18 September 2012

The Casual Game Scene

(Note: This post was written before Nintendo made its announcements about the Wii U's official specs)

Correction: This post originally stated that Plumbee has released a mobile game; their first game, Mirror Ball Slots, is actually a Facebook title.  

One of the most notable trends to emerge over the last several years in the games industry is the rapid spread of the casual games sector. This phenomenon is in large part due to the emergence of smart phones, and latterly, tablets. These devices have drawn the casual market away from home consoles and certainly from dedicated handheld gaming platforms like the Nintendo 3DS and the PlayStation Vita.

Equally worthy of note is social network gaming, particularly on Facebook. Zynga, one of the first and largest of the developers working on Facebook is in free-fall, it’s shares have been decimated and the company has been stung by several lawsuits alleging that the board of the company sold shares in anticipation of a steep decline.

Electronic Arts (EA), the world’s largest publisher, have also sued the company for copycat practices relating to numerous Zynga titles (the similarities between Zynga’s CityVille and EA’s Sims Social for instance).

In one of the recent setbacks to afflict Zynga COO John Schappert left the company after less then 18 months. 

Yet Facebook gaming is not simply about Zynga. The social network revealed that 230 million people played games on the network in July 2012.

“I'm not all that picky about platforms,” says Andy Marsh of San Francisco’s Fifth Column (C5) Games, “I just like making games. It's fun to develop anything for anyone, although amount [of fun] may vary.

“We're on Facebook because we have a strong background in it and that's the direction A+E Networks (our first game's publisher) wanted to go when we started working with them. Technology is a big priority for us, so in the process we built a sophisticated flash engine and now we can make high quality flash games relatively quickly.

Fifth Column's Top Shot
“Facebook will be part of our business model as long as it's viable,” he continues.

“That said, we're already branching into mobile and we're always keeping an eye out for other platforms. Adam (CTO and founder), Mike (CCO and founder), and I all come from console games and we're all engineers, so we feel pretty comfortable working in whatever platform makes the most sense.”

Keeping in mind that London developers Plumbee's first game is a Facebook title the studio's Geraldo Nascimento points to the difficulty of making games for both social networks and for iOS:

“The biggest challenge is that they're volatile,” he comments. “One day your game can be on top, the other day it's on its way out. On Facebook players can rally much more easily and mobilize to disrupt your game in some way, even if only through comments.

“The same with iOS, a flaw you might have missed can easily cause your rating to plummet. There's a sense of instantaneous feedback, but you also shouldn't listen to all feedback.
Plumbee have released their first game Mirror Ball Slots on Facebook!
“Both platforms have built-in facilities to get your game known, but it's still very difficult, particularly on iOS. If your game suffers the misfortune of becoming invisible, it'll be extremely hard to get back on track, if not impossible without some influx directed by a string of honest reviews in widely read publications.”

Yet there are advantages too that are not offered on traditional video game consoles and PCs.  

“The biggest advantage,” Nascimento says, “is that these are almost instantaneous channels of distribution to players that are used to paying money. Yes, the vast majority of Facebook players will only play for free, but just like on iOS, people will pay and in the end, that's how you justify developing games for a living.”

This is a view reflected by Andrea Ravenet, the vice president, of 2PaperDolls who says “we use iOS devices, we believe in the platform and we are very capable at developing for it.  It’s logical to us to develop on what we know and love.”

And Paddy Murphy, the community manager of 2PaperDolls, concurs: “exactly.  Another reason is down to the market itself. When John Dillinger was asked ‘why do you rob banks?’ he responded ‘because... That’s where the money is.’ Makes sense right?
Mind of Man, 2PaperDolls latest project. You are being watched!
“Just by studying the market we know that iOS has a more loyal base of paying customers. I mean, It’s not necessarily all about money but at the same time you want to be releasing in a space where people aren’t afraid to invest a buck in your dream project...”

One of the features that most sets apart the casual games market from traditional retail releases is the so called “freemium” model. This phrase was coined to describe the games that allow gamers to play for free but then unlock additional content by purchasing additional levels or power-ups etcetera.

The idea is simple, reel people in with the core of the game and then find a way to convince them to pay for the extra content.

This model has been embraced to a degree by the majority of massively multiplayer online games (MMOs). Most recently BioWare’s Star Wars: The Old Republic announced that from the autumn the game would be free to play until level fifty. Players can continue to pay the €15 a month subscription (and need to once they hit fifty) for many of the features to be accessible.

Even the biggest MMO of them all, World of Warcraft, has shed millions of players over the last year or so. Subscriptions today stand at nine million according to publisher Activision Blizzard’s latest financial call. In October 2010 subscriptions stood at over 12 million, a 25% decrease in less than two years.

While it seems unlikely that subscription based MMOs can continue far into the future there are advantages to working with the new platforms and payment models.

Nascimento adds “that both platforms are very well documented and possess an array of utilities to disseminate your game, manage purchases, etc.”

Today Zygna seems destined to the dustbin of failed developer history (a very crowded dustbin) baring a remarkable turnaround but even though the herald of casual gaming on social networks might well be faced with extinction that doesn’t mean the end of casual games.

“Casual games are here to stay,” says the casual games developer who prefers to go by moniker Koobismo. “They’ve become a big thing lately and they will remain a big thing. But, let’s be honest here, the glory is and always will be in the big-budget titles. They’re shiny.

“They can deliver various experiences in a much more effective way than casuals. They are our summer blockbusters, our thrill rides, some better, some worse – but if someone’s telling you that they’ll fade away... Nope.

“The very fact that we’re talking about a next generation of home consoles? Yeah, the only part of the industry that’s pushing for that, aside from console manufacturers, is the big boys club – they really want to go a step further. And you know what? That’s a good thing.”

This is a belief shared by many of the developers interviewed, that indie and casual titles will have a market but that doesn’t mean major AAA console games won’t either.

“At this point,” Koobismo states, “big name publishers have either already endorsed the casual shift or are on their way to endorse it, but the AAA section will remain their main field of interest.
The man behind Marauder Shields, Koobismo
“If I’m really to make some asspulling predictions about the future, I’d say that the indie market will diversify a bit, start delivering genres that have been either watered down or forgotten by the big players – hardcore strategy games, brilliant turn-based tacticals, classic roleplaying experiences... That’s what I’m looking forward to,” he concludes.

This diversification of the games industry into two distinct markets will likely lead to reduced console sales for the fourth generation which is set to begin later this year with the launch of Nintendo’s Wii U.

Though the Wii has been the bestselling console of the current generation (with over ninety million units sold to date) much of their market was made up of casual gamers and even those who had never played a video game before. This focus by Nintendo on games like Wii Sports and Wii Fit is something the company’s president, Satoru Iwata, admitted was a mistake in an investor Q & A in May 2012.

Iwata acknowledged that the types of games that drove sales of the Wii were only played for short periods of time and drove hardcore gamers to the Sony’s PlayStation 3 and Microsoft’s Xbox 360, both of which are almost universally recognised as offering superior online interactivity.

Nintendo’s future is uncertain, focused as it is on the 3DS – which required a significant price cut within six months of launch to achieve solid sales – and the Wii U.

This isn’t the first time Nintendo has been in trouble, their predecessor to the Wii, the GameCube, sold merely 20 million units (by contrast the PlayStation 2 – which is still in production – has sold over 150 million units to date). Nintendo has always done things differently yet many openly wonder if the company can do what is necessary to survive without branching out to new platforms and embracing new concepts.

“As for the Wii U, I don't really think it is the "next generation" of consoles,” Marsh comments.
“I'm sure it will have some really fun games, but I can't imagine it really making a dent in the new gaming movement. I think Nintendo is going to run the risk of becoming irrelevant if they keep ignoring things like multiplayer, social features, downloadable games. But what do I know?”

To date there have been numerous arguments over the power of the device with some developers who have access to dev-kits saying it is less powerful than the PS3 and Xbox 360 let alone their successors which are likely to be announced at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in Los Angeles next year.

Having the most powerful processor has never been an impediment as evidenced by the PS2’s success over the Xbox or the DS’ success against the PSP. The Wii’s lack of strength hasn’t held it back either.

Yet many are convinced that Nintendo – out of all the console makers – is falling radically behind the times.
“Some may hate me for saying this out loud,” Koobismo comments, “but my interest in whatever Nintendo does hasn’t been too high since, I don’t know, [the] GameCube. I’d like to be proven wrong, but right now I can’t see myself buying a Wii U.”

Nascimento adds “we’ve already seen what Nintendo's upgrades have done to the DS [and the 3DS]. This can give security to game developers so that they can keep innovating, releasing more games.”

Yet the capacity to release more games doesn’t necessarily mean more will be made. Nintendo’s systems have always been sold on the strength of their first party titles with third party games – those published by EA and Activision and so on – taking a backseat. Interesting French publisher Ubisoft have taken a keen interest in the Wii U, announcing – among other titles – Zombie U exclusively for the platform.

Whether even zombies will be enough to convince the gaming public to buy a Wii U remains to be seen, especially in light of what many saw as one of the worst – some even consider it the worst – media briefing in the company’s history at E3 this year. 

Yet Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft are not alone in making next generation consoles. Two new devices, the Ouya and the Oculus Rift, have both been significantly over capitalised by the crow funding website Kickstarter (the Oculus Rift achieved its target in just eight hours while the Ouya’s Kickstarter was oversubscribed by nearly $8 million).

“My programming skills are in their infancy when compared with my aspirations so Ouya,” Psychotic PSoftware’s Mike says. “[It] looks like a great place to experiment and engage with other likeminded folk, pick brains, make discoveries and mistakes in abundance... I’ll find that hard to resist.
The Ouya console and its controller
“I really want it to be the next big thing but I’m not sure people will get it. Gamers are fragmented into all kinds of camps and I don’t think it caters for the traditionally more vocal hard core market. For this reason it worries me that Ouya won’t meet their needs.”

The Ouya, made for developers by developers, and the Oculus Rift, a virtual reality game platform may well be the future of the industry – or they may be consigned to the waste bin like Nintendo’s previous attempt at VR, the Virtual Boy.

Either way the battle for the future of gamers’ time, and naturally, money, will be a fascinating one.

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