Innovation & Design

Not-So-Casual Games


"Casual gaming” is becoming more and more of a misnomer. It implies that gamers who 'casually' play possess some kind of lackadaisical, shallow attitude toward gaming; as if they’re easily pleased, or content with playing any block-based puzzle game that is shoveled their way.

While there are exceptions, as the casual games market grows, these fans are becoming more discerning about the products they choose to play and how they play them. At least one report (specifically from Macrovision) indicates that casual gamers are almost as hardcore as the 'hardcore' gamers, with nearly one-third of them playing two hours per session, nine times per week.

Currently, the casual gaming market is worth an estimated $350 million, but that could grow to $1 billion by 2008, according to Jupiter Research. By 2010, the number of casual players could grow from today’s 60 million to as many as 80 million players.

The execs we spoke with plan on reaching that potential in various ways. Pogo’s differentiator is its focus on community, MumboJumbo has a keen on the retail sector, and PlayFirst thinks that someday, all games will be “casual” (in a sense of the word).

Pogo’s casual community

As platforms such as Xfire on PC and Xbox Live on consoles continue to focus on and develop that nice big community feel for more avid gamers, EA’s Pogo is aiming to do the same with casual gaming. That community aspect serves at least two very significant purposes: It creates a sense of belonging for gamers, and also provides a more direct venue for word-of-mouth marketing.

“We have a really vibrant community,” said Andrew Pedersen, executive producer of Pogo. “We have over 14 billion players who are coming to Pogo every month, and because they’re playing online and they’re chatting, they sort of spread the word and evangelize the service for us. [That’s] really the primary means of which we really promote Pogo or specific titles.”

Monetizing these gamers (i.e., getting them to pay up again and again) is a challenge for Pogo and other casual game companies. Industry watchers know the success of Eastern casual game business models, which have gamers pay micropayments for little upgrades for their online avatar and other features. Those dinky payments have lead to pretty jaw-dropping revenues on the other side of the world.

Pedersen said that Pogo is keeping a watchful eye on what’s successful in Asian markets, particularly in Korea, where the online gaming market is burgeoning. But while micropayments may work for some in the West, it’s not the ultimate solution for market growth.

“I don’t think that there’s a one-size-fits-all solution, and I think that’s one of the things that the casual games industry really needs to take a look at it,” he said. “There’s really vastly different segments of players that are playing online, they’re interested in different things. I think what’s important is to provide a really flexible solution where players can access content in different ways, and [make them] feel like they have some power over the choices that they can make about how they want to play certain games, what things they are really willing to pay for. … I think the advantage that micropayments have … [is that] they give gamers flexibility of choice.”

The confidence that Pedersen has in the casual games market and in Pogo itself is clear, but he still ponders a question that is surely shared by anyone with a decent product.

“I think at the end of the day, the people that come to Pogo tend to stay at Pogo, and the people that have no idea about Pogo or have no idea about casual games … are really a huge potential audience. And how you reach that audience, that’s the big question.”

MumboJumbo’s retail “grandma letters”

So everyone plays casual games online, correct?

No.

MumboJumbo, best known for 2005’s top casual game Luxor (a Centipede/Galaga/Zuma-hybrid) is the largest publisher of casual games at retail. For the tech-savvy (or anyone that has a basic grasp of the Internet), casual games and online have an assumed relationship. Although it’s true that online is where most casual gaming activity takes place, retail is the primary source of revenue for MumboJumbo.

“We get what we call the ‘grandma letters,’” said MumboJumbo president Paul Jensen. “We’ll get a letter from somebody who says ‘Hey, I found your game and I bought it at Wal-mart, it’s wonderful. I don’t own the Internet, but I’d like to find some other way to buy your games.’”

Jensen stated that through the retail channel, MumboJumbo has been able to reach gamers who are Internet-challenged to sophisticated gamers who are anal about actually owning a packaged product, or afraid to give credit card information over the Web.

“The retail channel, although you wouldn’t naturally think that it’s going to be a large channel, it’s actually quite significant [for MumboJumbo],” said Jensen. … Yes, customers are flocking to the online space to get these games, but they’re certainly buying these games at retail as well.”

MumboJumbo has relationships with retailers such as Best Buy, OfficeMax, Sam’s Club and the retail behemoth Wal-Mart. (“Shotgun shells and Bejeweled… will that be all for you today, ma’am?”)

Retail is of great importance to MumboJumbo, but Jensen, who recently came over from casual game firm SkillJam, has recognized the emerging opportunities provided by next generation consoles. With Xbox Live Arcade and promises from Sony and Nintendo to offer downloadable content via their upcoming consoles, casual game companies can reach yet another group of gamers.

“Yes … we are [looking to distribute games via next-gen consoles],” Jensen affirmed. “Certainly, Microsoft is very supportive of Luxor. They certainly love our game, and we love them, and we’ll be supportive of [the Xbox 360] and other platforms as they arise.

“We want to put our games, especially Luxor, into the hands of every consumer and every platform that we can. Microsoft is the first one out the door, and we’re going to support that.”

MumboJumbo was actually one of the original Xbox Live Arcade partners that Microsoft announced prior to the Xbox 360’s launch.

Finally, Jensen spoke of possible hindrances to the growth of the casual games market. He said that while the low cost of entry is beneficial to developers (compare around $50K for a casual game versus $50 million for a big-budget PC or console game), that lowered barrier creates a flood of games where, frankly, many of them suck. This influx of games creates an environment that’s difficult for consumers to maneuver.

“You have a lot sites that are launching hundreds and hundreds of titles into which consumers are then thrown out the door, and [game companies] say, ‘Find a game that you like,’” Jensen said.

“…It doesn’t mean that only three developers deserve to put the best games out. I believe any developer should have the right to put these games in front of every customer. … You just have to make sure the quality of the content stays high.”

PlayFirst’s casualized future

Perhaps more than ever, the topic of accessibility in gaming is garnering the attention of developers. Back when controllers only had a stick and a button, and a little on-screen triangle shot at floating polygons, accessibility wasn’t an issue.

But as joypads filled up with buttons and sticks, much of the pick-up-and play aspect has been lost. Nintendo is arguably leading the reversion back to a simpler time with the Wii and its freestyle controller.

PlayFirst president and CEO John Welch, whose company is behind the popular Diner Dash, thinks that the Wii is just one example of what he calls the “casualization” of videogames.

“I think my big long-term, bold statement is that in five years … we won’t be talking about ‘casual games,’ he predicted. “All games will be casual. There’s a certain amount of convergence occurring, and I think it’s going to speed up.

“Some of the principles that we’re bringing into the gaming market are games should be accessible, should address a wide market and shouldn’t be in development for five years and have $50 million budgets to be valid forms of entertainment. I think you’re going to see this adopted more widely.”

Casual games are the epitome of pick-up-and-play, or at least that’s what most aim to be. In order to convince consumers to download and buy a game, a casual game had better impress them right quick.

But other than the Wii, how are all games turning more casual? Welch made the observation that hardly anyone, himself included, reads instruction manuals for games anymore. Perhaps that means developers are trying to keep accessibility in mind through the use of tutorials and such, or maybe gamers are just the type of people that refuse to read assembly instructions for bikes or ask directions from gas station attendants.

One may believe that the casualization of games would turn off hardcore players, but Welch doesn’t think this is necessarily the case. He stated, “What I mean is that core games will continue to evolve and continue to casualize, and that ideally they’ll keep their harder-core audience. … And that’s a casualization of core games.”


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