What Best Selling Casual Games Have in Common

The current best selling games at Big Fish Games are listed here:

  1. Escape From Paradise
  2. Big City Adventure – San Francisco
  3. Nanny Mania
  4. Agatha Christie – Death on the Nile
  5. The Apprentice: Los Angeles
  6. Private Eye – Greatest Unsolved Mysteries
  7. Mystery Case Files: Ravenhearst
  8. Mystery of Shark Island
  9. Magic Academy
  10. Virtual Villagers – The Lost Children

Clones wars
Two games got my attention: Agatha Christie and The Apprentice. Both games could have possibility to be something different, but they fell into the same soup than everything else. Christie’s game has pretty much nothing in common how Hercule Poirot was working (Sherlock Holmes might spend his time on picking objects, but Poirot was more interested in using his gray brain cells and psychological factors). The other game – The Apprentice – could provide some business lessons… but no chance: it’s pretty typical clone in the restaurant dinner service genre.

I understand that best games aren’t necessarily the best selling games, but it still would have been fun to see some real innovation in these kind of games based on known brands. Naturally the games were done well, and polished – but after seeing clone after clone I would have expected to see something else.

I want to make this really clear: I have respect for all these production teams. Anyone who is climbing to the top 10 list in portal lists has done a great job polishing a game that people want to play – there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Only about the innovation in games I might say a word or two.

The next coming of adventure games?
The same theme seems to continue in many other games. Mystery Case and Mystery of Shark Island for example are in the popular find stuff genre. I wonder when adventure gamers realize how great treasures they are holding their hands… there could be room for some extremely simple 2D adventure games where you need to find some items… and use them with other items. Add little speech, dialog, humor and fine art and we might see a miracle: adventure games might truly become one of the best-selling genre in games.

Or not, if they decide to make things complex with “look at”, “walk”, “talk, “use” and other commands – when they should only have one mouse button in use.

What all these games have in common
Besides being very well polished, family friendly and fun games – these best selling games seem to have something in common:

  • Almost all of them are technically simple or very simple. Just take a look at Mystery Case for example. That game is technically extremely simple: list objects, pick objects, get points. If you compare it to games such as Gears of Wars: I bet those guys spent more time making the facial animations (which is just one part in the game) than Mystery Case people spent on coding the game. (And by all means I don’t mean to bash the makers of Mystery Case – it’s good to keep things simple).
  • They usually belong to some quite typical genre. Serving, sims stylish, finding objects… these are the typical best selling genres for now (but only for so long after somebody figures out a bit better idea and cloning starts again). These genres are selling now, and developers and portals are catering for them. When somebody comes up with a better (simple) idea… there will be switch in genres. Match-3 type of games are not so popular anymore, although there are some of them still selling.
  • They are loyal to the “definitions” of casual games. They are time killers, they can be played by moms, they have a short learning curve, they can be played when somebody can spare a little time for playing. These games are defining what casual games really are.

It’s good to remember that best games and best selling games are two different things. Sometimes very different. Top selling games in the portals are really casual – keeping things simple, yet fun.


Juuso Hietalahti


  1. Here’s two links. The first is from the self-proclaimed most visited adv. site on the internets. It’s a review of the Christie game and from the head honcho of the site no less. He asserts that this title is the next generation of the casual game market. Also, did you know that Jane Jensen was the designer? Her casual game credits include BeTrapped! and Inspector Parker. Of course, there’s that little known trilogy called Gabriel Knight, too. ;) Gamasutra recently interviewed (complete with 15 year old head shot of her on the page), so she seems to be making a comeback. She’s making a new 2.5D adv. game called Grey Matter:


    Here’s a link to the Tunguska demo:


    The background of this Flash site is from the game (and it scrolls if you place the mouse at the right edge) and if you hold down the spacebar, the hotspot icons pop up just like from the game. The demo can be found in the file cabinet. Most reviews, both pro and end user, were quite positive when it came to this spacebar option and the technology behind the mouse cursor. I must admit that it spoiled me a bit, as well.

    All right, I’ve promoted my favorite genre enough for one month. ;)

  2. Juuso, all I said is that if you jugde a game as a developer you can easily misjugde the title and say “man, this game is so unpolished, it won’t make it”. I do this everytime. While ago there has been Amazonia game in top10 on BFG. It is so borring game that I really couldn’t understand how it made it into top 10 and Runes did not.

  3. There’s a disconnect here.

    The list you published was of best *selling* games. Developers didn’t assemble this list, and neither, I hope, did Big Fish. The list represents what the customers like enough to pay for.

    In any medium–and especially in ours these days–we must use the popular as a point of departure, and then gently lead the customers to newer experiences. We must let them feel safe and comfortable every step of the way as we nudge them ever so slightly out of their comfort zone. Having a “fish out of water” plot in a movie or television show makes for great entertainment, but your typical customer doesn’t want that particular starring role. No, in fact, it’s a common NIGHTMARE to be on stage in front of an audience and not know where you are or what you’re doing.

    If anything, the situation is worse in hardcore games, where folks frequently obey the buzz but otherwise stick with products that offer familiar, comfortable brands and gameplay, but with more content.

    We can take this opportunity to gently lead our fans to amazing new experiences, but it may mean taking smaller steps than designers would like when creating new games. So the path from 3-match to RTS requires that the consumers enjoy seven or eight games along the way instead of two or three. I think I can live with making twice as many games!

  4. Smart cursors alone won’t help – if the player gets stuck :) That’s not happening in casual games (the way it might happen in adventure games).

    We’ll wait to see you start the 2nd Golden Age – keep us informed!

    P.S. Where can I download a demo of Secret Files: Tunguska (I only found this review, but no demo…)

  5. A lot of modern adv. games are using “smart” cursors meaning the appropriate action is selected for you (talk, use, take, etc). There’s still the pixel hunting thing, but a game like Tunguska: Secret Files eliminated that by allowing you to press the spacebar and popping up icons where all possible interactive objects and exits were. That’s been done before (usually the TAB key in old games), but it’s surprising how few adv. developers use this feature. The end user seemed to respond well to it in Tunguska, and I plan on implementing it in some form in my own. Anyway, adv. games can take the casual world by storm. It’s just going to take that one magic title that sells an insane number of units and then you’ll have your 2nd Golden Age (we’re in a Bronze/Silver Age right now I think in the non-casual market but getting closer to a full on resurrection beyond the niche. ;) ).

  6. Scurvy, true.

    Roman, well – might be so – but there’s still some catching (at least for some people) in these game genres… no idea why though

  7. The funny thing about EFP is that it is not well executed game. Minigames are not so polished, sfx are terrible. Main game is borring. You can’t fast forward so you have to wait until they cut 50 pieces of wood or build a hut and it takes ages.

    So I am surprised that it is so high on top10.

  8. Offtopic: Shelock has more brain cells than Poirot :)

  9. I think simple adventure games for children along the lines of what Humongous used to do, except web-based, is going to make someone rich. It’s driving me nuts that I haven’t seen any yet.

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