The Sky is Falling . . . NOT!

Last week, PopCap Games released Bookworm Adventures, and with it, a little bit of controversy. Costing $700,000 to make and taking 2 ½ years to complete, PopCap also announced that it was pricing the game at $30, instead of the "traditional" $20 per game.

This raised quite a ruckus on Gamezebo, with half the people writing in that they would never pay $30 for a casual game and the other half saying that this particular game is worth it.

Much in the same way that Carrie Bradshaw on the hit TV show Sex and the City was inspired by her friends to pose questions on life and relationships, I am inspired by Gamezebo users to question the relationship of price and casual games:

Is the sky falling on casual games? Is this a trend toward higher prices? Are casual games worth $30?

No, no, maybe. . .

Let me first state an undeniable fact: the $30 price point is nothing new in casual games.

Before I followed my destiny in life to become the Chief Gamezebo, I was responsible for business development at a leading casual games distributor. During my tenure, we repeatedly released games at $30 instead of the $20 price point at the request of certain game developers. And we were not the only major distributor to do so.

The only difference between now and then is that when we did this in years past, we did not announce it in a press release and CNN article as PopCap did with Bookworm Adventures.

What is interesting is that every time we released a game for $30, there was absolutely no difference in the conversion rate between free downloads to purchases. In fact, in many cases, the conversion rates for $30 games were higher than those for $20 games.

How can this be? Are all casual gamers millionaires and not care about price? Sadly for anyone reading this article, no, casual gamers are not independently wealthy.

Rather, I believe that casual gamers are willing to pay a fair price for a game they fall in love with. The one common thread with casual games priced at $30 is that they were all very good games — with high production values, addictive game play, and added value (such as more hours of game play). Moreover, a lot of these games were sequels of hit games or based on well-known brands.

The key determinant of how well a game sold was not price but instead how addictive the game was. If players were so addicted to the game that after 60 minutes they could not stop playing, they bought the game regardless of price. Likewise, if they were not addicted, the game would not sell.

Coming full circle to Bookworm Adventures, if people become addicted to the game (and the game is quite addictive in my humble opinion, click here for our review), they will have no problem buying the game at $30. If not, expect PopCap to change course very quickly and price it back down to the traditional $20 price point (just as happens with games sold at the retail shelf).

According to my sources, Bookwork Adventures is selling extremely briskly on PopCap’s Web site, so don’t expect it to go down in price anytime soon.

A far more interesting price consideration is related to another popular topic of conversation on Gamezebo — that of people asking for free copies of games and activation codes.

When I first saw such comments, I was bewildered. Why would a middle-aged adult publicly ask for a free illegal copy of a game? When I delved deeper, however, I noticed that a lot of free game copy requests were actually initiated by teenagers and "tweens," ages 10 – 14.

Though I don’t condone such behavior (it is stealing and developers deserve to be paid for their creations), I do understand why it takes place.

As the casual game market grows, the demographics of casual gamers is expanding, from primarily baby boomers ages 35 to 50 who have a lot of disposable income to their kids and grandkids. Unfortunately, the means by which casual games are distributed and sold is not evolving with the changing times.

Simply stated, young adults and teenagers do not have the money or the credit card to purchase a game online for $20, much less $30.

So far, the common industry response has been "wait until we offer micro-transactions," where gamers can purchase a "session" or "item" in a game for a couple of dollars or less. This, however, is beside the point. The younger generation wants to own the full game (not just a piece) just like their parents. Micro-transactions may be cool and the future of casual games, but it does not solve this particular problem.

There needs to be new solutions to enable young adults and teenagers to purchase casual games online, such as selling gift cards at retail (similar to music and iTunes), allowing parents to deposit money into online accounts to enable their kids to purchase games online, or selling games at a lower price that directly appeal to the younger audience (i.e., what Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network do).

Unlike other types of content, parents actually want to purchase casual games for their children. Casual games are educational, non-violent, and safe. This expansion of the casual game audience from adults to kids provides the casual game industry with a huge challenge and opportunity which is not being addressed at this moment.

I am sure there are a lot of music companies who wish they had done something sooner when piracy first emerged years ago in their industry as it is beginning to do in casual games today.

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