Games are no longer the purview of geeky adolescent boys obsessed with elves and space marines! Whole new audiences are discovering games for the first time. The future is with the masses, not the geeks. Let us march into the glorious future of games, for it is casual!

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The rhetoric of people from the “casual game industry” (if it is such) is that these are “games for the rest of us,” a wholly new phenomenon that has suddenly expanded the gaming audience to new demographic categories. The claim is false, for three reasons:

    1. It’s not actually new.
    2. Many so-called casual games actually derive from hardcore genres.
    3. And the people who actually pay for “casual” games are themselves hardcore – of a kind.

Nothing New

Not long ago, games that we would today call casual were a big part of the conventional game industry. Tetris made a success out of GameBoy almost by itself; people bought GameBoys just to play Tetris. Myst was a huge mass-audience best-seller. And graphic adventures classically sold to an audience that was far more female, and far older, than most computer or console games.

But over the years, games with this kind of lighter, mass-audience appeal disappeared from the shelves. For a simple reason: There was a shift in how games were sold.

In the era of Tetris, console games were sold mainly in toy stores, and computer games mainly in software outlets that stocked Micosoft Office and lots of other non-game software. Normal people shop in toy stores and software outlets. Normal people were exposed to games. When a game that appealed to an audience other than the geeky adolescents that were, and remain, the mainstay of the industry, it could find a home.

But over time, retailing shifted away from multipurpose outlets like these toward specialty game shops. Specialty game shops, like comic book and hobby game stores, are the domain of geeks.

Walk into a typical grungy comic book store with a woman sometime, and watch the eyes of the people there go wide. Oh my God, it’s got tits. We don’t get your kind in here very often, honey. Not all comic book stores are like that, of course, and the growth of indie books, manga, and creators like Gaiman have changed the gender mix of comics fans, but it’s still a problem.

The same is true, if not quite to the same degree, of videogame stores. They’re overrun with game geeks. The merchandise is crammed on the shelves and it’s hard to figure out what anything is, if you don’t already know – and most of the shelves are covered with tatty used merchandise. Mom can’t wait to get out of the place, and so the kinds of games that appeal to Mom don’t get sold there.

Puzzle games, adventure games, and simple games accessible to non-geeks – like Myst – were once a big part of the industry, but the rise of specialty game retailers pretty much killed them off.

But the fact that lighter games can be sold to an audience beyond the hardcore is nothing new; it is, in fact, something old. The “casual revolution” is no revolution at all. Instead, it’s a return to the past.

Casual Downloadables

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Modern casual games began when the Dot Com boom busted. Game portals like Yahoo! Games and Pogo built ad-supported sites with tens of millions of monthly uniques, playing classic coard and boardgames – but ad revenues suddenly fell off a cliff. The portals needed a new business model, and found one in games like Bejeweled. It turned out that Hearts and Checkers players would pay to play equally light and original games.

A VC feeding frenzy began; companies like Pop Cap, PlayFirst, Big Fish, and Oberon raised money. Developers plunged into the market. For a while, “casual game” meant a downloadable game costing $20 with a 60-minute limited demo, aimed at a primarily female, middle-aged demographic, and in almost all cases belonging to one of three genres: match-three (i.e., Bejweled clone), hidden object (i.e., Mystery Case Files clone), or time management (i.e., Diner Dash clone).

Then that market went pear-shaped. Making more games available just meant that there was less and less incentive for anyone to actually buy a game. The portals realized that they had the whip-hand. Developers did scant marketing on their own, and simply relied on the firehouse of users the portals could pump at them. In the early days, portals and developers had split the consumer dollar fifty-fifty; these days, the portals demand 80 percent.

Now, people are getting out of casual downloadables. GameLab, the company that developed Diner Dash and was known as the most creative developer in the field, is out of business. Yahoo started shopping Yahoo! Games around last summer to anyone who might buy it, with no luck so far. Many sites fired the people who managed their game side, and just signed with Oberon (a white-label game provider) to stock their inventory.

The Rise of Social Games

But never fear: the meme that casual games are new, different, and powerful was not allowed to die. It just got rebranded. Today, the feeding frenzy is for social network games – free-to-play games played on Facebook and MySpace. The business model is based on premium upsell; you can advance more quickly in the game, and gain access to special items and additional features, by paying.

Hundreds of millions of dollars of venture capital are spewing into social games; EA has fired thousands of people developing conventional games in order to spend hundreds of millions of dollars buying Playfish, a social network game developer. Analysts tell us that social network games will generate beellions and beellions any year now, and it’s demonstrable and known that they are, in fact, generating hundreds of millions now. And everyone agrees that is the new channel for “casual games,” games for the masses, not for game geeks.

But actually, these “casual games” are simply lighter versions of hardcore games.

The most successful social network games today are of two types: social network RPGs like the many Mafia and vampire games; and social network business sims, like Farmville.

Yes, social RPGs are lighter than Dungeons & Dragons or Knights of the Old Republic, but they’re still RPGs – and the RPG is about the geekiest genre imaginable. And sure, Farmville is lighter than Railroad Tycoon, and Social City is lighter than Sim City – but these games are still based on play patterns established in the market for so-called hardcore games.

A revolution in gameplay? Hardly. Rather, it is a demonstration that existing and well-established genres can be adapted to a new business environment.

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If the casual downloadable market is the measure of what constitutes a “casual game,” then social network games are quite different. The genres that are successful in the two markets are different, the 60 minute demo is out the window, and while demographics are similar, they’re not identical – social games are younger and more male than the downloadable market, though still heavily female.

Basically, social network games are being called “casual” only because many developers and businesses have a direct stake in promoting the meme that casual is different and new and exciting and venture capitalists should give them money now.

Differently Hardcore

Let’s take a step back.

Every kind of game is shaped by the aesthetic of its audience. To talk of “gamers” is almost a misnomer, because gamers come in many stripes. What an FPS player wants from a game is very different from what a tabletop RPG player wants, and that’s very different from what an adventure gamer wants. To put it another way: to talk of “casual” and “hardcore” games is to fail to understand how and why people like games. There are not two kinds of games, or two kinds of gamers; there are dozens of kinds of games, and hundreds of kinds of gamers. And every kind of game can support both “casual” and “hardcore” play; some will fire up an FPS and have a deathmatch or two to relax, and I have no doubt there are people who play match-three games for dozens of hours weekly and work hard to improve their high score.

Just as audience aesthetic shapes a genre, so do its business constraints. Conventional videogames cost $60 or so at retail, at least when new, and to support that price point, necessarily have to offer dozens of hours of gameplay, and a deep, rich experience. This crowds out puzzle games, adventure games, and other genres that have many fans – anything “light” in fact. The great virtue of the growth of alternative distribution channels is not that “now we can have casual games,” but rather that “now there are viable ways to distribute puzzle games, light RPGs, and other neglected genres.”

The whole idea of the “casual” game is not only meaningless; it’s also counterproductive. It’s useless to think thoughts like “How do I appeal to casual gamers?” What’s useful is to think thoughts like, “What is the nature of this distribution channel, and what kinds of games can succeed here that don’t succeed at conventional retail?” and “What is the aesthetic of this audience, and how do I appeal to it?” and “What can be borrowed from other game styles and adapted to this new environment?”

The idea that we now have “casual” games that are “games for the rest of us” is bogus; instead, we are now all gamers. Everyone under 50 has been exposed to games of one sort or another, and everyone except for the very oldest portion of the population will play games, if games that appeal to their interests are made accessible to them. And “we” are diverse, ornery, and individually weird. There are huge opportunities, now, because new distribution channels and new ways of reaching an audience are opening up; but the answer is not a one-size-fits-all, mass audience, “casual” solution; the answer is a let-a-thousand-flowers-blossom, exploit-every-niche, be-creative, hardcore solution.

The success of games like Bejewelled, Diner Dash, Mafia Wars and Farmville is fantastic; more power to their creators. The fact that we’re no longer enslaved to a single, constrained, and corporate-dominated distribution channel is most excellent. The opportunities for innovation – and profit – are enormous.

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But “casual” has nothing to do with it.

Let me suggest an alternative way of viewing what “casual” means. We know that only 0.5 percent percent to 2 percent percent of people who download a casual game convert to becoming a paying customer. We also know that only a 1-3 percent of the people who play social network games ever actually pay money for virtual goods or game money, or sign up for one of the skanky “offers” that are an alternative to paying cash.

In other words, 90+ percent of the people who play these games will play them for free, but only a tiny proportion is willing to pay to improve their experience. This is true not just of games that have freeplay versions, like casual downloadables and social network games; how many people get exposed to advertising for a typical retail game, and what percent of them actually buy it? I’ll bet the percentage is similar.

I submit that the best characterization of those willing to pay is “hardcore.” That is, no matter how light or intense a game is, only a small proportion of those exposed to it in some fashion will be so gripped by the game, so in love with what it offers, that they are willing actually to pay. They are, by the terms of whatever genre into which the game slots, hardcore. Those who are willing to pay nothing are the casual gamers – they’ll kill some time with the game, but they sure won’t plunk down hard-earned cash.

What’s happened in the last few years isn’t a “casual games revolution” – rather, it’s the creation of a new hardcore audience accessible via new distribution channels. And if your goal is to make money with a game, it should be to figure out what the hardest core of the genre in which you work like to play and are willing to pay for.

The hardcore is where the money is; the hardcore is the future. You’re just dealing with a different hardcore audience now.

Greg Costikyan has designed more than 30 commercially published games in virtually every form, from tabletop to social network with computer, online, and mobile games in between.

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