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The Casual and Mobile Boom (2010-present)
Casual games are defined by their opposition to “hardcore” games. Where a hardcore game takes commitment and focus and features cutting-edge graphics and complex game mechanics, casual games require no real dedication, feature simple graphics and are often easy to learn and play in a short time (Juul, 2010). Yet despite the moniker, so-called “casual” gaming is the largest, most tectonic force in the history of the medium. It is also a case study in how supply, demand, cultural shifts and new technologies can create an industry almost overnight. First, consider the numbers behind casual gaming. Whereas the target population of “mainstream,” console gaming is males 18-35, casual games target everyone and attract a 60% female audience (Taylor, 2010). Typical console games cost $15-25 million to develop, last about 3 months and reach from 500,000 to four million players. Typical social and casual games cost $250-500 thousand to develop, last about 9 months and reach 10-50 million or more players (Taylor, 2010). One is played for hours, the other minutes. In the U.S. there are about 350 million dedicated game-playing devices, not including cell phones. These are home consoles and portable game players—in other words, the traditional, dedicated game-playing audience. From 2009-2010, there were about 510 million accounts on social and casual games, up from virtually zero two years before. In other words, casual gaming in only two years appeared and rapidly surpassed the 35-year-old mainstream game industry.
Enter the Smartphone
Where did this sudden explosion come from? There are many factors, but the rise and worldwide spread of smart mobile devices has to be at the top of the list. Smart phones now outnumber all other devices and game play is typically one of their primary uses. When you consider the “installed base” of a platform, mobile suddenly wins and disrupts everything.
The Gradual Corporatization of the Game Industry
Yet another large force limiting adults has been the industry itself. Game development has been the province of hard-core game players who largely make games for themselves. The gradual corporatization of the games industry has moved developers towards thinking about audiences other than themselves, although this remains a challenge even today. Still, the exceptions tend to prove the rule: the biggest hits of the 1990s and 2000s tended to be “surprises” in that they sold a boat load of games to adults and especially to women. Games such as The Sims, Myst and even the much-mocked Deer Hunter showed that the appetite for games was far broader than the supply had suggested, or developers realized.
Laying Dormant was a Tidal Wave of Interest
However, the removal of those forces by corporate professionalization, demographic changes and the rise of networks has demonstrated that what was laying dormant was in fact a tidal wave of interest. By the mid-2000s, those same children of the Nintendo era had become parents themselves and their desire for play had matured as well. The difference was that their free time, disposable income, technology, and their social networks were radically different. The original game players of the 1970s and 1980s have been able to “come out of the closet,” so to speak, when geek is chic and gaming is acceptable. And, as Juul (2010) correctly notes, one need not be a hardcore gamer or devote hours on end to enjoy casual games. The brilliance of many casual titles is that they are accessible to anyone with a few minutes and a passing interest in either connecting with friends or even just killing some time. Rather than gamers trying to fit their lives into the requirements of complex games, casual games easily fit into our lives (Juul, 2010).
Casual games are often (if not always) integrated into pre-existing social networks. Consider the case of a game player in three different eras. In 1990, the player had to find someone to come over, and that person had to commit to some significant time to learn and master the game. That was an effectively small roster of playmates, made tougher by the social constraint of not many people even admitting that they “play games.” In 2000, with networks rising, that same player could probably do a lot better simply due to the fact that their potential playmates need not physically visit—although certainly that creates some of its own social capital costs and benefits (Shen & Williams, 2011). Nevertheless, the player probably had a slightly larger roster. Today, the same player logs into Facebook and finds a system where nearly everyone they’ve ever met becomes a potential playmate, and the costs in time and effort have been dropped to near zero. This attracts the legions of the curious, the busy, and those who find games to be an excuse or a reason to stay connected to “real people,” rather than the more anonymous spaces of virtual worlds.
Massive Online Expansion and Social Network Games
This meteoric rise demonstrates that a massive pool of demand has been sitting untapped for decades. MMOs, the darlings of researchers, the press and hard-core social players, collectively reached perhaps 45 million players worldwide by 2008, across roughly 100 titles. This was a massive expansion of online, networked play, and shocked many analysts and game analytics companies alike. Contrast that with the 2009 case of game maker Zynga, who recorded 188 million players for just one game, Farmville (Taylor, 2010) in just one year. Where most MMOs cost many millions of dollars to make and are considered successes with a few hundred thousand subscribers, Zynga introduced the cheap title Treasure Island in April of 2010 and had 24 million players after only three weeks (Taylor, 2010).
These are changes of several orders of magnitude occurring to the game-playing base, and they are radically changing what it means to be “a gamer.” Although the stereotype of the adolescent boy was broken by 2000 anyway, popular culture has been slow to realize it. This new cultural shift towards casual games and online social networking will continue to change that image. When combined with the demographic trends of new cohorts playing at clips of 97% and up (Lenhart, Jones, & Macgill, 2008; Lenhart, Kahne, et al., 2008), gaming is unlikely to decline. Instead, it would appear more plausible that as older cohorts die off and take their lower playing rates with them, the overall rates of game play will only increase. Gaming is not simply here to stay, but is becoming more and more integrated with our daily lives, lived in the blurry space between online and off. What remains to be seen is how competitive forces will shape the casual game industry as the initial waves of novelty and first-mover advantages of the current market leaders dissolve.
Look for part-4 of this 5-part series next week.
The material is excerpted, compiled and condensed from several longer published works.
Juul, J. (2010). A Casual Revolution: Reinventing Video Games and Their Players. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Lenhart, A., Jones, S., & Macgill, A. (2008). Pew Internet Project Data Memo: Over half of American adults play video games. Washington, D.C.: Pew Internet & American Life Project.
Shen, C., & Williams, D. (2011). ‘Unpacking Time Online: Connecting Internet and Massively Multiplayer Online Game Use With Psychosocial Well-Being’. Communication Research, 38/1: 123-49.
Taylor, J. (2010). 2009-2010 Home Interactive Entertainment Market Update. Portland, Oregon: Arcadia Investment Corp.