Twenty-two minutes, eleven seconds. That’s how long I waited. And I’ve got broadband, and a brand new wicked-fast Dell lap-top. Twenty-two minutes and change. That’s roughly how long it takes a photon to reach Earth from the Sun. That’s a full episode of Entourage, for God’s sake. Twenty-two minutes. That’s how long it took me to download the whopping 754Mb Nancy Drew: Last Train to Blue Moon Canyon from Big Fish this morning, and that’s not counting the three minutes it took to register and the four minutes to complete the install. Why did I choose this game above all others? Why didn’t size matter to me?
I was willing to suffer this interminable delay not because I am writing a piece about the large footprints of some of today’s most popular download games, no, I was willing to wait twenty-two minutes because I have two young daughters starving for something that is more than just a light excursion into a land of shiny matching gems and upwardly mobile waitresses. My kids want something rich, something timeless, something that aspires to be more than just a puzzle game. And, sometimes I want that too. So, apparently, do many other visitors to popular casual game portals whose collective outcry (as voiced through their wallets) seems to debunk the notion that download games need to be small in order to sell. Apparently bigness is not badness and, with one major caveat, size doesn’t matter.
According to my secret sources, Her Interactive’s first foray into casual games with their less-than-download friendly Nancy Drew series has been a big success. First released on Big Fish a few weeks ago and soon available on other popular download sites including (for the sake of full disclosure) iWin, Last Train to Blue Moon Canyon has sold very well. Why? Well, I have a theory. Actually I have several theories. I have no data yet mind you, but based on nothing but pure observation and fifteen years in and around the digital entertainment business I suspect the reason why casual gamers seem to be embracing this behemoth of a download is simply because:
A) It’s a well-recognized brand based on a classic literary series that shoots a bulls-eye at the demographic.
B) With it’s core-game production values, rich story and characters and 20+ hours of game-play, offers a superior value over the typical casual game fare.
C) It’s a really good game.
Remember when I said that my daughters want an experience that’s rich, timeless and something aspiring to be more than just a game? Well, I’m not quoting them directly. In fact I’m not quoting them at all. They, at five and six years of age, do not have the words timeless, rich or aspirational in their vocabulary. They didn’t tell me they wanted these qualities in a game, they showed me. You see I play download games with my children. They sit in my lap and help me find matches in Mah-Jong Quest, they take the mouse from my hand to complete chains in Luxor and they are rapt with the iSpy-esque Mystery Case Files. Some games they like, some they don’t, and the look in their eyes always gives them away. It’s easy to tell when they’re losing attention, getting sucked in or getting bored. My kids (all kids) are the best focus groups you can ask for because they have no agenda and no ingrained bias. A good game will engage the obvious five senses, a great game will engage the mind as well, and when we sat down to play Blue Moon Canyon it was as if I had just slipped the latest Miyazaki film into the DVD player. I looked into their eyes and literally saw a light go on.
Forgive me for name-dropping. Hayao Miyazaki is the brilliant Japanese story-teller and director who made Spirited Away, the Oscar-Winning animated film about a young girl named who is whisked off into a mysterious land of intrigue and adventure. Miyazaki’s films (all brilliant) often feature strong female leads who must use their wits and courage to escape often dangerous and visually compelling worlds. Sound familiar? The very core of the Nancy Drew canon is founded upon the same, basic premise and no doubt the thousands of casual gamers who have already endured at least twenty-two minutes of waiting for Blue Moon Canyon are doing so at least in part because Nancy Drew is compelling entertainment written for women and girls intelligently, and in the spirit of empowerment instead of the blatant pandering we often see in some popular casual games.
Maybe I’m over-analyzing this, but before Blue Moon Canyon, the only other examples of successful, large footprint downloads have been games like Risk and Monopoly (also, not co-incidentally, strong, evergreen brands that play to our collective, nostalgic pasts). But those games are half the size of the Nancy Drew installments. There’s got to be more going on here than just brand recognition. It’s possible that the mere convenience of being able to purchase a game previously only available at retail, coupled with a smart key-word campaign and the ubiquity of broadband accounts for some of the success here. But I believe there’s more going on. The download games market is growing, fast, and it’s not just attracting more novices and technophobes. It’s also attracting regular gamers, many of whom are women. These not-so-casual gamers (who play MYST and other story-rich puzzle games) are discovering new outlets and new content to feed their jones. As a veteran adventure game player and designer I am painfully aware of the dearth of titles that can tell a decent story while presenting a challenge. Let me tell you, twenty-two minutes is a small price to pay for a good adventure-style game. In fact I’d wait forty-four for a game I don’t have to feel guilty about leaving my girls alone with.
It remains to be seen just how long Last Train to Blue Moon Canyon will remain at the top of the casual game charts, or if subsequent installments will repeat its success. Maybe this is a fluke, an anomaly that will pass. We don’t yet know what the life-cycle for this game will look like. Will it spike quickly and dive? Will it level off and maintain good numbers? Does the subscription model and the relatively low barrier to entry have more to do with this apparent success than the content itself? Maybe. But I believe that if you couple a quality brand with quality game design, then size truly doesn’t matter. Quality is the caveat I referred to earlier. In this case brand is king. Who wouldn’t want a game based on their favorite childhood heroine? Women are not idiots and it’s time we stop treating them as such. If the Nancy Drew series can sustain sales and remain atop the charts over the next few months, then maybe we should stop and listen. It’s not the size of the wand it’s the magic in the stick. In this case the magic is good old-fashioned story-telling and game design. Duh.
Click here to read our review and download Nancy Drew: Last Train to Blue Moon Canyon
Vinny Carrella wrote and directed Bad Mojo, the 2004 Adventure Game of the Year and has writing and design credits on award-winning games such as Iron Helix and Space Bunnies Must Die! His debut novel, Serpent Box (Harper-Collins, Perennial) is due out in the Summer of 2007. He is currently spearheading developer outreach and content acquisition at iWin.com and can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or, feel free to write your comments below.