Developers can best weather the storm of increased competition and falling prices in the casual game space by creating strong, innovative brands rather than cranking out greater numbers of cheaper low quality titles, said Last Day of Work Founder (Virtual Villagers, Plant Tycoon) Arthur Humphrey during an inspired talk at Casual Connect.
In less than a year, the de facto price for PC download casual games has dropped from $19.99 to $6.99 to the extent that consumers have come to expect the lower price point more and more.
However, Humphrey said that developers who respond by delivering "less game," whether by shortening development cycles or creating episodic content, are taking a short-sighted view. This has led to the increased commoditization of games by degrading their perceive value, and is taking away the power of developers to negotiate good contracts.
What's more, while the practice of churning out tons of cheap-and-dirty games based on proven (if well-worn) game mechanics might bring in initial splashes of money up front, it's simply not satisfying or fun. "As a game designer who loves games, it's not my dream," said Humphrey.
Humphrey acknowledged that games based on proven mechanics (such as match-3, hidden object and time management) are cheaper to develop, easier to get past the online gatekeepers (distribution portals), and guaranteed to sell a certain number of units.
The risk, of course, is that odds are a developer who's borrowing a proven mechanic isn't the only one. Ten other developers could all be making very similar games, which means that as soon as one game launches, another is waiting in the wings to nudge it out of the way. Such games tend to be quickly forgotten after launch.
Humphrey noted that games with innovative mechanics, well-developed stories and characters, and emergent (as opposed to pre-rendered) gameplay have longer tails because they're much harder to clone.
Unlike certain genres where every player has the exact same experience, emergent content allows each person who plays the game to have a different experience. Humphrey offered examples of fan fiction that players had posted narrating their own particular experiences with Virtual Villagers.
By contrast, "If you try to share your experience with a hidden object game, people will say 'so what? I played it too.'... Strong brands can also be the only way to carry over to some of the new, noisy marketplaces like iTunes."
According to Humphrey, a strong game brand starts with a foundation that differentiates it from the competition. And, for the record, it's not enough just to have a different theme or skin, nor is it enough to name the main character Sonja instead of Anna, change the story from rescuing grandma's bakery to saving grandpa's pet shop, or changing the gameplay mechanic from match-3 to match-3-and-a-half.
Diner Dash, for example, created a completely new time management mechanic at a time when players were getting tired of 3-in-a-row games. Last Day of Work's Virtual Villagers was the first casual sim game to really take off. "It was so different that after we convinced people to sell it, it didn't have anything resembling a clone for several years."
Even when the clones (or games that borrow heavily from or build upon the new mechanic) start appearing, they're still compared to the original. Likewise, sequels to original franchises have the ability to stand apart and are treated differently from other games using similar mechanics because they're part of the original series.
Humphrey said that developers have an innate instinct and set of tools for making innovative games that puts them at a great advantage over the "suits."
"'Suits' can't come up with innovative games because they don't play games; it's not in their DNA. You need to start listening to and honing that instinct. Create a vision based on what you want to play," he said.
Finally, Humphrey stressed that as soon as developers have a name for their game, they should buy the Web domain. This provides a central place for players to congregate, encourages brand growth and loyalty, builds traffic, and can provide a valuable marketing tool for subsequent launches.
"Most casual games don't bother to have any developer web presence," Humphrey said. "[Developers] just give the game to the portals to make money, and it conveys the feeling that the game was just pooped out and they don't care. Customers care."
[Gamasutra is presenting its Casual Connect 2009 coverage in association with Gamezebo (http://www.gamezebo.com), the leading editorial and community site for casual games across all platforms. The site features reviews, previews, news, and strategy guides for the latest and greatest in casual games.]