More Hyper than Casual: The Changing Face of Hyper Casual Games
Featured Images, Left to Right: Fat 2 Fit! (VOODOO, 2021), Count Masters (Freeplay, 2021), and Run of Life (VOODOO, 2021)
If you’re involved in the mobile games industry, then you won’t have been able to escape the influence of hyper casual games in recent times. Despite this, it’s still unclear what exactly defines a hyper casual game: is it a genre? A sub-genre? Does it reflect the style, or the substance, of the games classified under it?
Looking at the Google Play and Apple App stores doesn’t clarify matters; hyper casual isn’t a genre or a tag on either platform. This suggests a genre in its infancy, though don’t confuse that with a lack of presence; Looking at the 5 top performing games on the Play Store at the time of writing, 3 of them are hyper casual: Count Masters (Freeplay, 2021), Fat 2 Fit! (VOODOO, 2021) and Run of Life (VOODOO, 2021). Delving deeper into the charts reveals that this ubiquity isn’t just surface level; of the top 50 games on the Play store, 26 of them fall under the hyper casual banner. For a single genre, one that doesn’t even get official recognition on the biggest mobile platforms, that’s quite the feat.
Of course, that’s one of the secrets to the success of hyper casual games. Where most genres are defined by a list of mechanical, thematic and aesthetic conventions, hyper casual is more of a state of mind; It’s more to do with ease of play, session length and visual style than it is any specific mechanic or setting. Unrestricted by the boundaries of a typical genre, they can do nearly anything they want, leading to widespread appeal. They then double down on this appeal by lowering the barrier to entry as far as it will go. You must be this tall to ride? Not at Hyper Casual Land.
In addition, a recurring pattern in hyper casual games is the way in which they tap into the zeitgeist; the trends of the day, as defined largely by social media. Hair dyeing, couples yoga, phone case customisation, fidget toys, weight loss; subjects like these may have sounded far too niche to be the basis for a game at one point, but today, in the age of the ultra-specific algorithm, games that cater to a niche are in a better position than ever.
The problem with trends, however, is that they’re volatile; fame notoriously lasts just 15 minutes, after all. This means that a blockbuster game idea one week will be useless the next, as the herd moves on to greener fields. Developers foresaw this problem, however, and chose to make it a core part of their design philosophy; if trends are only going to last a week or two, then so are the games. Volume of content and advertising strategies were adjusted to make profits over the extreme short term, so that when the games died down with the trends that inspired them, enough money had already been made.
This lightning-strike approach to game life cycles required that their development adjust in kind; many hyper casual developers finished one game then immediately moved onto the next, turning over a game a week in some cases. This meant that they simply couldn’t create new, detailed assets for every game. It’s for this reason that hyper casual games can usually be identified at a glance often making use of simple 3D assets and block colours. While some may claim that this approach highlights a lack of effort on the part of the devs, one could easily counter that simple, recycled visuals were a necessity to facilitate hyper casual games working as intended.
This was the hyper casual games story, at least until around the end of last year. As is appropriate for a genre built on the ideas of rapid iteration and response, hyper casual games have changed. Tuning into May’s Hyper Games Conference (HGC), a major digital event dedicated to the genre, showcased this in a big way. Speakers noted that the hyper casual market is evolving, with more competition driving more innovation, and, interestingly, longer game life cycles.
Where once they were lightning bolts, hyper casual games are now evolving into full-blown storms. Developers are starting to update them over time with new content, and tweaks to existing content. This, combined with a general increase in complexity and production values, would seem to contradict the ideals of the genre; once you extend the lifespan, use better quality assets and maintain them over time, what separates hyper casual games from any other mobile games? Once you’ve replaced both the head and the handle, is it still the same axe?
This is an interesting question. It may be that we’re witnessing a branch in the timeline, where some hyper casual devs increase their production values and ultimately end up working on mid-core games instead, and others stick to the base tenets of the genre and continue the rapid-fire approach that has brought the genre so much success so far. Alternatively, it may be the case that the speedy release schedule and trend-hopping that defined the genre’s early years was simply an evolutionary stepping stone on the way to what the genre will ultimately become.
However you slice it, hyper casual games aren’t going anywhere. As the world recovers from an unprecedented period of chaos and fear, simple, visually appealing games offer comfort and reassurance, reminding us that everything will be okay, one tap at a time. And even beyond that, the mobile games market in general has always rewarded accessible gameplay, and simple, colourful visuals; two elements that hyper casual games have in spades. All of this to say, unlike their main inspirations, it’s clear that hyper casual games are more than just a trend.
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