At least six months ago, lured in by the Chocolatier and Tradewinds games, I joined Big Fish Games’ Game Club, and now I get a game credit every month. The last few months, I’ve been at a loss for how to spend it. That’s partly thanks to the relative dearth of material for the Mac, partly to the grinding uninventiveness of some segments of the casual game industry. I don’t like hidden object games or platformers or shooters very much; despise match-3 and mahjong. I enjoyed Diner Dash and the first few of its clones I played, but now there are so many that I wince at the sight of any two-word-title ending in Dash, Frenzy, Fever, Mania, or Madness.
This despite the fact that I’ve played a whole bunch of tower defense games, and enjoyed them all. Some game mechanics are inherently more resilient than others, and the resilience has to do with the strategic richness of play. It’s easy to introduce new strategic problems to tower defense games. You can let the player play on a set map (like Vector Defense and its sequels), or let him design his own pathway for the enemy (as in Desktop Tower Defense). You can force him to place his weapons at fixed points, or give him freedom to put them anywhere (like Bloons Tower Defense). You can make weapons upgradable; you can give them different ranges and effects; you can (as in Gemcraft) even make them portable between multiple points on the map. You could also (though I haven’t seen this yet) let the player have some control over the type or number of incoming enemies — a kind of bidding where the score and payoff are low if you select easy opponents, high if you take on the high risk ones. (I don’t know of a tower defense game that plays that way, but I would be completely unsurprised to discover one.)
Time management games are comparatively rigid. By tradition, the player controls only sequence: one succeeds by optimizing the order of tasks. Chaining similar tasks together gives a bonus (usually). When it comes to upgrades, the player gets to decide which of several improvements (usually to the speed of various component systems in the game screen) she’s going to upgrade first. That’s about all. No room for planning, no way to play the game in a significantly different way than someone else does.
Now, my earlier argument was that some game mechanics are just more open to variation than others, and I think that’s true. Part of the trick is doubtless that flow is critical to a time management game, and that may mean that it feels dangerous to give the player too much control lest she break a carefully tuned system.
But time management games could vary more than they currently do, by adopting a greater element of simulation. As things currently stand, the player usually has no control over the layout of her establishment (which affects things like customer flow and the speed with which the protagonist can follow her most frequent routes); over the types of customers she gets (there are usually idiosyncratic customers that turn up in certain waves, but the management of this is never left to the player); over the promotion of some products in preference to others.
Case in point: last night I played (until I got thoroughly sick of it) a game I’d bought with one of my languishing Game Club credits, not because I liked it so much as because it looked like the least lame option: Fashion Fits! The protagonist works in retail and spends her whole time restocking cargo pants and cleaning up changing rooms. It’s not offensive, mind you (unless you object to its stereotyping of cheerleaders); it’s just not interesting. And I found my mind wandering to all the things I would rather be doing in this game, namely:
— rearranging the store so that stations the protagonist keeps having to visit are placed close together
— controlling an advertising strategy to encourage certain clientele and discourage others
— arranging the layout of clothes and impulse-buy goodies in the store in such a way as to encourage certain buying patterns
— laying down laws for the customers (no changing room service! take your own clothes out of the changing room with you when you’re done!). No doubt I would pay for this option with reduced numbers of certain high-rolling customers, but mightn’t that be worth it?
— choosing new garments to buy for the store to fit the season and/or fashion trends and/or the clientele I was trying to get (and which the customers would simply not buy if I picked wrong)
Of course, that would have taken a lot more work to write than the current version of Fashion Fits!, and it would be a risk, and and and…
But this genre? It’s oversaturated. It’s got to develop in some direction, or there is less and less incentive to buy each new game.
Personally, I’m planning to quit the Game Club when my contracted months are up.