Casual games get serious

Companies are increasingly coming to the conclusion that expanding the game market means expanding the types of games they make to include smaller, simpler titles.

by

LOS ANGELES--Imagine if all Hollywood cranked out was action movies. You'd have theaters packed with young men, but people who'd rather steer away from action flicks, including many women, would find something else to occupy their time. That's basically the problem the video game industry has had--until recently.

The game industry appears to have found its answer with so-called "casual games," a category of software-based entertainment that includes word and puzzle games, board games, and even some classic arcade titles. While not new, the casual-games industry is enjoying a renaissance driven by advertising dollars and the ubiquity of mobile devices.

"The video game industry year after year is exceedingly good at pumping out action films," says Alexis Madrigal, an analyst at market research firm DFC Intelligence. "Casual games are a step in the direction of coming up with (the equivalent of) comedies and romantic comedies."

Casual games like Bejeweled and Zuma still don't attract much attention at the annual E3 trade show here. While people will wait for half an hour or more just to see a short trailer for big games that in some cases are months from release, casual games are little-mentioned and hard to spot on the show floor. But what casual games lack in hipness, they make up for by being cheap to make, addictive, and highly profitable.

The North American market for casual games is expected to grow from an estimated $281 million in sales this year to $1.15 billion in 2011, according to DFC. Globally, thanks to the popularity of these games in China and Korea, the market is already closing in on $1 billion in annual sales.

Several trends are helping push casual games out of the margins and into the forefront. Advertising has emerged as a key revenue opportunity for games, and hardcore games reach only one of many demographics that advertisers covet. Also, casual games tend to be small and have minimal processing needs, making them ideal for mobile devices, particularly cell phones.

As a result, some pretty significant tech companies have become big players in the field, including Microsoft, RealNetworks, and well-known gamemaker Electronic Arts, which has amassed more than a million subscribers to Pogo.com, its online casual-game service. Smaller firms that specialize in casual games have also managed to draw a significant base, including MiniClip and Big Fish Games.

"It shows there is room for companies that are willing to innovate and push hard," Madrigal said.

After the dot-com bust caused many advertising-backed ventures to fold, casual games felt the effects.

"When the Internet advertising market bottomed out after the bubble burst, it really hurt casual gaming," Madrigal said.

When advertising rates went through the floor, though, the survivors in the industry shifted to making money by selling games that could be downloaded to the PC, typically for $20 or less. As Madrigal noted, "Necessity brings invention."

RealNetworks got into the market about six years ago as it was looking to expand beyond media software. Bits are bits, the company figured. Initially, RealNetworks targeted hardcore gamers who played games like Doom and Quake and tried to get them to pay to play games online.

"It was abysmal," said senior vice president Michael Schutzler. "It did not go well at all."

At the time, gamers were used to buying games, not paying monthly subscriptions to play online. Plus, the technology wasn't ready to provide the massive bandwidth that serious gaming would entail.

"The pipes were too thin," Schutzler said.

Almost on a whim, RealNetworks tried putting up a simple puzzle game, and it sold well. The company revamped its marketing, drafted a new business plan, and scoured the market for all the little games it could find. In 2004, the company Web sitespent $36 million to acquire GameHouse, a developer specializing in puzzles and other small games. Last quarter, RealNetworks earned $18 million in revenue from casual games--more than 20 percent of the company's overall revenue--and Schutzler sees plenty of growth ahead.

"We're just in the early days right now," he said.

Meanwhile, RealNetworks, like many in the casual-games space, is focusing much of its attention on moving beyond the PC and into mobile games. Last year, the company paid $15 million for a mobile-game specialist, Mr. Goodliving.

Casual games are also starting to make an impact in the console arena. Though small downloadable games aren't the main incentive for most people to spend hundreds of dollars on an Xbox 360, Microsoft is touting them as a significant bonus to its system. Nintendo, too, has talked about tapping its stable of classic titles to help boost interest in its forthcoming Wii console. And now, with advertising making a big-time comeback, casual games are taking on a growing importance.

Traditional games appeal to a very lucrative segment for advertisers--young men--but a lot of advertisers want to reach other segments of the population. Most importantly, casual games allow advertisers to use the medium to reach women. For example, two-thirds of those playing at MSN Games are female, with RealNetworks drawing upward of 60 percent women.

"People that don't even think of themselves as gamers are playing these games," Schutzler said.

Of course, there are also plenty of men who aren't into games. Indeed, while the current market for casual games has tended to draw more women, there are efforts to draw in more men as well. For example, deodorant maker Degree antiperspirant has sponsored a free online Texas hold 'em game on MSN Games. In addition to the expected cadre of onscreen ads, the Degree for Men logo is prominently displayed on the game table and card-backs.

Microsoft has had a significant casual-games business for at least a decade, following its 1996 purchase of Zone.com. In some ways, the company's involvement in the realm reaches back even further, says Chris Early, studio manager for Microsoft's casual-games unit, noting that the solitaire game built into Windows is really the forerunner of casual computer gaming.

"It's the most-started app in the world," Early said.

But with their newfound aim at the advertising business, casual games have become far more strategic. Casual games are also likely to figure prominently in the Live Anywhere strategy announced Tuesday by Microsoft chairman Bill Gates. Gates touted a vision in which games can be started on a PC or Xbox and then picked up on a mobile phone. For now, though, such play would only be possible with casual games.

"Frankly, I don't want to play Shadowrun on my phone," Early said.

One of the challenges for all types of in-game advertising is figuring out the balance of how many ads to include, and where to put them, Schutzler said. "You can't put too much advertising in the game without destroying the game."

One of the nice things about casual games, he said, is they tend to have natural breaks, like television shows, where commercials are less disruptive than halting a live-action game.

With action games, much of the focus is on product placement. Hence, Microsoft's decision earlier this month to buy Massive, a small company whose engine places advertising right in the middle of video games, often on billboards.

But while such impressions are important, casual games offer opportunities for more distinctive brand advertising. In addition to TV-style commercials and banner ads, the cost of such games is low enough to allow sponsors to offer free games that are tinged with their branding throughout. Tyson Foods, for example, offered a version of "Bejeweled" in which the game's standard jewel icons were replaced with poultry-themed graphics.

Casual games are another way to reach men who aren't hardcore gamers, Early said. Microsoft this week announced that it had struck deals with several gamemakers of yesteryear to bring titles such as Root Beer Tapper, Paperboy, and Pac-Man onto the Xbox 360. Older arcade games feature many of the same characteristics of other casual games--easy to play for a short time and familiar, with low processing needs.

"It's easy to hop in to Frogger," Early said, groaning at his unintended pun. It appears, Early said, that even the hardcore gamers are spending significant time playing some of the casual games available through the Xbox 360's Live Arcade.

"I think that's been as big a surprise as anything else," Early said.

Discussion

43 comments
gorgonaut
gorgonaut

Reading this article now is simply amazing...

robotopbuddy
robotopbuddy moderator

they better do a bloody good job of it....and not slack on the proper games.....otherwise this could be very annoying...

reallydedpoet
reallydedpoet

A lot of us do not have the time to unlock everything, or play games for hours on end to get to the end of the story. It would nice to see the GTA concept applied to many more games. Open concept, mini-games within the game that still give you a solid feel for that game. I like the old games, but still want to play the new, but do not want to committ every waking minute to them.

maximo1
maximo1

Zuma is amazing! I play it on my phone all the time.

Ryze
Ryze

bulldog7 said: 'I agree we need more diversity, but the comparision to Hollywood is terrible. Some people, regardless of gametype, hate videogames, period. There always has been a view that these things are a waste of time, even as an educational device. Still, I like the diversity thing, very much needed' Well there is nothing wrong with the comparison in my opinion, but maybe it should have mentioned other mediums than hollywood movies. If you look at the average Soap opera - it's mindless garbage that teaches you nothing - the same with many comedy sketch shows or silly made for afternoon TV romance movies. The teachers that would tell us that games are a waste of time will probably go home and watch these very programmes to relax. So it's the equivalent of these that we need in games. So far, we've had solitare, lemmings, tetris, sudoku, the Sims, Brain Training, Nintendogs, etc... Now we need to think outside of the box - use the technology to make things seem more natural a la the Wii interface, add social interation using the live headset and especially the camera. Have you noticed how the action games have really been fleshed out and advanced with graphics, sound and features such as online play taking advantage of the technology available? Loads of other genres haven't. They've stayed the same and not been enhanced or promoted much. Have you heard about the poker tounaments that will be on XBox live? they'll be using the camera - a perfect example. This adds another layer of realism to the game. Makes it like real poker from your armchair - really uses the technology to enhance the game, without making things over complex. There just has to be more games that appeal to what people want out of entertainment - social interation, a good story to get them hooked, good characters, attractive setting, perhaps someting puzzling to stimulate the mind. I'll create a forum subject on this to see what is mentioned. The problem is that we, here @ Gamespot, are already the type of gamers that buy games, so we get a load of samey perspectives, going along the same lines as what has already been done. If there were more perhaps mystery or problem solving games, based in real life esque scenarios, with some good characters, plus online social interation using voice and video to work together and solve puzzles using the brain - then, if these were marketed correctly - bingo. The next consoles will bring the Infrastructure for any of these games that we want. XBox live, headsets, cameras, gyroscopes, storage, downloads, broadband, wireless - the technology is all there - we just need the ideas and implementation.

Nawras
Nawras

Who isn't addicted to Bejeweled or Luxor anyway

Nafda
Nafda

Casual gaming and Playstation 3 not mentioned in the same article, go figure.

axia_777
axia_777

Uh, you mean go back to the Old School ways of making games? This is sooooo stupid. Look at Tetris, and realize it is the most popular game ever made. Look at the gameplay. Learn something people. The games industry has become dumb in a serious way.

cireking213
cireking213

I tried Bejewelled online against a friend. I must admit it was fun, being able to text message added to the fun but we really needed voice. I hope they make tons of money off causal games so they can risk being more creative with my action titles.

LosDaddie
LosDaddie

Xbox360's Xbox Live Arcade is a tremendous success because it appeals to the casual gamer. MS really hit the nail on the head with this one!

alberto2045
alberto2045

nice the best one is Bewelled or something like that

NeoJedi
NeoJedi

If this helps out the gaming industry, then I'm all for it. I have nothing against casual games... heck, I've played Solitaire a whole lot in my life!

living_wmd_888
living_wmd_888

I like classic arcade games as a "casual" diversion, but the puzzle games look like repeated clones of Tetris, Puyo Puyo, or Puzzle Fighter. And I don't want to play ANY games on my dinky, low-res cell-phone screen. I personally wouldn't care if cell phones had screens, I have one to TALK and LISTEN to people.

IndieRock13
IndieRock13

I think this next-gen stuff is bad for the industry. I've seen a lot of people consider classic or simple games to be dumb. Graphics and huge scope are about all that matters anymore. They're both really fun concepts, but production times for games is getting huge and the expense is becoming rediculous. That just leads to only a few big companies ever being successful. New startups are getting less and less capable of getting their foot in the door. This leads to rehashes of old titles and about every other boring game idea that comes from companies like EA. That's why Live Arcade and and Wii's similar concept are great. Old classic simple games that are still a great way to pass the time come back in vogue and indie developers get a chance to give it a shot. An increase in casual games is healthy for the balance of the game industry.

SergeStorms
SergeStorms

If this trend continues, M$'s announcement of Live Anywhere may turn out to be the biggest thing to come out of this E3. M$ can use casual games to hook parents into Live along with their kids. This casual segment has been huge on computers on the Web for a while. Now the traditional video game players are going to try and get in on it.

Speuj
Speuj

Everyone I know that dislikes games say its because they're too complicated. Casual games aren't complicated at all... which is why non gamers will play them (if they're good enough that is).

spidey008
spidey008

Great, casual games are good for the soul.

Goze
Goze

faridmon, would you please stop it with the "copy nintendo" thing?... the whole trying to make games mass-appeal thing has been something the industry has been trying to do for years and years now... stop being such an ignorant fan boy

timts
timts

I think nintendo is better at seriously making some "casual" games, which could be quite difficult but is still with great simplicity

faridmon
faridmon

why is every company trying to copy nintendo, they said that before a year ago till now, and microsoft is trying to win the casuals? hey, where did that thought come from, Microsoft? i wonder......

Hellisunreal
Hellisunreal

whatever water down stuff or recycle old stuff with better graphics & call it casual

PiMacleod_basic
PiMacleod_basic

Yeah, I like this 'movement'...especially since I like puzzle games. Don't get me wrong -- I'm looking forward to Gears of War and Twilight Princess and SSBB like everyone else... But I'm ALSO looking forward to Lumines on XBox Live! That's gonna be sweet.

Ohidjwae
Ohidjwae

in response to "dchan01" - Adventure games are not "casual" games. Certainly, they're not intense action games requiring mad skills to play well, but they're not CASUAL. They still require hours and hours of time to complete. In this case, "casual" is referring to smaller, more "bite-sized" games that you can play for 20 or 30 minutes and then move on to something else. I think it's great that these types of games are becoming more popular though Game-playing in any form is good for people (in my opinion) and MUCH more interesting than sitting around watching television.

_sean_05
_sean_05

I know what casual gamers want! VR Hentai games! lol

OmahaGTP
OmahaGTP

And thats why I love Live Arcade.

dchan01
dchan01

Wasn't the adventure game genre essentially the "Comedy/Non-Action" genre? I love the ignorance of people who think gaming is making progress in this direction when the genres that actually require some intelligence and aren't nonstop action are getting less and less popular.

WillT12345
WillT12345

There is nothing casual about Geometry Wars, that s**t is intense.

LordAndrew
LordAndrew

Casual games are cool as long as it's cheap. And there's no reason why they shouldn't be cheap.

bulldog7
bulldog7

I agree we need more diversity, but the comparision to Hollywood is terrible. Some people, regardless of gametype, hate videogames, period. There always has been a view that these things are a waste of time, even as an educational device. Still, I like the diversity thing, very much needed

Pumper
Pumper

Finally, the industry is started to wake up. If they catered soley to the usual male demographic, we'd have nothing but WWII, FPS, Urban Brawls, and Sports.

ssj4_2004
ssj4_2004

I enjoy playing 'casual games' the problem is: they all seem the same. It's uasually puzzle game after puzzle game. Which gets boring after A while.

sinceps1
sinceps1

"even the hardcore gamers are spending significant time playing some of the casual games available through the Xbox 360's Live Arcade." I wouldn't be suprised.

acu02151
acu02151

When I only have a few minutes and I feel like playing something these so called 'casual' games always do the trick.

LINKloco
LINKloco

I'll have to casually pwn in casual games. Bring it.

tdawgtimmy
tdawgtimmy

This is exactly what Nintendo has been saying all along...

NextGenAdam
NextGenAdam

Well though we here may not be interested in "casual" games, the mass market is... So they have a large market share.

Pablo620
Pablo620

If its good for video game industry, its good for me

ryanmaxdog
ryanmaxdog

idk if this will be good if every thing turned casual then that would be pretty boring

joeamis
joeamis

I'm more inclined to play classic arcade games than the other casual games, but they're good for the industry