Going Casual: Don't Call It a Comeback
In case you missed it, time for a reality check: Casual games mean serious fun. But lately, many feel as if they've fallen into a rut, with each new day bringing another generic hidden object title, or worse, publishers racing to release several horribly-conceived pattern-matching mindbenders disguised as downloadable gems.
Alone, the last two months have seen a slew of disasters, ranging from the improperly translated and barely playable Ancient Wonderland to Youda Camper, a hardcore (and butt-ugly) economic simulation disguised as family-friendly entertainment. So it's small wonder that when I recently hit the Savannah College of Art and Design's GDX event to speak with Eric Zimmerman, founder of Gamelab (creator of hits Diner Dash and Miss Management), he was in a less than cheery mood. More bluntly, I believe the critically-acclaimed designer's exact words -- and the gist of a presentation he gave at the conference -- were "casual games are dead."
Call me an optimist or perhaps just seasonably chipper given spring's sudden arrival. Frankly, I can't find it within myself to share the recent attitude of doom and gloom that's seemed to permeate the field. From disgruntled fan forums to a pervasive attitude of disappointment from industry insiders, all I can say is pooh on you guys. Perhaps it's time we all stepped back, took a deep breath, and had a look at the situation from a broader perspective (or popped a handful of Prozac, but I digress?).
See, whether you agree with Zimmerman's philosophy -- that "shameless clones," "shrinking royalties," "too many developer submissions," and a "flood of titles competing for portals' [like Yahoo and AOL's] attention" are killing innovation -- potentially matters little. I'd argue that the bigger picture, despite looking gloomy for downloadable diversions, which may to some degree have run their course, is actually quite rosy for all of us out here in PC and videogame land. As a matter of fact, all this talk of disappointment and apathy seems especially misplaced amidst the recent launch of stellar offerings like StoneLoops of Jurassica, Westward II and the long-awaited sequel to Build-a-lot. It's not that casual games aren't capable of making waves in 2008; it's just that to spot their magic in action, you've got to be more open-minded about knowing where to look.
After all, let's not forget the medium's tremendous impact on traditional interactive offerings -- arguably a more compelling source of amusement than any single digital download could hope to offer. As industry legend Sid Meier recently went on record to state, casual games are both broadening and introducing new audiences to the medium through a variety of vehicles (consoles, handhelds, cell phones, digital distribution, etc.). While he's cautiously optimistic about whether these fair-weather fans will eventually morph into what we perceive to be die-hard players, let alone lifelong enthusiasts, do the net results really matter? Frankly, as successes like Guitar Hero III and even BioShock (which foregoes deeper RPG design elements for first-person shooter simplicity and controls) prove, we're seeing software become more instantly gratifying, accessible and widely appealing across the board without sacrificing its integrity. That's a win-win situation however you slice it, particularly for longtime vets, who are more likely to routinely drop more time and rent money on the hobby each month.
Peer if you will for a second beyond the traditional boundaries of what we call interactive entertainment as well, and tell me if you don't notice big things brewing to boot.
For example, consider the strides being made on iTunes, where you can now pick up titles like Peggle, Ms. Pac-Man, Tetris and The Sims Bowling as easily as an episode of "The Office" or the latest Ruben Studdard album. Let's not forget the work of providers like Meebo and Zynga either, the latter of which is bringing classic, racing and real-time strategy outings (including content created by staple providers like Sierra Online) to social networks such as Facebook, bebo and Friendster (an audience so huge that the company's game-playing traffic has doubled every eight weeks, to 1.4 million active users per day).
What about the stuff you're seeing in online MMOs like KartRider, Habbo and Club Penguin, any one of which sports a fan base in the tens or hundreds of millions? Or the fact that these titles are so successful in their own right that even holdouts like Sony Online Entertainment are coming around to the concept of no-cost, low-entry-barrier Internet outings like Free Realms, previously an unheard of venture for such a well-established software publisher. And all this before we even touch on the impact of 3-D cyberspace realms devoted to simply socializing and canoodling with fellow digital debutantes, e.g. critical darling Second Life or There.com. Heck, even the house Ken Kutaragi built is soon throwing its hat into the ring with virtual universe/glorified chat room PlayStation Home.
So what does all this peripheral activity surrounding the pastime tell us?
For one, despite Zimmerman's assertions, and recent public outcry over the state of the biz, I disagree with the assessment that casual gaming is croaking, let alone anywhere near on its last legs. As evidenced at bare minimum by the breakthrough triumph of Nintendo's DS -- one of which sells every 5 seconds in the United States -- and Wii (both of which have the most robust launch schedule of any consoles this summer), enthusiasm for the concept isn't waning, either. Sure, manufacturers may be having trouble churning out enough great games to fully live up to the hype in the immediate present. Ask yourself, however: Is that because they can't, or because they are merely too preoccupied attempting to cash-in as quickly as possible on the craze, and, as an extension of that, wind up stupidly saddling themselves with disastrous production schedules and looser quality standards?
Really, all you have to do is expand your viewing horizons a little to witness the principle of how powerful and indelible a simple, engaging gameplay experience (the core philosophy behind casual gaming) can truly be. It's not that far a leap to broaden our definition of these types of outings to include titles like Chessmaster LIVE (classic board game), Everyday Shooter (simple button-mashing, old-school throwback) and virtually any upcoming XNA-powered outing for Microsoft's Zune MP3 player. Heck, even so-called indie diversions like Cloud and flOw technically fit the bill.
From the iPhone (there's even going to be a version of Spore!) to browser-based online aggregators such as Shockwave.com, Kongregate and AddictingGames, wherever you look across the board, it's impossible to avoid casual gaming's influence. Even traditional console game developers and publishers like BioWare and Take-Two are paying attention and adjusting their approach accordingly, as revealed in a recent documentary.
So the next time someone comes to you and starts to piss and moan about the state of casual games, shrug your shoulders, move along and don't waste the effort arguing with these stubborn, gloomy individuals. Thanks to the cultural shift occurring on nearly every platform as a result of the concept's rise, and the trickledown effect it'll have on titles for decades to come, take heart in the following: It's only a matter of time before the haters come around.
Of course by that time, the phenomenon will have every other genre that supposedly keeled over in the last 10 years but is now suddenly enjoying a resurgence -- i.e. adventures, indies, RPGs, anything for the PC platform -- rolling over in its grave, right?