Creating Forever Games: The Dream of Hybrid Casual Developers
Joakim Achren — Mar 24, 2023
Hybrid casual comes from the Venn diagram of hyper-casual and casual mobile games, meaning the thing in the middle. The trend of hybrid casual comes up now and again. I did a webinar on hybrid casual games with Nick Murray in 2020, which you can watch below.
A lot has happened since this webinar.
The discussion around hybrid casual is more relevant than ever since many hyper-casual developers are in a transition phase. Hyper-casual has become challenging to monetize, and developers are seeking new ground.
During the last six months, I’ve seen at least ten companies pitch me the “mobile games factory” idea, where they take their hyper-casual skills of rapid ideation, development and testing, and bring that into more complex, meta-driven game development. But the transition isn’t an easy one.
The dream for someone departing hyper-casual is to create ”forever games” with sufficient long-term retention. But it’s not as simple as applying your hyper-casual expertise and building a mobile games factory, attempting to find forever games.
In this piece, I cover the main challenges developers will experience when they venture from hyper-casual, casual, or midcore games to start building these hybrid casual games.
I have seen this statement before, and I’ve also thought that hybrid casual games are “graduating” players from hyper-casual to more complex and deep games.
I’ve changed my mind. I don’t believe that is the case in any meaningful way.
A core audience of hyper-casual players don’t care about long-term player goals or meta progression. Hybrid casual players are more of a subsegment of mid-core and hardcore gamers motivated by player goals and meta progression who enjoy a snackable experience.
What I believe is happening with the above graph is the intelligent developers are creating better mouse traps to get “core-leaning” players to gravitate into these snackable experiences. The same happened on a much larger scale in the 2010s when approachable mid-core titles like Clash of Clans, Clash Royale, and Empires & Puzzles came to the market; audiences who love progression, with conventions from more core games, brought to them in a more approachable format.
Hybrid casual is, in a way, a continuation of the “core to mid-core” movement. Make deep games more convenient and approachable. Think about it: is Brawl Stars a hybrid casual game? It ties in with the Zeitgeist as a visual experience, very hyper casual and snackable, but with a deep meta.
Why isn’t a particular game hybrid casual, and one is? The clear distinction for hybrid casual is that if the game isn’t highly marketable like Survivor Io, it falls out of hybrid casual and becomes mid-core or casual.
But there are distinctions in hybrid casual that can make it challenging.
I’ve seen that UA costs will start low with all mobile games, but scaling will become problematic. You might tap into extremely lucrative installs in Tier 1 countries as you launch, but after 6 to 12 months of UA, you will need to tap into the segment of RPG players who are much more expensive. Then you start competing with developers with much higher LTVs and can afford double-digit CPIs.
Here the team’s hyper-casual publishing skills can pay off: understanding the thematics that work, the Zeitgeist and memes that make for a hit game with next to no CPIs. The better your UA creatives strategy is, the more you can fend off the growth of CPIs. Having a constant pipeline of fresh creatives and measuring their performance 24/7 with machine-learning software can take you much further. Unfortunately, many developers thinking about switching from hyper-casual to hybrid haven’t done self-publishing and lack the skills to successfully distribute these games.
Many people talk about the depth of hybrid casual games. But what about the core gameplay?
Let’s take racing games. You might think it’s a great stomping ground for hybrid casual games. The problem: too many variables for making decisions. So why does Hill Climb Racing work?
Fewer variables, more manageable decisions. You aim to go in one direction, accelerating and going up the hill. There are two ways to fail: 1) You are airborne and need to bring the car down on the wheels. Any other way will destroy your car. 2) Gas will run out if you are too slow on the track. The quicker you get to the end of the track, the better you will do.
Hill Climb Racing’s variables: you attempt to navigate each hill, and jump, one at a time. The variable count stays low, and the player has clear win/fail states.
Then consider a top-down car driving game: exposing the player to driving on a track where the player needs to navigate a corner. Do you need to slow down to take the corner? How early/late do you need to turn?
Information overload; when the player fail, it’s often impossible to know what they did wrong.
Positive feeling. You know what you did wrong and how to correct your approach. Hill Climb Racing, I didn’t flip my car fast enough before it hit the ground.
Realistic racing. I crashed, but I’m not sure if I was driving too fast, turning too quickly, or moving to the side before turning. So many variables, so hard to know.
PC/console gamers are used to many variables in racing games and they still play those games. But with mobile games, especially hybrid types, you are attempting to get a broad audience to play your game. Those who can juggle dozens of variables simultaneously and enjoy the less tactile touch screen controls, when compared to PC/console, is not a big enough crowd.
To end this piece, I want to share two other aspects of becoming better at hybrid casual.
Don’t invent games out of nothing. Habby launched Archero in 2019, and their subsequent successful game was Survivor.io, launched in 2022, which Vampire Survivors heavily inspired. How to get better at finding the next Vampire Survivors? Know why it works by becoming a world-class coroner. Examine the dead bodies on the ground. For every fifty attempts at creating a hybrid hit, 49 of those never made any money. Understanding why they failed will give you an edge.
Attractive budgets. Hybrid casual games have smaller budgets than mid-core games. You should be able to build the launch version of the game with a team of max. ten people. In most cases, the cost of going from zero to a global launch should be under $1m.
Team. Although costs are small, it’s not easy to develop the right concept and all its intricacies. To transition your team from hyper-casual to hybrid takes time, and often many attempts. As long as you are obsessed about learning why some game developers become successful and why others don’t, you can take the right steps forward and eventually find your success.