Deer Hunter (1997): Early Casual

Oct 30, 2011

In 1997, Sunstorm Interactive released a value-priced game named Deer Hunter. Walking happened only while viewing the map – by clicking on where to stand next – and never from first person. Opening that map to move briefly froze the game. Player control in first-person consisted of turning or raising/lowering the view, but the game represented these changes as panning along a big wrapping photograph. The player had the ability to click on a deer call or antler rattle to use it, and though in theory these would attract animals in practice the actual value of either was pretty questionable.

The world was largely empty, except for clusters of repetitive tree billboards scaled to create the impression of distance from the player.

The game sold for $19.99.

1997 was a great year for videogames, meaning it was also an especially hard year to release a lower-profile title. Quake II came out a few months after Deer Hunter – but the first Quake came out more than a year before. Doom came and went years earlier, greatly raising the bar for graphics in PC games. GoldenEye 007 came out several months prior, Rare also released Blast Corps in 97. Carmageddon happened around the same time. 1997 saw sequels to Crash Bandicoot, Need for Speed, and Cool Boarders. The first Gran Turismo was released that same year, as was the first Grand Theft Auto. MDK hit the shelves, as did Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee. Consumers also discovered Riven, the sequel to Myst, in 1997.

Yet in December, the most competitive month for game sales, at a time when Deer Hunter was already a few months old, the game was Wal-Mart’s ninth highest-selling title.

Critics gave the game poor reviews. Far from being revolutionary, its graphics looked like they were pulled from 1991. The gaming press didn’t care about Deer Hunter. It sold for roughly 1/3 the price of other PC games on the shelves, though it was packaged in a full-size box rather than a bargain-bin CD case.

It sold to many people that didn’t previously play videogames (and some that did – I picked it up at the time), at a price much lower than most videogame companies could afford to charge, and made a bunch of money despite poor critical reception and being completely unimpressive technically.

I’ve occasionally heard claims of Tetris, Pac-Man, or Pong as the original casual games. They certainly fit part of the popular definition, and are useful from today’s perspective in emphasizing certain gameplay qualities, however it’s pretty clear that these sort of titles were adopted by the casual movement well after their popularity. Those games were well-received by all types of players, certainly including the arcade and home gamers, they were quite impressive technically for their time, sold for full price, and their controls were not really simpler than anything else released around their time.

When referring to casual games as the somewhat more recent market phenomenon, I think we also have circumstances like these in mind, which weren’t applicable to those old arcade titles:

  • Poor review scores
  • Unimpressive or severely dated production values and technology
  • Lower-cost development than its peer titles (seemingly, but sometimes not actually)
  • Does not appeal to most people that play conventional videogames
  • Significantly lower price than the competition
  • Sells incredibly well anyway

That fits Wii Sports, Big Fish Games, Facebook Games, many iPhone games, and many of the other titles and channels that I tend to hear people refer to as casual. What we now call the casual games movement is something that I became aware of (even if it was perhaps reincarnated after a previous lull?) in 1997 with Deer Hunter. At the time it had a lot of gamers scratching our heads trying to understand its success despite its seeming lack of commercial polish.

To be fair though, I enjoyed Deer Hunter. Its poor review scores made sense, for what they were looking for, but I think that Deer Hunter would have scored well in ways that other games were not being judged. It found extremely efficient ways to convey atmosphere, pacing, and a level of believability completely lacking in that slew of other 1997 titles listed earlier.

What first caught my interest about casual games many years ago was never that they occasionally (as in lottery-ticket occasionally) have a surprisingly high return on investment, nor that they reach players other than conventional videogame players, nor that they are especially affordable to consumers. What fascinated me about them is that in some cases, they embody some clever trick (that sometimes only works once), while in other cases they manage to fill a blindspot that the other developers missed, shining a bright, focused light on aspects of design previously ignored by videogames developers.

When a game pretty much only does one thing, especially when it barely does that one thing at all, yet it manages to miraculously make a ton of money doing it, that demands the attention of developers at every scale. In this way, an otherwise unassuming and comparatively low-budget title has the potential to change the field of game design.

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