Casual Wonder

Eric Hautemont breathes enthusiasm for gaming. His French accent carries it through the telephone and into your brain as you listen to his plans for his company’s big bet on computer gaming. Which is odd, since the company of which he’s CEO, Days of Wonder, is a big player in the very low-tech world of boardgames. This makes Hautemont’s crusade (and it is a crusade, don’t doubt it for one second) that much more unlikely: Bring turn-based, multiplayer strategy gaming to the PC casual games market. Even more unlikely is the fact that his first game, Ticket to Ride, isn’t really casual. It’s just very good.

Casual games are that huge segment of the industry that hardcore gamers don’t want to acknowledge – over-35 soccer moms and solitaire-playing old ladies, visiting big portals like Yahoo! Games and Often, the media that serves these gamers doesn’t want to acknowledge it, either: When Hautemont was marketing the standalone PC version of Ticket to Ride, one of the largest gaming websites told him they simply didn’t look at casual games, period. Ticket to Ride for the PC will be released in December, minus that coverage. The way Hautemont sees it, that website’s readers are going to find out about it, anyway.

That’s because Hautemont’s view of the casual space is fundamentally different from that of almost anyone else in the industry. He sees multiplayer casual games as filling a gaping hole in the current market: Strategy games that are simpler than the current hardcore crop, yet elegant and engaging in a way more complicated games can’t be. Sort of a throwback to the days when games like Panzer General could sell hundreds of thousands of copies in retail stores. Today, those games have little chance of showing up at your local Best Buy.

Publishers’ willingness to take chances on such games has changed a lot since then. Hautemont found this out when he was pitching his game. “When we talked to the big PC publishers, we found that they had some very surprising attitudes. PC publishers basically either see their customers as two eyeballs they can derive money from through advertising, or they see them as casual gamers who have very specific desires that you don’t want to stray from.”

This kind of marketplace myopia has led one industry veteran, Greg Costikyan, to found his own publishing company. Manifesto Games plans to aggregate the marketing for overlooked and under-publicized games that have no chance of making it onto retail shelves. But as far as casual gamers go, he’s skeptical. “The people who frequent Yahoo! Games are not going to play these games. That audience was built of Hearts and Backgammon players.”

Jason Kapalka, whose company, PopCap Games, is one of the casual market’s leaders with games such as Bejeweled and Zuma, agrees. It’s not that he doesn’t want to sell strategy games to this market – PopCap is currently working on its own light strategy game – it’s just that from his experience, casual gamers and old-school gamers who might be tired of current fare “don’t seem to overlap very much.”

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“It might be more appropriate to call them non-gamers than casual gamers in some ways,” says Kapalka, “since for many of them their only game experience on the computer is perhaps Minesweeper or the equivalent.”

Kapalka’s company has had stunning success in this market, and this experience has guided PopCap’s development efforts. “At PopCap,” he explains, “we have an informal system we call the ‘Mom test.’ Can you get your mom to sit down and play your game? Does she understand it without you explaining it to her? Does she want to continue playing after you stop forcing her to? If so, those are good signs for the game’s success in the casual games market.”

For the time being, that’s where PopCap’s efforts are primarily focused. Kapalka is quite hopeful that traditional strategy gamers “might become more adventurous in their buying habits if the PC CD market continues to constrict.” That’s what Hautemont is hoping for, also. But he’s also confident that he can sell his games to the current population of casual players, which is where he parts company with the big online portals.

“When talking with some of the big portals,” he says, “I found that they have a very low opinion of their customers.” Hautemont accepts the casual market demographic, but doesn’t agree with the big portals’ attitude towards it. “I don’t argue that those moms comprise the market. I just beg to differ on how intelligent that mom is or how engaged in gaming she might want to be.”

Another objection Hautemont has come up against is that multiplayer gaming and casual gaming are essentially mutually exclusive. Hautemont points to the fact that for a long time, one of the most popular games on the MSN Zone was Reversi, a multiplayer version of Othello that matched you up with anonymous online opponents. Interestingly, Microsoft is the one company he cites as having an approach similar to his, which is perhaps borne out by MSN Zone’s recent launch of Settlers of Catan Online, a computer version of the multi-million selling German boardgame. But Days of Wonder has an advantage in that they have a real synergy between their boardgame business and their online games.

“One of the most important factors in the success of an online game is critical mass,” says Hautemont. “We’re in a unique position because we have an existing – and growing – player base,” so if you buy the game in the store, you’re automatically part of a pool of players, and thus potential opponents. It’s a pretty big pool, too. At last count, Ticket to Ride and its sister game, Ticket to Ride Europe, sold over 400,000 copies of the boardgame. Recently, the average wait to start an online two-player game at peak times averaged around two seconds.

Days of Wonder is releasing the standalone Ticket to Ride for the PC in December. The first printing of the game sold on the company’s website will include a DVD with ten-minute videos on each of the company’s boardgame titles. “Our goal is to have it so that if you watch the video, you can open the box and begin playing the game immediately,” says Hautemont. Because each physical boardgame has a code that buyers can redeem at the website for online gaming privileges, the company can track the “conversion rate” of free accounts. “So far, it has been spectacular,” Hautemont notes.

But Hautemont’s goal is still to develop the online games market his way, with games that play equally well online or in person. After being rebuffed by PC publishers, he says he found attitudes most sympathetic to his own in an unlikely place: among console publishers. “The console guys actually have a fundamentally different view of their consumers than PC publishers do,” says Hautemont, “and it’s much better. They understood what we were trying to do almost immediately.”

PopCap’s Kapalka, has similar hopes for the console market, specifically Microsoft’s Xbox 360. “Their Live Arcade service will allow people to download and buy a variety of ‘budget’ games, including Bejeweled 2 and Zuma from us initially. I’ll be very curious to see what the response to this is. It might be ignored or laughed at – ‘I didn’t spend $400 to play Bejeweled‘ – but I have a feeling that there might be some interesting responses from hardcore gamers when they get tired of the launch titles.”

Days of Wonder isn’t ruling out proceeding with Ticket to Ride for consoles, but development choices have to be carefully considered. “The opportunity cost for us would be that we would have to choose between that and Memoir ’44 online,” says Hautemont, referring to his company’s popular World War II boardgame that he feels has a chance to be the next Panzer General. Like Ticket to Ride, it’s simple and quick-playing, but has a theme (military conflict) that might be more appealing to traditional computer strategy gamers.

The disappointing part of this story is the degree to which traditional PC publishers seem to have abandoned once staple genres like this. Former SSI head honcho Joel Billings once remarked to Hautemont during a visit to his company that these gamers hadn’t gone away, but were being badly underserved by the current marketplace. How ironic would it be if the once-mighty turn-based strategy market ended up consolidating around console games and boardgame conversions? Wherever it ends up, Eric Hautemont and Days of Wonder hope to make the actual play experience as good as before.

Bruce Geryk battles his gaming nemesis, Tom Chick, every month in Computer Gaming World magazine. Also the magazine’s wargames columnist, you can find his blog at

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