Don’t let my smile in the picture fool you. That picture was taken last year, during more happy days, when every time I checked my Gamezebo email a new gem of a casual game would be there to review.
No, today I am not smiling. Why? Because the casual games industry is stagnating, from the developers who keep creating the same old thing to the distributors who promise products anew but deliver nothing.
The casual games industry needs a swift kick in the-you-know-where, and I’m the man to do it.
When did I go from Mr. "The Future is So Bright I got to Wear Shades" to where I am today? It was somewhere in between the panels at Casual Connect: Amsterdam a month ago and those at the Casual Game Summit at GDC just 2 weeks ago, when it suddenly occurred to me: this is the worse case of deja vu ever.
For the past 12 months, the movers and shakers of our fine industry have debated online in mailing lists and offline at conferences the same exact issues:
- How "cloning" in casual games is a greater evil than global warming (it isn’t)
- Why the "try-and-buy-it" model sucks (it doesn’t)
- That one day, everyone will be playing and paying for multiplayer casual games with avatars, micro-transactions, etc. (maybe)
But, then everyone goes home, does their thing, and returns back to the next conference . . . to talk about the same things over and over again.
This is not to say that there is no innovation in casual games.
I always say there is more innovation in one week in casual games than one year in the video games industry (except for the Nintendo Wii and DS, which are super innovative).
My Big Fish Games is a very clever way for game players and webmasters to make money on casual games. Microsoft, RealArcade, Oberon, Trymedia, and Big Fish Games are leading the charge integrating advertising in games in a way that is non-intrusive to game players. And there are still some developers that continue to take risks and release innovative gems of casual games that are fun, such as Peggle, Virtual Villagers: The Lost Children, and Fairy Godmother Tycoon to name just a few we most recently reviewed.
Yet, every time I go to a conference now, I can’t help but thinking: we can be doing so much better. It is as if folks in the industry are happy to just coast and make millions instead of rising to the challenge and make billions.
How can we take this to the next level? Let me count the ways:
- Distributors: The Try it and Buy it Model is great but only works 2% of the time (meaning 98% of gamers never spend a penny on casual games). Advertising is a small step in the right direction but its time to make the giant leap — to multiplayer, micro-transactions, avatars, the works. Going multiplayer is not trivial but its not as hard as launching rockets into space either. Distributors need to cut the red tape and release their multiplayer platforms already, before some Asian companies, who have been doing this for years, finally enter the US market and makes our current set of distributors obsolete.
- Developers: Somewhere in the past year, some developers have gotten it into their heads that the only way to make money is to copy someone else’s game, or "clone" them. This is a successful strategy in casual games as it is in all types of content (ever notice how every movie and TV show is the same?). Yet, there is another option, which is actually creating something innovative. The truth is that if you look at the top 10 lists of casual games over the past year, you would see just as many best-selling innovative games as "clones." And, when you create an innovative game, you have the opportunity to create sequels and turn it into a profitable franchise. Developers need to stop debating about clones and focus on creating fun and innovative games for Gamezebo to review.
- Women in Casual Games: Two weeks ago, I was at the Minna Mingle run by the Casual Games Association when I looked at the crowd of 1000+ attendees and counted 20 women. This is like going to a Mary Kay Cosmetics Convention where all the attendees are only men! A huge amount of game players are women, and it’s time for casual game companies to hire them. Not to belabor this point (see Vinny Carrella’s Why We Need Women), but c’mon already.
- Gamezebo: Yes, I am even adding Gamezebo to this list. For awhile, I have been saying, we will be adding new features. Yet, when we tried to move to a new dedicated server (thanks to more traffic) we actually broke half the features we have. I commit to you — we will be working hard to create and add new features to make Gamezebo the best casual game community in the world. If you have any suggestions or ideas for new features to add, email us at email@example.com.
The industry needs to stop resting on its laurels and take casual games to the next level where it deserves to be, on the same level of traditional video games. That may sound bold, but in the past 5 years, we have grown an industry from $0 to $500 million a year, gotten millions of people who would never touch a gamepad to play games, and influenced the latest round of consoles (Nintendo Wii, Xbox Live Arcade).
According to the latest studies, as many people play casual games as go out to the watch the movies. But casual games are defined as games that can be played by everyone. We should not rest until every single person in the world is playing casual games.
Enough with the chit chat, my friends. Let’s start innovating again!