The genre may be called ‘casual gaming,’ but with a large user and revenue base, it is serious business
Jason Kapalka is chief creative officer of PopCap Games, a casual game developer for the Web, PC, mobile phones, and other digital entertainment platforms. Kapalka founded the company in 2000 along with Brian Fiete and John Vechey.
Initially, I had been writing for Computer Gaming World, and then went to San Francisco during the dot-com era to join the Total Entertainment Network (TEN), which would later become pogo.com. I was there from 1995 to 2000-the full boom-to-bust cycle. TEN started out as a hard-core gaming service featuring subscription titles like Duke Nukem and Total Annihilation. However, as the trend for these sorts of games evolved into offering free play over the Internet, TEN’s business model changed (several times) as well.
I went from producing multiplayer tank games to casual games such as...Bingo! My first thought was, how do you make this not totally boring? The online bingo games in 1998 were fairly primitive. I ended up with a design that’s still used on pogo today...basically slapping a chat room onto a single-player game. You’re not directly interacting with other players, but they still give you a sense of community, which is important in online gaming.
Like most of the casual games people, I started in the hard-core gaming space, and at first wasn’t sure about these seemingly mindless little games. But as I started working on them, I began to understand several things...that making a simple game was actually a lot harder than making a complex one, and that making games accessible to everybody was more challenging and rewarding than making games for a niche audience of hard-core gamers.
When I first got involved in 1997, it was a very young field, with numerous dot-com start-ups viewing the casual games space as a source of ad revenue. At PopCap, we even tried the ‘free games supported entirely by ad and sponsorship dollars’ approach at the outset, only to watch the ad-supported model crumble as the dot-com boom ended. We believed that there was a lot of opportunity in the area of more sophisticated, original game concepts in genres like puzzle games, word games, and classic arcade-style action games, but the business model for casual games-unil then, ad revenue-was looking grim.
We decided to try the shareware model first used in the earliest days of PCs: try the game for free, and if you like it, send us money. We refined this a bit by making the deluxe versions of the games more involved, with additional bells and whistles, so the consumer could further justify paying for something that he/she could essentially get for free.
This try-before-you-buy model has been extremely effective, and is now used by nearly everyone in the casual games business as the primary source of revenue. And not having to rely on advertising revenue means that casual game developers can focus more on the games themselves without having to build out a sizable sales staff to sell ad space.
The combination of a viable sales model and the growing penetration of fast ’Net connections that allow consumers to download an average-size casual game in its deluxe form (about 8 to 10mb) has helped grow this market tremendously. Casual games are still built by small groups of developers/artists on modest budgets (three to eight people, $200k budgets vs. 100 or more people and $5 million to $10 million budgets for hard-core games). But the tools to build the games, the means of getting those games into consumers’ hands, and the devices on which those games can be played all continue to evolve rapidly, keeping the casual games sector vibrant and innovative in ways that the traditional video game sector lost or forgot many years ago.
The casual games sector is a $500 million to $1.5 billion industry today, and is expected to grow to $3 billion to $8 billion in the next few years. The disparity in these figures is due to some firms breaking out certain types of games, or certain distribution channels (some casual games are sold at retail, for example) or platforms (most importantly, mobile). Figures peg the overall audience at 100 million people, all playing casual games on a monthly basis.
One key reason is the advent of mobile entertainment. From cell phones to PDAs and new ‘ultra mobile PCs,’ consumers are getting more mobile and taking more computing power with them wherever they go, even if they only carry a cell phone. The vast majority of traditional video games don’t translate well to mobile devices-the processing power, data storage capacity, input controls, and broad appeal of mobile devices, especially mobile phones, make them really well suited to casual games, which are fun even in small time increments of 5 or 10 minutes. Also, they don’t require you to read a manual to play, have basic game controls that are easily adapted to mobile handsets, appeal to all ages and both genders, and much more.
Unlike traditional video games, with their massive development teams, movie and comic-book tie-ins, and enormous marketing budgets, casual games must succeed on their own merit. So casual game developers must innovate at a very fundamental, archetypal level-you can only make so many ‘match three’ type of games before you’ve exhausted the subject. Casual game developers are also in a position to do more experimentation than traditional game developers are. It’s a lot easier to shelve a $200,000 project midway through than a $5 million project. So we in the casual games space are always trying new ideas, many of which never see the light of day. But those that do work are generally different and novel.
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In PopCap’s Insaniquarium for the PC, Pocket PC, and Palm, players feed the fish, fight aliens, and solve timed puzzles.
The typical casual gamer is a 40-something woman. At PopCap, 72 percent of our seven million monthly visitors are female, and fully three-quarters are over the age of 35. This is reflective of the industry as a whole.
The attraction is different for everyone, of course, but some of the common themes that we hear include: great graphics; easy, straightforward controls and game rules; addictive gameplay; attention to detail; and the engagement. The engagement factor behind successful casual games is the fine balance between challenge and reward-casual game fans want to jump in and be playing the game within a minute of purchasing or downloading it. But, they want it to remain fun and challenging for a long time.
A casual game can really be in any genre: a puzzle game like Bejeweled or Tetris, an action game like Zuma or Pong, or weird stuff such as rhythm/dancing games like Dance Dance Revolution or even The Sims.
Visually, the games are becoming more sophisticated, with megabytes of high-quality, professional artwork. Yet, beyond flashy effects, there’s not a whole lot that 3D can add to a game like Tetris, Bejeweled, or Solitaire; they’re just 2D games at heart, and I think a lot of games will continue to be 2D in the future by their inherent nature. Also, casual game players have older computers with substandard video cards, and for them, 3D isn’t practical.
In theory, they can be done very quickly-a matter of months with a small team of three to five people. In practice, the dev cycle has been getting longer, for several reasons. First, the bar for production quality has been rising, so you need to spend more time on art, sound, music, and so forth.
They need to be addictive and fun, like any game. But where a casual game differs from a traditional console game is that it is often meant to be relaxing or soothing instead of energizing or exciting. A lot of casual game players play games to unwind after a busy day. The most successful casual games are often the ones that don’t require too much concentration.
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In Bonnie’s Bookstore unique word puzzle game, players help the main character become a children’s book writer.
Bejeweled and Bejeweled 2 are our flagship games. They’re just very simple, elemental puzzle games. Zuma is probably our second-biggest hit; it is more action-oriented than Bejeweled, but still easy to get started.
Chuzzle was our big hit from last year. Like Bejeweled, it’s a match-three type of game, where you have to shuffle rows of furry critters to get three or more of them adjacent to one another. The characters are a big part of its appeal; we worked hard to make the Chuzzles cute and fun to click on. Also, Feeding Frenzy 2 is our most recent release. It is an arcade game whereby you control a fish that must navigate an ocean environment, eating smaller fish to grow larger, while avoiding getting eaten in turn.
A hit casual game can be a solid seller for years. This is largely due to the fact that these games can never be fully mastered; the game continues to present increasingly difficult decks or levels.
Developers continue to enter the space because it’s perceived as easy money. The reality is that because of the try-before-buy sales model, any me-too copycats generally don’t succeed. Developers also continue to enter the casual games space because they see the money that’s being made and want a piece of the pie.
The user base continues to grow as more people become aware of casual games and more people have fast ’Net connections that make downloading a 5 to 10mb game quick and painless. Also, most people’s leisure time continues to become fragmented; other than while you’re on vacation, how often does the average working adult have three hours to set aside for a session of CounterStrike or Halo 2? As consumers increasingly seek short mental breaks while waiting at the bus stop, airport, doctor’s office, grocery store, and so forth, casual games grow in their appeal.
Along with mobile, one interesting new market is the Xbox 360. While this caters in theory to the hard-core gaming market, the 360’s Live Arcade feature, where you can download simple games for $5 to $10, has been extraordinarily popular. For the first time it offers console gamers the chance to buy simpler games of the sort that PC users have had access to for years.
There’s a lot more competition in the market than there used to be, and that probably means there will be some consolidation in the field, with some companies getting acquired or dropping out. Also, there has been a lot more interest in the space from bigger media and game companies lately, and they may change the landscape if they aggressively start buying or building their own casual game ventures. Furthermore, Asia is a large gaming market, and there’s a lot of buzz around multiplayer or community-based games, which are prevalent there and elsewhere. There’s also discussion about following the Asian lead in basing games’ economics around avatars, subscriptions, or microtransactions. Nobody has quite made this work in the West yet, but it’s probably only a matter of time.
Computer Graphics World April, 2006