By Gabe Zichermann, Guest Author
By now, many of you have undoubtedly heard of casual games as part of a revolutionary change in the way people play. Casual games have evolved from their humble origins as “interstitial entertainment” to take their place alongside the biggest segments of the industry as a $2Bn+ category in its own right. Easy to pick up and difficult to master, casual games have captured the hearts and minds of two previously ignored demographics: women and people over 35.
These consumers never considered themselves “gamers” and, despite playing almost as much as most 18 year olds, still don’t use the word reflexively. Regardless, casual games have had a tidal effect on the games industry, bringing in more new consumers, traditional media companies and channels of distribution than at any time since the early 90s.
But as the casual games business comes into its own, spawning conferences and websites devoted exclusively to the genre, a question looms large over this buoyant vertical – what next? Casual games have historically been cheap to develop, with Eastern European studios and flash development tools keeping costs for most games well under $1M
(the average is closer to $100K). Also, distribution and publishing deals have been relatively easy to come by, with some of the biggest channels of distribution operating on a “let the market decide” basis that allows just about any developer to get a game up. And, in the world of ad-sponsored flash games, the revenues generated from ad networks handily cover the sub-$10K costs of most of those products. In essence, there are very few barriers to entry in the casual games space, and this has been clearly demonstrated in the revenue multiples paid for most acquisitions in the space.
What perplexes and puzzles most of the industry’s biggest fans is the lack of definitive branding. Though there were big, early successes for companies like PopCap (Bejeweled) and recent breakthroughs for PlayFirst (Diner Dash) and BigFish (Mystery Case Files), none of these products has taken on the mass-market characteristics of a bona fide brand, creating spin offs beyond casual games. This is made even more confusing because casual games are – undoubtedly – the most mass market brand of games available today. In a world where our moms are playing a game for 20+ hours a week, shouldn’t you see that game all over the Oprah show and emblazoned on everything at Lululemon?
Perhaps the answer is that the casual games industry has thus far won lots of eyeballs but few hearts? Through its focus on simplicity and quick interactions, it is possible that the industry has failed to create the us vs them subculture that’s worked so well for MMOGs or the deep and embedded interconnections present in most social/Funware apps. And if that were the case, casual games would have only achieved half their objective – to entertain and make money was the easy part. Truly changing the world is a little tougher, it seems.