Casual Fortunes

Which American designer personally made the most money last year from computer games he or she designed? Not the most money for a company, mind you, nor for a studio or licensor, but individual, take-home, taxable income.

Was it a famous game god? John Carmack, Will Wright, Sid Meier, Warren Spector? Probably not. It was probably some guy you never heard of who wrote some little shareware game you never heard of. Those “casual games” – the puzzles and Mahjongg tilesets and card games and Breakout clones and match-three Bejeweled-type things – are downloaded, and sell, in numbers some game gods only dream about. Over the lengthy life of a successful casual game, the independent (“indie”) designer can make serious, serious money – high six-figures and low sevens. Personally.

Many game designers hear this and shrug, as if you told them there’s more money in, say, selling John Deere tractors. “So what? That’s not really computer gaming.” Casual games are so far off the industry radar, hardcore designers don’t even bother to sneer.

If you compare their situations – big-time triple-A hardcore designer vs. indie shareware casual designer – snobbery is not only unjustifiable; it’s borderline insane. Yet how many designers of major retail first-person shooters or real-time strategy games or massively multiplayer online roleplaying games ever think as follows:

“If I went indie and worked for myself creating casual games …

I could make two or three games each year instead of one every two years, for a cost of thousands, not millions. …

I’d work alone or with a couple of others, not on giant teams rife with politics. …

I could be my own boss, pick my own projects, own my own intellectual property, set my own hours, and do the marketing right, instead of coping with my idiot publisher. …

I could do something weird and innovative instead of just tweaking ten-year-old gameplay, and reach an audience ten times as large. … My games might sell for years, not months, so I could actually polish them instead of shipping an untested beta in time for Christmas. …

People might play my games obsessively for months or years, not blow through them in ten hours and move on. …

And if I do absolutely everything right – which is under my own control – I could eventually earn two or three times my current salary. Or more. Personally.”

Evidently not many designers ponder this, even for a moment – though it’s all true. It is a curious situation.

Of course designers don’t desert hardcore games because they are, themselves, hardcore. They put in sweatshop hours creating their next FPS or RTS or MMORPG, then knock off work and … play an FPS or RTS or MMORPG. They design the games they love. That’s great; it’s just their monomania that’s weird. Reading the interviews designers give to computer gaming magazines, you could easily conclude the only game style they consider worthwhile is adrenaline-soaked action. It’s like thinking the only good trees are giant redwoods.

The Invisible Market
Meanwhile, out in the large and diverse casual ecosystem, you can download games about bridge construction, political strategy, space station management, gallery shooting, and – uhh – lawn mowing? There’s Gish, where the hero is a 12-pound ball of tar, and Wik & the Fable of Souls, where you swing by your tongue. The mainstay puzzle and arcade games are still good, too: If you liked Clue or the old DOS game Sherlock, try Inspector Parker. To recall why you played Tetris until your thumbs bled, check out Revolved.

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A hardcore designer who deigns to look into casual games may feel sharply disoriented. Hundreds of dinky try-before-you-buy games, created by one or two or three people, with file sizes under ten megs, targeting low-end Win98 platforms, selling one copy for every 50 or 100 free downloads, for years upon years, even decades. For a console designer on a 30-person team (plus outside contractors) with a $500K monthly burn rate, struggling to hit the six-week sales window before Christmas, knowing his game is 90% certain to miss the top 20 and vanish into the La Brea tar pit of next year’s bargain bin, this realm appears utterly alien.

Still, there are a few guides. The stalwart Game Tunnel has covered the casual scene for years. Others in the industry are just starting to pay attention. The annual Game Developers Conference has had a Casual Games track the last couple of years, and this June the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) began a Casual Games SIG (special interest group). The 125-page IGDA 2005 Casual Games White Paper pegs the American casual market at $600 million in 2004 and projects growth to $2 billion by 2008. (Source: “US Online PC Gaming Forecast & Analysis, 2004-2008: Growth Continues,” December 2004, by business think-tank IDC.)

Kings of Casual
“Selling shareware games has been very, very good to me. And I’m certainly not the only one,” Thomas Warfield wrote in a March post on his blog. “There are lots of other people who have been quite successful selling shareware games. Steve Pavlina at Dexterity is well known in the indie game world. DreamQuest Software and Silver Creek do quite well (both of them) in the niche of multiplayer card games. Kyodai Mahjongg clearly sells very well.”

How well? It’s hard to tell. Successful shareware game designers are a cagy lot. The Kyodai site claims “9,590,367 visitors here since April 2, 1997.” Warfield’s own game Pretty Good Solitaire has been the top-selling solitaire game for ten years (the current version offers 611 variants) and sells more strongly each year. Warfield is certainly well into his second million bucks – not that he’ll say so: “[S]hareware is a funny business. That is, since people can try your product before they buy it, it’s generally not a wise policy to act like some kind of Donald Trump. Shareware authors, as a rule, don’t generally toot their own horns. (There is one guy I know who put up a picture of his Mercedes on his web site – not really a great way to get sales, in my opinion. But his company does make millions every year).”

There are other successes. In 2000, Seattle programmers John Vechey, Brian Fiete, and Jason Kapalka, formerly employees at online gaming sites Flipside and, started a new company to provide web games for portals like Microsoft’s Zone, Yahoo! Games, and RealOne Arcade. When they started selling downloadable “deluxe” versions of their games, sales took off. Today PopCap Games employs nearly 20 people, sells 20 titles on its site, gets six million visitors a month, and claims a total of ten million downloads. PopCap’s best-known title, Bejeweled Deluxe, has sold nearly half a million copies. The typical PopCap player is a 35-year-old woman. A 2003 Wired News story quoted Kapalka: “It’s not just hardcore, early adopter nerds who have computers, but moms, too, and they’re an audience that’s much bigger than hardcore gamers.”

In 1997 David Dobson, now an assistant professor of geology in Greensboro, North Carolina, created Snood, a modest knockoff of Bust-a-Move/Puzzle Bobble. Somehow Snood caught on, and by 2001 a survey by Jupiter Media Metrix web researchers found Snood to be the world’s ninth most-played computer game. Inexplicably, it has enjoyed over seven million downloads, and eight years on, it’s still going strong – and is still off the radar of most gaming metrics. Greg Costikyan observed, “Game developers almost can’t take Snood seriously. Its success calls into question their very lives – the long hours spent laboriously building these huge, expensive 3D worlds, these involved software engines with amazing visual effects and complicated AI. If it’s all really as simple as Snood, why are they working 60 to 80 hours a week for years at a time?”

Casual Means Hard Work
Yes, it’s definitely possible to get rich in casual games. In fact, though, most newcomers fail dismally. The many reasons include lack of patience, lack of originality (the world doesn’t need another Breakout clone), and lack of marketing.

A designer’s priorities in creating and selling casual games are completely different from hardcore games: small file size, low platform requirements, sloooow growth (shareware publisher Steve Pavlina advises a 5- to 10-year strategy), ongoing active marketing, and frequent, numerous iterations of the same game. On the Indie Gamer Developer Forums, Steve Verreault of Twilight Software advised, “Don’t just release your game once. Release it four or five times. Keep looking at what the users are saying and make improvements to the game. Tweak the demo. If you put it out and it doesn’t sell, rework it. That’s the beauty of shareware. You didn’t print 50,000 CDs – you can release it again and again, and it can keep selling for years.”

Most successful casual designers stress the hard work and shrewd marketing that made their games popular. But just as often, they cite virtues of the indie approach that have nothing to do with getting rich. In a May 2003 blog entry Warfield wrote, “Being a shareware author is the greatest job in the world. You can work at home, so you avoid a daily commute to an office. You are your own boss. You have all the benefits of owning your own business. You can work or not work whenever it is convenient. But the best thing about being a shareware author is that you have customers who choose to be customers. […] you know that only people who really actually like the game are buying it, so you know your work must be good. The end result is that it is a much more fulfilling job.”

Allen Varney is a freelance writer and game designer based in Austin, Texas. His published work includes six books, three board games, and nearly two
dozen role-playing game supplements.

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