The Casual Divide
It never ceases to amaze me how irrationally defensive so-called "hardcore" gamers can get when the subject of casual games comes up. It's fine and dandy when the umpteenth zombie frag-fest or World War II-themed first-person shooter is announced (yawn), but a game about running a restaurant or beauty salon? The sky is falling!
A casual game that successfully crossed over, Peggle Nights was well-received by both sides of the divide.
Puzzle games like Peggle Nights and Bejeweled Twist from PopCap Games, whose Seattle gala release party was touted by the company as being "the most spectacular launch event in casual games history," have earned crossover success in their ability to appeal to the majority of gamers regardless of casual or hardcore allegiances. But those casual games that stray farther away from entrenched hardcore expectations -- games that strive to be less "Die Hard" and more "chick flick" -- are generally less well received.
Take Joystiq's reaction when it found out about a casual click management game called Babysitting Mania (and yes, the premise is exactly what you think it is):
Babysitting Mania. Picking up clothes and disciplining other peoples' kids is fun!
"Exhibit 7,324 that no one asks us before they decide to make stuff: Casual PC game Babysitting Mania is coming to the DS. You can play it for free right now on the PC, if you want. Or, you could take the precious life-seconds you would spend doing that, put them in a rocket, and shoot it into the sun. The choice is yours."
Actually, Babysitting Mania was the sequel to Nanny Mania, a casual try-before-you-buy PC game that was downloaded more than 8 million times and purchased by more than 130,000 people.
So the developer, Gogii Games, clearly did ask people before it decided to make Babysitting Mania. Like any astute game-maker, Gogii looked at the 130,000 people who enjoyed Nanny Mania enough to buy it and decided that these people might be willing to shell out more cash for another game with similar mechanics and theme.
Mystery Case Files: Madame Fate, a casual game that cracked NPD Group's Top 10 PC Retail sales chart.
But who are "these people?" They're definitely not the "us" that Joystiq referred to. And therein lies one of the problems, the Great Divide between Us and Them. There's a whole other demographic of gamers who are lumped into the "casual gamer" moniker, but whose gaming habits are anything but casual.
I'm not talking about people who enjoy the occasional round of UNO over Xbox Live Arcade, or whose idea of a fitness regimen is pulling out the Wii Balance Board every couple of weeks and doing some deep breathing. I'm talking about people who get their gaming fix primarily from PC downloads, the so-called "try-before-you-buy" shareware model where players can download a free trial of the game, play it for a limited amount of time, and decide whether or not they want to pay to unlock the full version when the trial ends. Often they do pay. According to the Casual Games Association, casual games are a $2.25 billion industry.
The pioneer of restaurant management games, Diner Dash has been downloaded more than 200 million times.
Instead of being weaned on Space Invaders and Pac-Man, these PC gamers got their start playing Bejeweled and Diner Dash. They enjoy strange-sounding genres like "match-three," "click management" and "hidden object." They still think point-and-click adventure games are the greatest thing since sliced bread. They have their own gaming archetypes, like the "go-getting entrepreneurial female who opens her own business," or the "savvy detective who must solve the mystery by searching scenes for clues."
But make no mistake: This under-the-radar group is just as savvy in its own way. Games like Virtual Villagers, Build-a-lot and Mystery Case Files may cause "hardcore" gamers to react with blank stares, but these series have enormous, fanatical fanbases that clamor for tidbits of news on upcoming releases, trade tips and tricks on online message boards, spend hours every day playing the games, and aren't afraid to voice their opinions on what they liked and disliked in user reviews.
The 19th game in Her Interactive's long-running series, Nancy Drew: The Haunting of Castle Malloy.
The proof is in the numbers. Mystery Case Files: Madame Fate, Cake Mania and Diner Dash 2 have all appeared on NPD Group's Top 10 charts for retail PC sales this year. In NPD's most recent published results for the week ending Oct. 11, the number two best-selling game was none other than Her Interactive's point-and-click adventure Nancy Drew: The Haunting of Castle Malloy, holding its own against World of Warcraft, Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway and Crysis Warhead. As a series, Mystery Case Files has sold more than 1.8 million copies. The Bejeweled series has sold more than 10 million copies, and the Diner Dash series has sold a whopping 200 million.
Yes, there are bad casual games out there -- a whole lot of them, in fact. And few things could be more detrimental to the industry than publishers who underestimate peoples' intelligence by throwing together a slipshod product and hoping "casual gamers" will buy it because they don't know any better. It's this trend that scares a lot of "hardcore" gamers, and rightly so. But the casual gamers I know -- the ones reading message boards and writing user reviews and deciding to take a pass on pressing the "Buy It Now" button after their 60-minute trial expires -- are discerning enough to recognize good from bad.
Have gamers forgotten their roots? Remember a certain puzzle game where you had to guide falling blocks of various geometrical shapes to form lines using nothing but the directional pad and one button? Yes, Tetris was a casual game. In a wonderful symmetry, Microsoft chose to launch the Xbox 360 with the Xbox Live Arcade game Hexic, another casual puzzle game designed by the legendary Mr. Pajitnov.
Manage your potion empire and crush the competition in EA Pogo's Fairy Godmother Tycoon.
In fact, many of the popular casual games of today are reminiscent of the classic games of yesteryear. Super Granny? It's basically Lode Runner starring a little old lady in a jumpsuit. Fairy Godmother Tycoon? A highly entertaining strategy game about running a ruthless potion empire instead of conquering the world with guns. Dream Chronicles? A proto-point-and-click adventure.
In short, it's time that we started acknowledging the paradigm shifts that are taking place. Game demographics are widening to the point that the industry is no longer dominated by young males. As such, just because a game doesn't cater to their specific tastes and needs, that doesn't mean it has any less of a right to exist.
And who decreed that the driving force of a videogame had to be combat, or even conflict of any kind? Some people just want to search through pretty "Where's Waldo?"-style scenes for hidden objects to click on and cross off a list. And there's nothing wrong with that. So you don't want to play games that involve taking care of kitties or styling someone's hair. Great. You don't have to. But respect these games' right to exist. Respect the fact that there are people out there who do want to play them. What's more, they probably think that your games about robots and ninjas are, like, totally stupid.
Erin Bell is the editor of leading casual games editorial Web site Gamezebo.com.