolored balls fly across your screen as you madly try to arrange them in patterns or blow them up, and your relaxing little time-killer has suddenly got you twitching like a junkie gone cold turkey.
Such is my predicament. I take games seriously. I collect them. I read about them, and write about them, on a daily basis. I immerse myself in their uniquely interactive narratives when I can, and in their visceral mindlessness when I can’t. But lately, to my growing consternation, I’ve also found myself playing a lot of games my mom thinks are pretty damn cool.
The most recent title to take advantage of my weakened psyche is StoneLoops! of Jurassica, an oddly punctuated release from Polish developers Codeminion. Prior to a couple weeks ago I’d never heard of either the game or the development team, but I’ve always been a big sucker for lines like, “Hey, c’mere a minute,” and thusly introduced to this latest bit of casual diversion I decided to scoop it up and give it a go.
My first impressions weren’t encouraging. The game has all the elements of a standard PopCap-style release: Lots of flashing lights and sounds, loud explosions, unfathomable bonuses every time you turn around and the inevitable grinning mascot, but it felt more like a checklist of obligatory casual game components than a cohesive whole. And making things worse was the heavy-handed Zuma vibe, the result of the developers obviously taking a little more than just “inspiration” from the casual classic.
Or so I thought. “Actually, StoneLoops! is a blend of Luxor and Astropop, but many people ask us this Zuma question. This just shows how big an impact Zuma has made on everybody,” explained Konrad Olesiewicz, who founded the Warsaw-based Codeminion with his primary school friend Maciej Biedrzycki in 2000. “We had an opportunity to meet with Jason Kapalka, the designer of Zuma. We actually asked him, “Do you feel offended by StoneLoops?” and he said that absolutely not, as he considers this an original mechanic. We think this cuts all the speculation.”
Game mechanics in casual games are paramount, since there’s really nothing else to fall back on: Great action can save an insipid plot, while mediocre gameplay can be forgiven if its wrapped in a brilliant story. But casual games don’t have the safety net provided by that kind of depth. As a result, casual games tend to be more universal in their appeal, cutting across borders, cultures and other demographics more easily than mainstream games, but often also share characteristics that give many of them a feeling of sameness.
Most of the major trends in casual games have thus far originated in the U.S., according to Olesiewicz, but he sees things beginning to balance out. “This seems to be changing at the moment as more of the development happens here in Europe and Asia (mostly Russia),” he said. “Additionally, there is very little brand recognition and loyalty when it comes to casual gamers.”
“Unless you are PopCap, of course,” he added.
And while the PopCap stylings of StoneLoops! may make it easier to dismiss the game as just another knock-off, as I initially did, the reality is that after three or four levels, the game begins to distinguish itself and your assumptions very quickly go out the window. It barks like a dog, but it bites like an angry cobra.
The game screen is covered with a convoluted tunnel (or two) through which a row of multicolored balls slowly proceeds, and your job is to arrange them in groups of three or more of the same color, removing them from the screen and slowing the procession, buying yourself a little more time to make the next arrangement. It sounds very Zuma, and Jason Kapalka notwithstanding, it also looks very Zuma.
The twist lies in the absence of the weird frog-type thing in the middle of the screen that spits new balls out for you as fast as you can click. Instead, all you have to work with are the balls in the streams, which must be removed and rearranged one at a time. The secret to the game, insofar as I’ve been able to discover one, lies in the fact that removing balls from the stream can be just as useful for making combinations as placing them back in different locations, a simple-sounding twist to the game mechanic that results in a surprising new layer of strategic possibilities.
The game is more fast-paced than a lot of casual titles, but while it’ll keep you hopping it never abuses you with excessively harsh difficulty. I’ve managed to make my way up around level 40 – I have no idea how many levels there are in total – and it’s been both challenging and nerve-wracking, but never frustrating. And for gamers who didn’t have the fortune to be born with my magic fingers, StoneLoops! will let you restart new games from the last level you completed, rather than knocking you all the way back down to the bottom of the pile.
Easy to learn, difficult to master – it’s a cliche but it’s also the linchpin of casual game design. “Casual gaming is more about the philosophy of how you treat your gamers and their time, not what kind of gameplay you’re implementing,” Olesiewicz told me. He said that while Codeminion would love to do a game on “a bigger scale,” they would still likely remain casual at heart. “After all we have learned about game design and usability, it would be hard for us to imagine doing a mainstream hardcore game filled with blood and over-complex systems.”
And with good reason. Following the rookie studio’s failure to pull off a “standard” RPG called Spellscape which sputtered out in mid-development in 2003, they experienced their first success with a small title called Magic Match, although as Olesiewicz points out, “The term “casual game” was not used at the time we started the development.” But the positive reaction to the simple little title was a turning point for Olesiewicz and Biedrzycki. “The commercial and critical acclaim encouraged us to specialize and try our strengths in this emerging market,” he said.
Codeminion has grown somewhat since those early days, and now boasts a programmer, a designer, an artist and a web specialist. They also collaborate with other developers, sound designers, musicians and artists, and Olesiewicz says the team is always on the lookout for new talent. “To give you an example, StoneLoops! of Jurassica was developed by 18 people both from Codeminion and our contracts,” he said. “That’s quite a lot in our opinion. Our upcoming in-house project will have 23 developers on the credits list. But that also includes eight voice actors, as we’ll have quite a lot of voiced characters there.”
And while Olesiewicz and company are hard at work on what he describes as “a first true next-gen casual game,” they appear to be enjoying considerable success with StoneLoops! The game has only been out for about a month, meaning “hard numbers” are in short supply, but Olesiewicz described sales of the game through the Codeminion website as “quite promising,” adding that the game is selling better than Magic Match did during the early days of its release.
It’s good news, and a good sign for a developer that will likely command greater attention as the casual genre continues to grow. The inability of StoneLoops! to immediately distinguish itself in a crowded genre is an unfortunate weakness, but underneath that deceiving “same as” appearance is a fast-paced game with a solid strategic element and all the production values of anything put out by PopCap. I’m still playing it – and my mom thinks it’s pretty damn cool, too.
(To check out the trial version of StoneLoops! of Jurassica yourself, head to the Codeminion website at www.codeminion.com.)