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How EA is taking on the casual market in 2012

Not your mother's Farmville

the act
the act

EA casual game round-up

There's an old Woody Allen Joke about comparing a stalled relationship to a dead shark that reminds me of the games industry. I won't go into the delivery of it but the same logic can pretty much apply when you're talking about a stagnant publisher or even a genre after a couple years without any new ideas. If you're not moving forward then you've got a dead one on your hands which explains why in the last two years, in the middle of the casual games awakening in the industry, EA bought up two of the most prominent casual games firms: PopCap and Chillingo. Here is a roundup of the fruits of that EA buy-up displayed at this year's London EA showcase.

Air Mail is Chillingo's latest offering on iOS. It's a flight sim developed by N-fusion, with a style that gives a little more than a nod and wink to Pilotwings of yore. Hell, even though the game takes places in the midst of a war, for all its references to warfare Air Mail is a light-hearted sim that harkens to the genre's arcade tendencies. This is the story of accumulating points more often than it is about simulating realistic flight, and its primary color-painted battlezones are just a backdrop to a story about the world's youngest air mail pilot to deliver mail to various characters in a countryside based on rural Japan.

The campaign stretches over the course of 20 missions, where you'll learn to control the plane's wings independently with on-screen joysticks or by using the gyroscope and accelerometer to guide the plane over to the next mission-giver. These are optional, as part of Chillingo's remit for pick-up-and-play gaming. In fact the game can be played as a basic exploration romp instead, for users who are more drawn to object-collection minigames. Combat is avoided altogether, with the studio opting instead for a series of "helpful" missions to find ammo for the allies or tasks to fly into diamonds located around the map.

Their second title on show, The Act, is a throwback to the animated interactive movie genre of the 80s and 90s. Although there's possibly more romantic comedy influencing the premise than there is Dragon's Lair. The Act lets you control awkward situations with your hands, in a series of episodes that follow two down and out brothers who roam between odd jobs or romances. The latter episode plays out like this: One brother fantasizes about meeting a woman at a high class bar. To interact with her we swipe a finger toward her.

A fast swipe translates on-screen as a strange rumba while our character tries to entice the woman through dance. Only we're told by a fail screen that we misinterpreted her by swiping the screen too quickly and are asked to retry the scene again. The key is to work slowly toward her: baby steps. A slow swipe to the right triggers her to look over her shoulder at our lethario, and then we wait for her to slowly turn around in her chair before making the next move. Another slow swipe triggers our character to gently call her over, and so on.

The Act is actually a game of reading and interpreting feedback to your actions. Your missteps show on the faces of the characters around you and in turn you can "take them back". Sort of, anyway. The woman in the bar might sneer at you if you move toward her too quickly, but you can just as quickly slide your finger in the opposite diretion to take a step back, putting her at ease. The result is a social dance. You watch the expressions of the characters, then react. You watch as they react to your actions, then react again to that feedback. It's a tango that forces you to rely on your sense of perception, while you follow the lead of the characters in the game.

PopCap's Solitaire Blitz has more of a traditional arcade approach. Designed for Facebook, the studio took the old card game formula and applied some of the mechanics used in Bejewelled Blitz and Zuma Blitz, PopCap's earlier additions to the site. Unlike traditional Solitaire, cards can be moved from their decks as long as they are one point higher or lower than the cards in the master stacks. Similarly, PopCap introduces time pressures to the game and a leaderboard, and thrown in novelty items that can explode through half a deck of cards and open up more options in terms of what cards you have to work with.

The firm's philosophy for Facebook has been to grab an old formula and re-jig its DNA until it fits the quick-burst gameplay users have gotten used to. So this is a race to clear the decks in under a minute, for rewards of in-game currency to buy power-ups. It's a game that's layered in micro-rewards and clever power boosts that transform what was once a solitary game into something that could be played in a social setting, surrounded by friends egging you on.

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