Monday Morning Quarterback: Farewell to Sandlot Games, and Goodbye to Innovation in PC Casual Downloads

It can’t be denied that there are major changes going on in the casual gaming market. I’m not talking about the rapid growth and increasing relevance of social games, nor the rise of hidden object adventures as the dominant genre. I’m talking about the slow but very obvious disappearance of unique and daring casual games in general – at least when it comes to PC and Mac downloads. The recent acquisition of casual games developer Sandlot Games by social game company Digital Chocolate is just the latest indicator of what has been a slow but steady transition.

While the casual gaming market has never been home to overly complex or Triple-A quality games, it has nonetheless produced its fair share of charming titles. With Sandlot Games leaving the market, fans should give up hope of seeing sequels to Sandlot’s popular and polished brands such as Cake Mania, Westward and Tradewinds.

And that’s not all. At one time we had games like Chocolatier, Fab Fashion, Lucy’s Expedition, Miss Management, and Coconut Queen (all created by developers who are no longer making games in the traditional casual PC/Mac downloads space). It seems like the peak of creativity and variety in the casual gaming market was reached long ago, and these days there are long gaps between games that are truly remarkable, or unique enough to establish a new genre.

I certainly don’t dispute the enormous popularity of the hidden object genre – some of which even have decent production values and stories – but those kinds of releases (along with the steady stream of resource management, match-3, and time management titles) sorely lack the feeling of, “This is fresh. This is a game I can’t really compare to anything I’ve ever played before” – and this is exactly what keeps a market alive and evolving.

Just a couple of years ago, new and exciting niche genres seemed to pop up nearly on a monthly basis, with Hipsoft’s Build-a-lot being a wonderful example. The game simply took an ounce of Monopoly, combined it with time management and arcade elements, and voilà: an addicting, inspiring and popular brand was created, inspiring dozens of similar games in a new sub-genre – building sim. The same was true of farming games, fragmented object games, battle match-3 games, and a dozen or more other niche genres.

But what’s the case right now? Are there no more new niche genres to invent and create? That is surely not the case, since the indie gaming market has shown itself capable of displaying innovation and creativity time and time again. The casual downloads market, however, has become stale, and it’s a development that does not come as an absolute surprise.

When a new market emerges, creativity blossoms, innovations are welcome and certainly worth the risk, because no one knows what will be the next big thing. But as soon as a market reaches its supposedly peak, things suddenly change. It’s a sure bet that a hidden object game with spectacular graphics, flawless mechanics and an eerie storyline will sell well; as will, to a lesser degree, a farming game that features similar mechanics to games that made the genre so popular some time ago. This cannot be said about an uncommon setting, bold new mechanics, or a totally new genre, and just one failed title can mean the end for an aspiring games studio.

Unfortunately, this strategy of “playing it safe” also prevents further innovation, which is always necessary to attract new customer bases and to avoid discouraging long-time customers. Only time will tell whether the casual download market will be able to manage a U-turn and reinvent itself, or whether it might retract more and more by offering the same for years to come. If the latter is the case, social, mobile and indie gaming might be the profiting parties, since more and more players will be on the look-out for more adventurous markets. Although, some might argue that social gaming is already heading down the same road.

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