July 23 was the first day of the Casual Connect conference taking place in my hometown of Seattle, Washington. With the ‘c-word' on everyone's lips and this large new segment of game development gathering so close to my house, how could I resist?
Occupying Benaroya Hall (usually home to the Seattle Symphony) on the corner of scenic 3rd and Union, the opening speech was given by the CEO of RealGames, Harold Zeitz, with an assist from Casual Games Association director Jessica Tams. It was a little awkward and stiff, but I could appreciate their energy.
The next talk was a keynote given by Paul Thelen, founder of Big Fish Games. Big Fish is the world's largest distributor of casual games, and they've recently done some research in conjunction with NPD on disaggregating the market segments that make up the casual consumer base.
Although there were many interesting bits to chew on, the study that his speech was based on had a group of roughly 2000 individuals... considering the scope of what the casual market is estimated to be (I heard someone mention anecdotally that Big Fish itself has somewhere in the neighborhood of one million transactions per day) I felt that 2000 was much too small a number to produce reliable results from. In addition, the categories that Paul was outlining were not clearly explained before he launched into the meat of the presentation. A little more organization would have increased the impact of the research substantially.
Trip's still got the debbil in his eyes
Next to take the stage was Trip Hawkins, current CEO of Digital Chocolate (DChoc for short, as he informed us) although he's better known as the founder of Electronic Arts, the man behind the 3DO, and an all-around radical element in gaming for the last 30 years. I've never seen Trip speak live before, and I was immediately overwhelmed by the presence of his ego. I am quite positive that low self-esteem is not a problem he suffers from.
The highlight of Trip's piece was that he feels the term ‘casual' is misleading and inappropriate for the reality of this growing market. Instead, he posited the term ‘omni media gamer' as being more accurate in describing the sort of person who will play a game or be interested in the electronic entertainment regardless of the format. Although he had me rolling my eyes a few times (was he really the one who told Steve Jobs that the Apple needed a mouse?) I actually agree with him on this point.
Walking the floor, talking with people and generally just taking in the scene, I became more and more convinced that, like Trip says, "casual" is a lazy label that doesn't define the reality of what these games are or who plays them.
Personally, it seems to me that "casual" is really more about having a low hurdle to get over before actually getting into a game. For example, in the What Women Play panel that came later in the day, much was made of the fact that the sorts of games that are being sold in huge numbers have an advantage in that the people playing them are already familiar with computers -- they don't need to learn about which console is better or how to connect one to a TV screen, let alone what this HD business is all about.
For a person who likely uses a computer at work and probably has one at home, clicking a few times and getting a screen full of gems to match in a matter of moments is a relatively easy and painless process compared to the rising cost of console buy-in, the complex nature of console game design, and a persisting image of consoles being "for kids". Taking the Wii's philosophy of opening games up to anyone to the next degree, casual games don't require any special knowledge, they don't require much money up front, and many of them have extremely wide appeal due to their relatively simple nature.
Further cementing the idea that casual games are anything but was the women's panel I just mentioned.
Taking place across the street from Benaroya at the Triple Door restaurant/jazz club, the women assembled from the customer base of King.com (a site claiming to have the world's largest game community) painted a picture of serious dedication, bordering on addiction. In fact, I'd say that the people they chose were pretty hard-core "casual" gamers, each reporting extended play sessions between 4 to 10 hours a day - far more than I ever manage myself.
It's scary how much these women love their casual games.
Although it's true that most casual game designers say that their projects are meant to be played in short bursts, I wouldn't be at all surprised if the reality was that the people who play these games are every bit as devoted as those who sit down for some Call of Duty multi on Live, or those who regularly get their characters up to level 99 in every JRPG they play.
For more information on casual games and on this conference, click here to visit the website of the Casual Games Association.
More to come... I've still got a drink ticket left.
Read more at Drinking Coffeecola blog.