Cracking the hyper-casual market is more challenging than ever. Why? Quite simply, there’s too much competition. This simultaneously drives up the cost of getting new players and makes it easier for players to churn. And that’s particularly problematic because – with higher acquisition costs – studios need higher retention rates if they’re going to make a profit.
But a new genre has emerged: Hybrid-casual. Studios have realised that if they’re going to keep retention high, they need to layer in more features and aspects of meta-game. The tact is to keep the core gameplay short, simple and satisfying, but add meta-features that encourage players to keep coming back. Features like progression systems and collectibles that add more depth to the core game. (You can read more about why the shift is happening in our other post on the topic.)
In this article, we’ll look at how to make that shift. What features can you layer into your titles? How exactly do you turn a simple hyper-casual game into a hybrid-casual hit?
1. Build an economy, not just a currency
You probably already have a simple currency system in your game: coins, gems, or shards of mana. But they’re likely quite small-scale and only have one or two uses each. The trick to a good currency system is about establishing an economy. How does the player earn this resource? How does it get used up? What value does it bring the player?
Building a solid system is difficult. Game Maker’s Toolkit describes five basic traits all video game economies need (watch the full video on YouTube):
- The Tap. A way to create a resource. Adjust this to affect the pace of your game.
- The Inventory. A place to show the player how much of a resource they have. This can have a cap to limit the maximum number, forcing the player to spend it. Or giving another incentive – buying something to increase the cap.
- The Converter. Change the resource into a different resource. Experience into levels. Coins into potions. Raw materials into weapons. It’s best to have fewer resources, which the player has to decide how to use, rather than lots of resources with few uses.
- The Drain. An action that deletes a resource. Spending ammo to fire your gun, for example.
- The Trader. Buys and sells but has its own desires. (Think of it as an advanced converter.)
Image source: Art of War
This is vitally important when turning a hyper-casual game into a hybrid-casual one. All the other features we’ll chat about here rely on a good resource system.
For example, perhaps you have an endless runner game. Between levels, you decide to add a simple city-building element, where players make a farm. Each run, they could choose between earning wood, stone and iron. These three resources would be enough to force the player to make interesting decisions about what to spend their resources on. Too many resources and you’d overcomplicate the game.
2. Give players a progression system
One simple way to enhance your hyper-casual game is to add role-playing mechanics. Class systems, level-up systems, and stats that improve their character. However you decide to add this progression system, the key is to make sure the progression directly affects the core gameplay.
There are five traits to a good progression system:
- Character stats. Strength, dexterity and intelligence are the most common. But they can be anything. These are the core variables that everything else ties into.
- Level experience. As your player progresses, they earn experience. The best level systems allow players to choose which stats they increase when they level up.
- Passive skills. Passive skills are abilities that increase a specific stat or give some other benefit. They can range from passive healing to increasing the amount of a resource you gain a minute.
- Equipment. Items or skins that you can find or craft that increase a character stat. Often, there’s a limit to how many of a specific item a player can equip. So they need to make a choice. (Giving them ‘slots’ to fill is a good way to represent this limit.)
- Classes. Depending on the class the player picks directly affects which stats increase when they level, which items they can equip or what passive skills they earn.
- Quests. Specific challenges where the rewards are tied into the rest of the progression system. One good technique is to offer daily or weekly rewards for completing a set of quests, perhaps giving specific resources.
How might these stats affect the gameplay, though? You can either directly affect the core loop or affect a meta feature. For example, increasing your strength might directly increase your health. Imagine Helix Jump, a game where you dodge platforms as your ball falls down the map. Increasing a ‘sturdy’ stat might allow you to hit a platform without ending the game.
A progression system doesn’t need to be complex. A few stats can take a simple loop and add the extra layer to keep players returning.
3. Give players something to collect
Collectibles entice and appeal to the completionist gamers. They can also be a way to keep gameplay fresh by hiding certain collectibles behind specific criteria – challenging players to approach the game differently.
There are five collectible types that are worth considering:
- Cosmetics. These don’t change the gameplay but solely play on the cool factor. Hats, skins, armour colours – all of these can encourage players to spend their resources and stay in your game.
- Characters. Create a portfolio of different personalities, even if they don’t affect the gameplay too much. This can work particularly well if you’re using classes, as each character can link to a different class.
- Achievements. These specific challenges might reward players with a badge for bragging rights or even an in-game passive ability.
- Lore. Don’t underestimate the power of story. Unlocking short stories about your characters, snippets of information about your world, or even background information can be immensely satisfying. Many people will continue playing just to read all the lore possible.
- Tradeables. Specific rare items that players can trade with one another. These can include cards, weapons or even characters.
The difference between a resource and a collectible is that a collectible is the end goal. It usually can’t be converted – unless it’s tradable with another player. The idea is that the player spends their resources to get their collectibles.
Image source: Archero
The key is to make sure there’s somewhere in your game where the player can see a list of all the collectibles. They need to know what there is to collect – or at least how many of a specific collectible is available. For example, they might be able to unlock ten different pieces of lore. But there needs to be somewhere in-game that tells them they’ve got 2/10 pieces. If you don’t tell them, you lose the benefit of having the incentive in the first place.
4. Let players customize or decorate
Once you’ve established your resources, progression system or collectibles, it’s time to consider what you can add to allow your players to customize their experience.
- Their avatar. The player’s avatar is whatever character they use to represent themselves. Sometimes, you can let them customize their face – different hairstyles or noses. But if they’re a bouncy ball, maybe it’s different colours or patterns.
- Their home. Let them build and customize the layout of a room or house. Maybe even add city-building elements, where they can place down specific buildings with passive abilities. (You could go even further by having different building styles, like orc, dwarf or human.)
- Their user experience. The interface, music and level backgrounds are all ripe areas for customization. You could allow them to change between a gothic interface or a steampunk one. Maybe they can choose between playing in a forest or a volcano. And if your game involves audio, perhaps custom soundtracks or even different announcers.
You’ll notice that a lot of this customization can tie into your collectibles and progression system. But it’s best to give your players a few options to start. Throw them a few freebies, then let them unlock the rest as they play.
5. Add a narrative
When done well, a narrative alone can be enough. It’s arguably the single most influential feature that can keep players coming back. A strong narrative to your gameplay grabs your player and hooks them, keeping them invested in the story and wanting more and more.
A narrative doesn’t need to be overly complicated. It can work as long as it gives a reason for why the player is performing the core loop. According to Christopher Booker, there are seven basic plots, from overcoming the monster to voyage and return. Regardless of the overall plot of your narrative, there are two key features that your game will need:
- Character. All good characters have one thing in common: a core motivation. Even a bouncy ball can have personality if you’re clear about what drives them forward. Maybe Bouncy is an experiment, now exploring the world looking for others like himself?
- Conflict. It isn’t a story without conflict. There are typically four types of conflict: against a villain, against a monster, against nature and against yourself. Is Lady Balloon struggling with how she can’t find anyone like herself? Or perhaps her villain is Monsieur Gravity, who constantly pulls Lady Balloon away from her goal.
- Change. What changes as you progress through the game? Is the player gathering more and more friends for Bouncy? Are they chipping away at Monsieur Gravity’s power so that Lady Balloon can finally escape?
- Conclusion. You don’t necessarily need an ending, but you need a final satisfying point where the player feels as though they’ve achieved something. Even if the game has a reason to continue after that point, think about your conclusion.
In gaming, we also need to consider how we tell this story. Do you tell it through little bits of dialogue during the levels? Do you have snippets of lore that the player can unlock? Perhaps you have mini cutscenes at the end of a level?
But remember, you don’t need to tell your story. It just needs to be there. Subtle hints in your level design can often be more impactful than a page of text. Maybe you have a merge mechanic, combining different kinds of dogs. If your story is about a crazy scientist, perhaps your levels look like a laboratory. But if you’re a dog breeder, filling requests, maybe it looks like a storefront – progressively getting more and more fancy as you get further into the game, until you’re running a glamorous parlour.
6. Give players a way to play with friends
Competition drives engagement. Social features can turn a simple hyper-casual loop that people play on the train into a relentless competition between friends, constantly trying to one-up each other. Even simple social features can elevate a game. There are five typical social features you should consider adding to your game.
- Chat. While you need to be careful to regulate what your players say, allowing public chat between your players can help you start creating a community.
- Friend lists. Not only does letting players add their friends help keep them in-game, but it can also encourage them to invite their friends to the game in the first place.
- Guilds. Let your players form clans and guilds. If these guilds are tied into a separate progression system or daily quests, this can add another layer of encouragement.
- Leaderboards. Rank your players against one another and challenge them to climb the leaderboard.
- Tournaments. Challenging players to compete in a specific tournament against one another is another way to keep a community alive. Consider also letting other players bet in-game resources on the results of these tournaments, so it’s not just between your best players.
You don’t need to do all these to make your game feel more alive. But the more you add, the more a community is likely to form. And quite often, if you’ve built these tools once, you can reuse the systems in each of your games. Maybe even allowing some cross-over between your titles.
Keep track of your retention
The trend is definitely moving from hyper-casual to hybrid-casual. But adding just a few of these features can quickly transform your game into one that will grab and keep your players’ attention.
Whichever new features you add to your game, you’ll want to make sure that you’re keeping an eye on your retention, day by day. So check out our core tool to track all of your key metrics.