Casual game portals are like gas stations.

It doesn’t really matter where you fill up your tank. Gas is gas.

Yeah, it may have Techron or some other additive to clean your fuel-injectors, but if you’re like me, you wait till the gauge is clearly on E, you pull into the nearest station and fill up your tank. Gas stations are really only differentiated by two factors – price and color scheme. BP is yellow and green. Shell is red and yellow. Chevron is red, white and blue. And I am influenced by these colors, by the personality of a gas station, more than I am their prices. I feel more comfortable at a Shell than I do at a CITGO, and it has nothing to do with the latter’s ties to Venezuela’s state run oil monopoly. It’s because Shell’s colors appeal to me, and I dig their logo. A nice, simple, yellow scallop. Shell is mellow, and cool, and I like the way their stations look at night.

It occurred to me recently that casual game sites are fundamentally similar to gas stations. Each has its own distinct visual personality, but aside from the occasional exclusive game offering, they’re all essentially the same. I am sure that even though these sites have loyal customers and subscribers, that most casual gamers bounce from site to site about as frequently as they bounce from gas station to gas station. You go where it’s convenient. You go where it’s cheap. And you go where you feel welcome. You can get most games anywhere, so it really doesn’t make much of a difference where you go. After all, you can play games for free, and when your trial expires you can download again from some other site and play it for free, again. I have heard many casual gamers say this unabashedly. I’ve heard sixty year-old grand-mothers tell me, "Why should I pay for a game when I can play it for free?" Exactly grandma, why would you? Your momma didn’t raise no fool.

Casual gaming sites are, in effect, game stations where approximately ninety-eight percent of players get to sample their gas for free. The idea is that if you like the gas, you’ll want to own it and thus, you’ll pay for it, and there are enough people out there who abide by this very logical concept to sustain a small industry. But can the legacy practice of free download trials sustain the industry of tomorrow? Can casual game sites all continue to offer the same menu of game offerings while doing little else to differentiate themselves besides a few limited run exclusives and some ‘community features? I don’t think so. There’s a huge opportunity right now for someone to get bold, to get creative, to think outside of the box and deliver a casual games destination that is both compelling and useful. But I digress. That’s a much bigger topic than my quota allots.

Recently, casual game sites have been competing more and more on price. There are now a number of ways you can get a game for less than $19.99. This usually requires a commitment to purchase a certain number of games within a given time-period, and for some users this makes sense. If you know you’re going to buy three games or six games or twelve games a year, these deals are attractive. But is that what the end-user really wants? Another subscription? Another commitment? The consumer landscape is over-saturated with subscription services and contractual financial commitments. We’re contractually obligated to our cell phone carriers, our cable TV providers, our internet service providers, our landlords, our mortgage holders, heck, even my exterminator’s got me on a contract now. We subscribe to Netflix and Tivo and God knows how many magazines. That’s a lot of people we’re promising to pay money to, and now we’re being asked to subscribe to game sites. It’s insane I tell you. We shouldn’t have to buy a subscription in order to get a game for less than $19.99, we should get games for $9.99 across the board, and the way to do this is to sell games to 100% of the downloading audience, and the way to do that is to get rid of the 60 minute free trial.

Blasphemy you say. Sacrilege. Burn him at the stake and display his head on pike at the next Casual Connect. But please, don’t shoot the messenger. What I’m saying makes sense. The consumer doesn’t need a free trial, what she/he needs to help make a buying decision is honest marketing, better online demos and more press coverage in the form of reviews and editorials. That’s how it works in the industry known as core gaming, where games are marketed and promoted and demonstrated and reviewed and talked about, so that by the time the consumer gets to EB or Best Buy he knows what he’s buying. Bad games rarely make it to the shelves in the core gaming world (I said rarely, not never) because it’s too expensive to release a game that might not sell and those games are usually weeded out early on in the concept or development phase. Mediocre, and even bad games routinely make it to market in the download games space because they’re cheaper to make and some sites frankly need the content.

So here’s what I suggest. All download games should release with an online Flash or Active X playable demo version. This would add between five and thirty thousand dollars to the game’s budget, but most major portals are requiring them anyway and there’s now a proven ad model that can justify and recoup that extra cost. These online-only versions would serve the same function as today’s one hour trial. Accompany these demos with real marketing. Not one-hundred word fluff pieces, but copy and screenshots that really try to depict the games’ merits and strong points sans cliches and superlatives. Add to this a wider and more objective body of press coverage, editorials and reviews. Where is the GamePro of Casual Games? We need more Gamezebo’s. Then, drop the price of all premium titles to 10 bucks. Make these games an impulse buy. There’s a psychological wall between ten dollars and twenty. Twenty is one ATM withdrawal. We spend five bucks on a latte for crying out loud, ten bucks is a low-risk gamble on a game that has a demo you can play and that is supported by richer marketing and better messaging on the sites and the game landing pages. Keep the subscription services for the power-users and drop those prices too. Five bucks a game if you commit to ten games is a good deal. Do this, and conversion rate would cease be a meaningful buzz word and we’ll sell a lot more games.

I realize that this is a huge can of worms and that I am over-simplifying. This is really a topic that should be explored in much greater depth by people a lot smarter than me. I’m not an expert on business models, but I’ll tell you, long before I was in the games business I was a game player and then a game developer, and as a game player I don’t feel that I should have to download a twenty, thirty or even fifty megabyte file in order to find out whether or not a game is good enough to spend twenty dollars on it. A lot can be done to improve both the business for game sellers and the products and offerings for game buyers. But someone’s going to have to take some risks, take some heat and do more than change the color of their gas station. Someone needs to create a gas station so cool, so much fun, so valuable to us, that we will go out of our way to go there and fill up our tanks.