[As the casual game biz gets more complex, and the mainstream game biz examines complexity - where to now? Notables from PopCap, PlayFirst and Reflexive explain the state of the downloadable PC casual game space.]
There's no mistaking that casual games, while never generally considered part of the "mainstream" games industry of retail console and PC games -- and indeed, most usually excluded when discussing gamer-oriented downloadable titles, too -- have reached the point where they can no longer be ignored when discussing the games industry as a whole.
Whether it be from the claim late last year that the casual games business itself was a $2.25 billion dollar industry (and growing at 20% a year), or from the insights of industry insiders arguing that casual games developers need to adapt as the industry gets larger, there are plenty of signs pointing to the increasing importance of casual games as something that game developers should be paying attention to.
It's no longer just something housewives and office workers play to kill time in spare moments -- it's your competition.
There's no sign that points this out more obviously than the increasing polish and sophistication to be found in the downloadable PC casual game space. It's easy to characterize the industry to be a collection of fly-by-night portals featuring a handful of match-3 and retro arcade clones, but there's no arguing with its success.
To further investigate this growing industry, Gamasutra talks to some of its leading lights: John Welch, CEO of PlayFirst (Diner Dash); Jason Kapalka, CCO of PopCap (Peggle, Bejeweled) and Russell Carroll, director of marketing at developer and (via Reflexive Arcade) casual games distributor Reflexive Entertainment (Wik and the Fable of Souls) for their unique takes on the importance of the casual games industry -- where it's headed and what that means.
If there's one thing that our commentators agree on, it's that the industry is currently in a state of transition. "People say that casual games is in its infancy, but I think the industry acts more like a freshman at college," opened Russell Carroll. "Casual Games isn't quite sure what it wants to be when it grows up, but if it had to pick, it would pick everything!"
Much like that college freshman, we find an industry "struggling to find its identity", in Carroll's words. Jason Kapalka agrees: "The 'casual game' label is getting awfully broad, encompassing everything from the Wii and DS to Flash games, downloadables, mobile games and Rock Band and Guitar Hero. While that can make the 'casual game industry' look really impressive, it's not clear that all those games really fit under the same umbrella. They may need to find more specialized terms soon, if the 'casual' bandwagon gets too crowded or confusing."
Of course, even in this transitional stage, some traditionally held views still hold up. "Pirates are still the biggest group of casual game downloaders according to our numbers," said Carroll, "and as far as to who is buying them, most of the buyers are still the female over-35 group that has become so commonly quoted -- our own internal surveys haven't refuted that information."
However, this demographic's tastes are evolving. "Match-3 will never die," said John Welch, something which both Carroll and Kapalka agree on. "However, the casual consumer is becoming more sophisticated in their tastes. A simple match-3 game might do well on a cell phone, where you're looking for a few minutes of fun in between other things, but that's not what you're going to seek out to download for 'me-time'."
"That's why time-management, hidden object, simulation and adventure games are the big winners today. They're immersive experiences, rather than amusing momentary distractions."
PopCap's Bejeweled 2
"Certainly the key drivers to the market right now are hidden object games and click-management games," agreed Carroll. However, he did feel that perhaps the industry itself was reaching fatigue point for the current hot genres:
"Honestly, I think many people in the industry, but apparently not the consumers, have grown a bit tired of hidden object and fashion/food click-management games and are waiting for something else to catch on. So far, nothing has."
But what's next? Welch argues that the developments which led to the popularity of hidden object and click-management titles can only be built upon. "At PlayFirst we introduced character and narrative to our games -- we obsessed on meta-structural devices such as story development and even simple-sounding aspects like map screens and expert levels, all in service of answering the player's question, 'Why am I doing this?' which wasn't being answered by abstract match-3 games. "
"Our consumers could say, 'Oh, I'm solving this level to help Flo fix up her restaurant and become a successful entrepreneur.' The ability to nurture our consumers' connection to the characters and provide them with a clear sense of objective through storylines has proven very powerful," he continued.
"I believe that the next step... is to create a similar metastructure to answer the question, 'Why did I do that last night?' We need to help the player get something or somewhere more tangible, maybe to another level of status, or fill out a collection, or help a friend, or in some other manner to achieve something worth talking about. But keep it simple, or it won't be relevant to the masses. "
"A lot more focus is placed on story than previously was," agreed Carroll, but he did note that regardless, "Bejeweled is still one of the top sellers in the casual space." As a result his argument may seem surprising to those who forsee an increase in complexity in casual games as a result of increased importance of story -- growth should be maintained by "simplifying games and making them immediately accessible."
"This will open up the marketplace to a wider range of people," he explained. "Becoming more complex is a way to continue selling to existing customers, but it isn't the best way to find new customers. Instead of becoming more complex, casual games should (and are) increasing the amount of content that consumers enjoy to keep them interested. You can see, at least within the downloadable sector, a strong correlation between less complexity and higher sales."
"Hidden object games, for example, offer perhaps the least complex type of game play ever found in a game. At the base level, all you have to do is see an object and click on it. There is no real interaction at all. In match-3 you had to consider the board and move pieces, now with hidden object you just have to identify a game piece... and click on it... and you're done!"
"While the gameplay in casual games I think has clearly become easier, the polish, including stories, has become much more involved," he continued. "Hidden object games really lend themselves well to stories, as well as light adventure games, and both have been explored a little bit."
"However, what casual gamers seem to hunger for is more of the same. It's like watching a TV show. After it is over, if it's good, you want to see another episode. Casual game players are looking for additional episodes, providing another fun experience to them in a familiar framework. The market is willing to try out new game types, but they tend to stick to the current favorites."
PlayFirst's Diner Dash: Hometown Hero
Welch agreed completely with this. "The biggest thing we're doing right now to keep consumers excited is the release of monthly new episodes for Diner Dash: Hometown Hero. There's an audience that just can't get enough of Flo, and every time we expand PlayFirst's Dash brand universe, our players get excited -- it's like a new episode of Lost in that you never know where you're going to find your beloved cast of characters next -- and you certainly don't want to miss an episode."
As a result of the audience for the Dash games, Welch noted that they had decided to "expand the game universe aggressively": "Players who have a relationship with Flo can bring that relationship along with the skills they've learned to Wedding Dash, Doggie Dash, Dairy Dash and so on. Even with a bunch of fashion and clothing store games on the market, players will be more inclined to buy Fashion Dash because it expands on a story world that they love." PopCap have a slightly different take. "We don't really try to cater to the current trends. We just make games that we think are fun ourselves, said Kapalka. "Before you had Bejeweled, nobody was specifically asking for a game where you swap gems to make sets of three. Likewise with Peggle -- even WE weren't clamoring for a 'pachinko-meets-pinball' game before Peggle showed up!"When it comes to the choice between increasing complexity for the active market and keeping it casual for new players, Kapalka did agree that "it's a tricky balance."
"If you cater to the increasingly sophisticated casual players who want more complexity in their games too much, you end up alienating the 'new' casual players, and following in the footsteps of the mainstream game industry," he warned.
"We're certainly making more sophisticated games now, but we're trying hard to make them accessible to people who've never played a game before in their lives, not just those who are familiar with our existing games."
Is the comparison between the casual games industry and the mainstream games industry useful?
"Yes, I think they're analogous," felt Welch. "Casual games are becoming more complex and hardcore games are becoming more casual. Look at the Wii -- I don't think it's a 'casual' platform, because I don't think any proprietary dedicated gaming box can be 'casual', but I do think it represents the casualization of the console gaming industry. And as the casual player becomes more sophisticated, more educated, they demand more."
"I was reading our message boards a few days ago and there was a thread saying Wedding Dash 2 is harder than the original. One user said, 'Of course it is -- we already know how to play.' This is absolutely correct -- if we don't ratchet it up a bit we'll lose our most precious fans -- but at the same time there will be... new people playing [the franchise] for the first time in the sequel, so we also have to make sure we're not losing them out of the gate. "
"This is the same issue console developers face, but the difference is a person generally buys a console game before playing it, plus those are less 'casual' players to begin with, so they are a little more comfortable with dying ten times before they figure it out," Welch expanded. "Casual gamers are actually a more discriminating audience in a sense because they aren't so forgiving."
Carroll had a more wry opinion on the comparison. "Tetris wouldn't be released today in the casual games space unless it had a story mode about you working your way across the world looking for clues about your missing uncle one Tetris round at a time," he quipped. "Sadly I think casual games have started to feel some of that bloat of traditional games; adding features and fluff to the point of obscuring the core gameplay."
Reflexive Entertainment's Wik: Fable of Souls
"Just as the consoles are waking up to the opportunity of being a bit more casual," concluded Welch," we must make sure we don't fall into the same trap they did by getting too complex and losing the masses."
Hobbit Hollow Games