Gabe Zichermann of rmbr.com spoke with ebullience and verve of the chutzpah that has to some extent defined the casual game industry since Bejeweled sprung from the void in 2001. Zichermann implied that, on a level, the whole idea of a casual gamer is more of a “media meme” than anything real. He attributes the myth of casual game market to a mixture of somewhat mundane factors.
Last Day of Work’s Arthur K Humphrey spoke extensively, if rapidly, of what he sees as the false and destructive conceptual divide between casual and mainstream games. Casual games are supposed to be accessible, and mainstream games are supposed to be deep. Games that are deep yet accessible are thrust into one or the other camp largely on the basis of their presentation.
Humphrey’s solution, in part: “in-between” games. His definition is “a game that takes the depth and qualities of a core game and brings it into a place where casual gamers can appreciate it.”
Baer started off by leaping back to the late ‘30s, the time before “electronics” was a noun. Back then, it was all about radio. Radio enthusiasts were radio hobbyists, and radios were simpler to build than a model Gundam. They were also a cultural phenomenon. Baer showed off an advertisement that read “Big Money in Radio – become a Radio Serviceman!” “Hey,” the young Baer realized. “I think this could be me.” So he spent the next few years dangling off roofs, installing wires through people’s windows.
You can’t make money making casual games, Zimmerman said. It’s a broken business model for developers, with low royalties, a ton of middlemen, a high turnover of software, a hugely saturated market, and ever-increasing production values, therefore production cost. Finally, now that the casual industry is no longer just a little club in a back room, the “big boys” like EA have shouldered their way in, driving independent developers ever more to the periphery.
On the creative end, “Casual games began with a promise.” They were meant to be a meritocracy, Zimmerman said; smaller in scope, and therefore more conducive to experimentation than big-budget mainstream games. Instead, 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.”
The prime message for the Casual Games Summit this year is that the casual game market is expanding so much, trickling over into so many demographics, that the old, rather lazy ways of thinking about the format and its audience have begun to stifle the potential of casual games, and turn them into a bit of a mockery of themselves.
The target audience, declared Microsoft Casual Games’ Chris Early, is no longer the stereotypical soccer mom. “Everyone’s playing casual games now, and they’re playing them in places we never thought they’d play them before.” Everyone who works with a computer is now either a customer or a customer in the making. So the big new question is, “who are you going to design your game for?”