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Casual Game Design: Simple Innovation

Casual Game Design: Simple Innovation

Published by Leonardo Calcagno

The modern gaming industry might surprise some people. When it comes to competitive play, the average person probably thinks about eSports or famous Twitch streamers. Though these worlds remain niche and specific to gamers, they’re growing rapidly and seeing coverage from major publications and news outlets.

But behind the scenes, the true star of modern gaming would be mobile titles. Over the last two years, a global recession and uncertainty amongst China’s top-tier developers slammed the brakes on the industry’s fast growth. In its place, more accessible mobile games have taken over. In 2023, mobile games generated around $184 billion

And while competitive titles are certainly popular amongst mobile gamers, the booming mobile markets in North America, Asia, and Europe are largely framed around casual titles. That’s right—humble and hyper-casual projects are now the primary focal point for mobile fans. That $184 billion mentioned above was a staggering 49% of the total gaming market revenue from 2023.

Clearly, the casual game movement is here to stay—but these bite-sized games are almost nothing like their traditional counterparts. Let’s take a closer look at these games from the perspective of designers, exploring what has made mobile gaming an area of quiet innovation in the game design space.

Entry-Level Mechanics

Simplicity wins when it comes to casual mobile games, both in terms of design, mechanics, and mission. Let’s take a look at the third and fourth most popular mobile game genres based on revenue: puzzles and casino games, which brought in $9 billion and $8 billion last year, respectively. 

The goal in match-three titles is simple: drag around bright symbols to pair up matching sequences. Both Bejeweled and Candy Crush Saga helped put mobile gaming on the map thanks to this simple setup. Similarly, slots like Sweet Bonanza, which closely resembles match-three puzzles in terms of vibrancy and symbols, simply require players to set their bet, spin a reel, and wait for the final combos.

Simplicity cuts to the core of the gaming experience in both cases. In other words, slots players don’t want to be bogged down with complex quests and battles—they simply want to relax. Designers must think simply to meet their interests, using bright colors, straightforward grids, and limited mechanics to keep the game moving and prevent players from getting distracted and confused.

Bite-Sized Experiences

Match-three puzzles and slots are by far the most straightforward casual games when it comes to mechanics. Still, some mobile games are a bit more involved. For example, RPGs are the most popular mobile gaming genre, having raked in over $20 billion last year. Unlike puzzles and slots, they involve more difficult quests and missions. 

The challenge for designers in these cases revolves around generating maps and open worlds for mobile devices, which run on more limited software and hardware, and playing mechanics. Unlike traditional setups, mobile gamers have a small screen to work with—which means designers must make complex moves and goals simple.

Genshin Impact is a fantastic example. This action RPG lets players take control of their own destinies in a vast world—which is no small feat for developers. Developers regularly release new weapons and trinkets, allowing players to explore something new. But this game isn’t quite as bite-sized as others, meaning many players log hours doing their thing.

To cater to both casual mobile fans and more ardent gamers, Genshin Impact allows players to tackle difficult missions to level up or to simply explore the visually stunning open world at their own pace.


Lastly, we should point out that one reason mobile games have been a locus of innovation is that these titles are more accessible for developers—just like they are for gamers. Because mobile games are a bit easier to create, develop, market, and launch, they’ve become a popular avenue for indie developers. 

Indie developers are more likely to push the envelope when it comes to game design and mechanics. Not only do they want to differentiate their projects from similar games, but they also have less to lose if their latest release doesn’t perform well. In other words, they’re more willing to risk their time and effort with the hopes of creating that next big hit.