One of the most fascinating presentations at this year’s Game Developer Conference was given by a man I’d never heard of whose game, hasn’t even been released in the United States. The presentation “Making Games for the Other 90%,” chronicled the process of developing a game that would sell millions of copies, establish a franchise and get people who’d never picked up a controller to play a video game. The game was considered a joke when it debuted at E3 in 2005, but today, David Amor, Creative Director at UK-based Relentless Software, and developer of one of the best-selling PS2 titles of 2005, is the one laughing – all the way to the bank.
Released for the PS2 in 2005, Buzz!: The Music Quiz is, in every sense of the word, a casual game. Packaged with four brightly-colored buzzer peripherals, the game allows up to four players to participate in the equivalent of a game show in their own living room, using the buzzers to, well, buzz in with their answers. David Amor says that when they set out to develop Buzz!, they originally wanted to make an artful game with a unique, almost visionary design, involving a “crazy alien game show host,” a cactus for a hostess and a singing clam. “I don’t know what we were smoking,” he says. What they made instead was a game which, at the request of Sony, the game’s publisher, was “more like television.”
“And I think it was the right decision,” says Amor. “I think we have a tendency to add more complexity where it’s not necessary. … We had to be brave in a way to say … we think people will be happy with [simplicity].”
Running counter to what seems to be common sense (in this industry), Relentless held back, safeguarded the envelope and released a game with very little inspiration, almost no “verve” and scored a near instant hit. Yet the game, unsurprisingly, received very little fanfare in the gaming press, and the company’s showing at the E3 trade show in 2005 generated little buzz, if you will.
“Nobody really cared about [Buzz],” says Amor. “For some reason it’s considered an un-sexy thing to be doing.” Un-sexy perhaps, but profitable. In spite of negative, almost ireful reviews (“Buzz? Snore.”), Buzz! had a strong retail showing upon release, and literally cleaned up over the 2005 holiday season.
“[Buzz! was] Sony’s biggest-selling title of 2005 … and way up there in 2006,” Amor says. “[We] sold over 4 million units of the Buzz! franchise … in its first 15 months. So by any measure it’s a successful title.”
In his presentation at GDC, David Amor outlined the characteristics of games that appeal to the mass market. Among them: familiarity, simplicity and approachability. Amor (as well as an increasingly large number of high-profile developers) believes that most games are too complex and too intimidating for non-gamers.
“People have a low threshold for wanting to find out how games work,” says Amor. “When you create a game that has a new set of rules and spend a tutorial explaining how it works that’s a very intimidating thing to have to do. I think if you make something that people know about already then you don’t have to teach them so much.”
This may be news to some developers, but not to web-based game developers like New York based Arkadium, one of a growing number of companies making so-called advergames, small, web-based games designed to promote and popularize a product and be fun at the same time. Their site, greatdaygames.com, which doubles as their portfolio and catalog, features over 100 small, efficient web-based games, many of which are quite capable of laying waste to an entire afternoon.
“As a whole there is this … demographic for the ‘not-hardcore’ gamer,” says Arkadium’s Director of Game Production, Jeremy Mayes. “I think of my mom all the time. She emails me links [saying] ‘Check this out. I played this for hours.’ That sort of thing.”
According to the IGDA’sCasual Gaming Whitepaper (PDF), more people should listen to Mayes’s mom. Almost 40 percent of people in America play computer games, and the majority of these gamers play casual games. 70% of them are women.
“If you make a game fun enough and addictive enough,” says Mayes, “not only do [users] stay longer and longer, but they also tell their friends about it.” Which is exactly the point. Game designers, like David Amor, call this word of mouth. But advertisers call it “going viral.” When a game or advertisement reaches a critical mass of popularity, and friends of friends of friends start telling their friends about it too, you’ve scored a hit, whether you’re selling the game or hawking the product it’s attached to. Before long, you’ve reached the mass market.
“[Advergaming] is wildly successful,” says Mayes, and he should know. Arkadium recently signed a deal with The Hearst Corporation, to create online games for potentially every single one of Hearst’s publications, including Cosmo, Redbook, Harper’s Bazaar, Esquire, and Teen. “If you look at companies who have no experience with advergames, but they’re used to more typical forms of advertising, they’re used to spending millions of dollars [on traditional advertising]. But this kind of advertising only holds a user’s attention for possibly fifteen seconds, if that. [Advergaming is] so much more robust and engaging, they’ll hold a user’s attention for fifteen minutes, 30 minutes, an hour and the whole time they’re being exposed to your brand and all your products. It’s a really sticky form of advertising.”
Wild Tangent agrees. Founded in 1998 by Alex St. John, one of the architects of Microsoft’s DirectX, Wild Tangent has since been making its name, like Arkadium, in the advergaming and casual game sphere. And making it big.
“[Traditional publishers] are in the movie business,” says Dave Madden, Executive Vice President of Wild Tangent. “We’re in the TV business. We’re a middle man.” A middle man perhaps, but with high ambitions. Wild Tangent, according to their own website, was named the 5th most popular online game property by comScore Media Metrix and if you buy a new PC this year, chances are you’ll also be buying a Wild Tangent game. Over 85 percent of all new PCs ship with the Wild Tangent game client pre-installed, giving users instant access to Wild Tangent’s vast library of web-based games, and Wild Tangent access to you. Wild Tangent, according to Madden, is out for nothing less than “ownership of the desktop,” and if 85 percent can be considered a majority stake, one would have to argue that they’ve made it.
According to IGDA’s whitepaper, the advergaming market will account for over $500 million in advertising and sponsorship revenues by 2008, and casual games as a whole over $2 billion, which is more than the GDP of a significant number of westernized nations. To say casual games, therefore, are taking over the world, would not be too far from the truth. To say they’re taking over the industry would be even closer.
“The Other 90 Percent”
“Web development is so fast,” says Arkadium’s Tom Rassweiler. “You can have an idea – a simple idea that’s totally out of the box – and have a prototype to test in two days. [By contrast] we were talking to somebody one who was working for a long time on this game that they knew probably wasn’t going to work, but they [had to] get it further. … And there’s pressure from the top and it’s already in production … talking about this 10-month development schedule for a game that they know isn’t any good.”
That kind of pressure is all too familiar to anyone who’s worked in the trenches of traditional game development, but web-based casual games, for the most part, have eliminated a lot of that pressure. Whereas the typical blockbuster game (Like Gears of War) may take anywhere from 18 months to several years and millions of dollars to develop, casual games, by contrast, average only a few months, and a fraction of a million dollars. But that doesn’t make them any less compelling or any less fun. Again, judging by the numbers alone, one would have to argue the exact opposite.
“You have to be super disciplined,” says David Amor, “and say ‘What people really want is the same thing as last time, but with new [content].'” And that’s exactly what his company gives them. Since the 2005 release of Buzz, Relentless has developed and shipped two more entries in the franchise, each using the same big, red buzzer peripherals, and they’re currently at work on a fourth title in the series. The original, Buzz! The Music Quiz, is still selling at full price, more than a year after its release. Most games only last a few months at full retail.
“I think if you looked at the way [Buzz!] sold,” says Amor, “it was bought by people who don’t normally play games and played by people who don’t play games. … The other 90 percent of people – people that don’t play games – are ready to play games.”
Amor admits he pulled this percentage out of “thin air,” but he’s not far off, and he’s also not the only developer thinking in those terms. The legendary Warren Spector, who’s long championed a refinement of what some might consider “high-brow” game design, targeting gamers who prefer deeper, more complex, story-based games, also recognizes that the future of gaming lies in the hands of people who wouldn’t play System Shock in a million years.
“We’ve got to sell a lot more copies or we aren’t going to be able to make games anymore,” said Spector at his GDC lecture titled “The Future of Storytelling in Next-Gen Development.” “If giving people what we already give them was enough, all of those non-gamers – which is most of the world – would already be gamers.”
“We reach such a tiny amount of people when we make video games,” agrees Amor. “If you bring along the right game, people are going to buy it.”
But what’s the right game? For Amor’s Relentless it was a quiz game that looked – and played – like a TV show; a game people could identify with because it was at once familiar, simple and accessible. “These kinds of games are more important than Gears of War,” says Amor. “These are games your girlfriend buys. It’d be depressing to think we keep making the same games for the same set of people forever.”
Spector agrees. “How can we be satisfied letting players jump from cover point to cover point so they can kill somebody?” he asks. His vision of the future involves iconic characters and meaningful stories. A world and design in which a talented storyteller can create something unique. Spector is currently espousing simpler, cheaper design techniques in favor of putting more resources behind story and actual game design.
“If we start making games that appeal to non-gamers,” says Amor. “Then those people will eventually start playing more sophisticated games, more story-based games. I absolutely believe that if you really think about those people … then I think that they will buy the games that we make.”
Russ Pitts is an Associate Editor for The Escapist. He has written and produced for television, theatre and film, has been writing on the web since it was invented and claims to have played every console ever made. His blog can be found at www.falsegravity.com.