Casual Games

Contextual note:   I wrote these two essays last year as part of my honours work for university.  The casual games industry is not an area I’m overly familiar with (I’m a core gamer through-and-through), so this was quite a difficult exercise to write on with any kind of authority.  I did my best under the circumstances, but I’m by no means an expert in the field.

INTRODUCTION

‘Casual Games are just a short lived fad, and within a few years Video Games will return to their traditional demographic of young males playing action orientated titles.’

Starting from humble origins, the casual games market has grown significantly in recent years.  Today the market is currently estimated to be worth around $2.25 billion (USD) a year (CGA. 2007), and some expect it to grow anywhere between $11 and $15 billion by 2011 (Boyer, B. 2007).  One of the more interesting aspects of the casual market is that the primary audience are females, and on average, people aged between thirty-five and fifty (CGA. 2007).  Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of the larger players in the video games industry are now turning their attention towards casual games.

However, as the casual games industry grows, significant concerns regarding plagiarism, piracy, market saturation, and limited business models have been raised.  At the 2008 Casual Games Summit, Gamelab’s Eric Zimmerman declared the industry as “financially and creatively dead” unless developers took action to steer the industry in a different direction (Waugh, Eric-Jon. 2008).

To examine whether the casual games industry is merely a “short lived fad” or not, this essay will examine the origins and drivers behind the industry’s growth; examine the state of the market; and look at the future opportunities that could shape the industry in the near future.

THE PLIGHT OF THE INDEPENDENT GAME DEVELOPER

The recent Playing for Keeps report compiled for the UK government forecasts a bleak outlook for independent game developers:

“…smaller developers will struggle to start up due to poor access to finance. Those that survive will focus either on newer, smaller, cheaper platforms, or could become satellites around larger studios and publishers, providing specialised outsourced services…” (UK Trade & Investment. 2007)

This is consistent with the general trend of rising development costs and increase in consolidation over the last few years.  It is generally agreed that a “next generation” “AAA” game cost upwards of $10 million USD to develop, and have to sell around 1 million units to be profitable (Schoback, K. 2005; Costikyan, G. 2006).  Combined with lengthy development schedules and low profit margins (between 5-30%), it could be argued that the console market has become too risky and too expensive for all but the most successful independent developers to compete in.  Furthermore, the report suggests that by 2010 the majority of independent studios will be pushed into ‘work for hire’ contracts, with little or no opportunity to create their own game IP (UK Trade & Investment. 2007).

Therefore, in many respects the rise of the casual games industry could be seen as a deliberate response to this, both as a ‘back to basics’ movement and a way to reduce the costs and risk associated with making an AAA console game.  To illustrate, casual games typically cost between $50,000 and $250,000 to develop, and can be produced within a 3-12 month timeframe, with teams comprising of 3-10 people (Waugh, Eric-Jon. 2006).  More importantly, due to the reduced costs and overhead, casual games are perceived to be less risky to publish; giving developers the creative freedom to make more innovative games, which emphasise fun gameplay and not graphics.

“If the game’s not fun, it’s not going to make a sale. So everything comes down to whether or not the game is fun. …. It’s not about fancy graphics or movie licenses, it’s just about fun.” (Gwertzman, J; Cifaldi, F. 2005)

GROWTH OF THE CASUAL GAMES MARKET

While all video games can be traced back to the original arcade games and early home computers; as a pastime, casual gaming grew alongside the development and widespread adoption of PCs and the Internet.  Casual games as we know them today could originally be found in the form of free web-based games on the Internet, normally built in Flash, Java, or ActiveX by amateur game designers.  Due to the technical limitations of both connection speeds and web-browser capabilities, the majority of these games were visually simplistic, and designed to provide immediate gameplay satisfaction – making them ideal for 5 to 15 minute sessions (IGDA. 2006 – Present; Boyer, B. 2007; Nutt, C. 2007).

However, from around 2000, as the popularity of these web-based games grew, and as faster Internet connections became more widespread; a number of businesses, such as PopCap Games, began to develop and publish more polished games resulting in commercial hits like Bejeweled.  PopCap’s initial success was arguably the catalyst for the flood of casual games published today, which reportedly attract over 200 million players per month (CGA. 2007).  Today, casual games appear on a variety of platforms and distribution channels, including PC, Mobile Phone, PDAs, Steam, and even games consoles, such as Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and the Nintendo Wii, which both supplement their primary catalogue of games with casual, arcade, and retro games distributed via their own online services (IGDA, 2006 – Present; Boyer, B. 2007).

CASUAL GAME DEMOGRAPHICS

However, the origin of casual games as a genre, is not limited to web-based games, and goes back further.  Games like Solitaire and Tetris (packaged with Windows and the Nintendo Gameboy, respectively) are often cited among the first and most popular casual games ever made (CGA. 2007).  While it’s straightforward enough to trace casual games by their gameplay and interface similarities, it could be more insightful to reframe the definition in terms of the target audience.  In other words, not asking what the games are, but who plays them?

“If my mom can play it, it’s a casual game.” (Waugh, Eric-Jon. 2006)

The IGDA Casual Games Whitepaper and Casual Games Market Report agree on two main gaming demographics, or type of player – Casual and Hardcore.  The hardcore demographic represents the traditional videogame audience of males under 35 years old; typically playing action games with steep learning curves and significant time investments.  Whereas the casual demographic includes all players, with a 50-70% skew towards females and those over 35 years old.  These casual players tend to play for shorter periods of time, primarily for relaxation and fun; rather than for challenge and stimulation (IGDA. 2006 – Present; CGA. 2007).

By expanding this definition to demographics, we can include PC games such as Myst and The Sims into the casual market.  These games are unique in that they managed to successfully appeal to both hardcore and casual players, and as a result, sold tremendously well[1].  What they share in common include an accessible interface; relaxed pace; and universally appealing themes (mystery, exploration, self-development, experimentation, learning).  These characteristics, combined with a carefully balanced learning curve, seem to partly explain why the games have appealed to a much wider audience.

Ultimately, what this suggests is that there is, and has always been, a potential market for casual videogames, and that the scope of these games is probably much wider than current range of titles being sold by portals today.  Eric Zimmerman concurs, recommending that developers rethink the structure of market and consider the role games play in people’s lifestyles.

“If there’s going to be a casual game industry, its audience should be all the people who bought The Sims — people who don’t own an Xbox, yet neither do they resort to Yahoo! for their entertainment.” (Eric Zimmerman, 2008).

INNOVATIONS IN THE CASUAL GAMES MARKET

In theory, this would imply that every computer user could be a potential customer.  However, to capitalise on this, the industry would have to respond quickly to change in customer demand.  Yet, in its current state, the casual games market is already stable and growing steadily; thus raising concerns that it risks becoming stagnant from the same kind of complacency and lack of innovation seen in the high-end console market.

For instance, the primary business model for most casual games is the “Try & Buy” model, which is very similar to the shareware model of early PC games.  Portals host a number of games on their websites, and allow consumers to play limited trial versions.  To continue playing after the trial, the consumer has to purchase the full version of the game.  While this is the most widely adopted model, it has several limitations.  First, and perhaps most importantly, the conversion rates between players trying a game and actually buying it are extremely low – normally between 1 and 2%.  Secondly, there’s no continual revenue stream – once a user purchases a game, they do not need to spend any more money to continue playing (IGDA, 2006-present).

To work around this, most portals rely heavily advertising to supplement their revenue streams, both on their websites and in their games.  Other companies, such as WildTangent, use a “Pay for Play” model, which works around the concept of a virtual arcade (or slot) machine – users purchase virtual ‘wildcoins’, which they can use to play the games.  Variations on this idea include subscriptions, where the customer pays a monthly fee in return for unlimited access to the portal’s game catalogue and special ‘premium’ games.  Lastly, some companies have experimented with skill-based game tournaments, where players pay a small entry fee to compete for monetary prizes, from which the operator takes a small share (IGDA, 2006-present).

To further complicate matters, low barriers to entry have resulted in increasing levels of competition entering an already crowded market.  Since IP is harder to defend with simpler games, the market has become saturated with what are commonly referred to as ‘clones’ – derivative games that resemble bestsellers (UK Trade & Investment, 2007).

While this occurs in the hardcore market as well (e.g. resulting in terms like “Grand Theft Also”) it’s worth remembering that casual games can be developed within a relatively short timeframe, meaning that a new innovative game can often be ‘cloned’ within weeks of its release, thus making any unique gameplay hooks or innovations redundant (UK Trade & Investment, 2007).  Consequently, critics have cast a shadow of uncertainty over the future of creativity and innovation in the industry:

the field has “almost become a parody of itself… The degree of shameless clones seems, to my eye, to be more prevalent than other sectors of the game industry… I’m not seeing that innovation is rewarded.” (Zimmerman, E.; Waugh, Eric-Jon. 2008). 

On the other hand, developers such as Colin Anderson are more optimistic, arguing that imitation and adaptation are necessary to evolve games and drive innovation in the long term.  He goes further to argue that creatively reimagining and reinventing existing styles is fundamental to all artistic mediums, such as music and novels, which couldn’t have evolved to where they are now, if it weren’t for artists building on previous work and adapting it into something new.

“If the early rock and roll stars had patented the twelve bar blues, then music industry as a whole would not exist.” (Anderson, C. 2007)

CONCLUSIONS

While condemning casual games as a ‘fad’ might be going too far; some concern is justified.  First, it has been acknowledged that while the market is growing, it is quickly becoming saturated with derivative game “clones”, making it hard for developers to compete effectively.  Secondly, the current business models in place are limited, and tend to favour game portals and distributors, rather than the creators.  Lastly, the rapid growth of the industry, and low barriers to entry, will inevitably put more pressure on developers and portals to compete with each other.

However, despite these factors, there are some compelling reasons to remain optimistic.  For one, casual games development could be described as a move back towards the ‘golden era’ of game design, and the desire of developers to focus on simple, compelling gameplay mechanics, using innovative and creative ideas to capture the imagination of their newfound audience.  Whether this is due to a natural desire to return to the fundamentals of their craft, or simply a response to increasing market pressure, it can be argued that the casual games sector is a becoming more attractive for independent developers, and therefore more likely to remain active.  Whilst competition will put more pressure on developers; arguably, it will also encourage them to continue to refine, innovate, and hopefully break new ground.

Furthermore, casual games have naturally evolved in parallel with console games, and there is evidence to suggest that there has always been a demand for them.  Critically, studies reveal that their audience is not limited to the narrow ‘hardcore gamer’ market, and thus the potential for growing the market is seemingly limitless.  Whether this is actually the case or not, initiatives by Microsoft and Nintendo to bridge the gap between hardcore and casual gamers are likely to continue, with games like Wii Sports, Guitar Hero, Myst, and The Sims clearly demonstrating the potential rewards of bringing the two markets closer together.  Likewise the increase in distribution channels for developers, including mobile phones; PDAs; iDTV; Steam, Xbox Live Arcade, and so on; only confirm that there is clearly enough interest and activity in the market to sustain the industry in the near future.

© 2008 – 2009 Jonathan Hallier.  All rights reserved.

REFERENCES & BIBLIOGRAPHY

Anderson, C. 2007. Opinion: Why casual game cloning makes sense [online] Gamasutra. Available from: http://www.gamasutra.com/php-bin/news_index.php?story=14990 [Accessed on March 22, 2008]

Boyer, B. 2007. Casual connect: Microsoft on bridging the casual/core divide [online] Gamasutra. Available from: http://www.gamasutra.com/php-bin/news_index.php?story=14741 [Accessed on March 22, 2008]

Carroll, R. 2007. Casually speaking: ‘casual game portals: the inside story’ [online] Gamasutra. Available from: http://www.gamasutra.com/php-bin/news_index.php?story=15955

[Accessed on March 22, 2008]

CGA. 2007. The casual games industry summary 2007 [online] casualgamesassociation.org Available from: http://www.casualconnect.org/newscontent/11-2007/CasualGamesMarketReport2007_Summary.pdf

Cifaldi, F. 2005. Popping in on PopCap: James Gwertzman on casual growth [online] Gamasutra. Available from: http://www.gamasutra.com/features/20051214/cifaldi_pfv.htm [Accessed on March 22, 2008]

Costikyan, G. 2006. Games, genres, and why independent games are vital [online] Texas Independent Games Conference. Available from: http://www.costik.com/presentations/texasindie06.ppt [Accessed on March 22 2008]

IGDA 2006 – Present. Casual Games SIG/Whitepaper [online] IGDA. Available from: http://www.igda.org/wiki/Casual_Games_SIG/Whitepaper [Accessed on March 22, 2008]

Nutt, C. 2007. Casual game business worth $2.25 billion [online] Gamasutra. Available from: http://www.gamasutra.com/php-bin/news_index.php?story=16034 [Accessed on March 22, 2008]

Schoback, K. 2005. The economics of a next-gen game [online] IGDA. Available from: http://www.igda.org/biz/GDC05_NextGenEconomics.ppt [Accessed on March 22, 2008]

UK Trade and Investment, 2007. Playing for keeps: Challenges to sustaining a

world-class UK games sector; Commercial Models [online] uktradeinvest.gov.uk. Available from: https://www.uktradeinvest.gov.uk/ukti/fileDownload/Mono3GamesReport_LR.pdf?cid=411884

[Accessed on March 22, 2008]

Walker, T. 2002. The Sims overtakes Myst [online] Gamespot, CNET Networks, Inc. Available from: http://uk.gamespot.com/pc/strategy/simslivinlarge/news.html?sid=2857556&print=1 [Accessed on March 22, 2008]

Waugh, Eric-Jon. 2006. GDC: Casual games summit 2006: An introduction to casual games [online] Gamasutra. Available from: http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/2621/gdc_casual_games_summit_2006_an_.php [Accessed on March 22, 2008]

Waugh, Eric-Jon. 2008. CGS: Gamelab’s Zimmerman says casual games are dead (sort of) [online] Gamasutra. Available from: http://www.gamasutra.com/php-bin/news_index.php?story=17499 [Accessed on March 22, 2008]


[1] Myst was one of the best selling pc games of all time until it was surpassed by The Sims (Trey Walker, 2002)

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