[As the casual game biz gets more complex, and the mainstream game biz examines complexity - where to now? Notables from PopCap, PlayFirst and Reflexive explain the state of the downloadable PC casual game space.]
There's no mistaking that casual games, while never generally considered part of the "mainstream" games industry of retail console and PC games -- and indeed, most usually excluded when discussing gamer-oriented downloadable titles, too -- have reached the point where they can no longer be ignored when discussing the games industry as a whole.
Whether it be from the claim late last year that the casual games business itself was a $2.25 billion dollar industry (and growing at 20% a year), or from the insights of industry insiders arguing that casual games developers need to adapt as the industry gets larger, there are plenty of signs pointing to the increasing importance of casual games as something that game developers should be paying attention to.
It's no longer just something housewives and office workers play to kill time in spare moments -- it's your competition.
There's no sign that points this out more obviously than the increasing polish and sophistication to be found in the downloadable PC casual game space. It's easy to characterize the industry to be a collection of fly-by-night portals featuring a handful of match-3 and retro arcade clones, but there's no arguing with its success.
To further investigate this growing industry, Gamasutra talks to some of its leading lights: John Welch, CEO of PlayFirst (Diner Dash); Jason Kapalka, CCO of PopCap (Peggle, Bejeweled) and Russell Carroll, director of marketing at developer and (via Reflexive Arcade) casual games distributor Reflexive Entertainment (Wik and the Fable of Souls) for their unique takes on the importance of the casual games industry -- where it's headed and what that means.
If there's one thing that our commentators agree on, it's that the industry is currently in a state of transition. "People say that casual games is in its infancy, but I think the industry acts more like a freshman at college," opened Russell Carroll. "Casual Games isn't quite sure what it wants to be when it grows up, but if it had to pick, it would pick everything!"
Much like that college freshman, we find an industry "struggling to find its identity", in Carroll's words. Jason Kapalka agrees: "The 'casual game' label is getting awfully broad, encompassing everything from the Wii and DS to Flash games, downloadables, mobile games and Rock Band and Guitar Hero. While that can make the 'casual game industry' look really impressive, it's not clear that all those games really fit under the same umbrella. They may need to find more specialized terms soon, if the 'casual' bandwagon gets too crowded or confusing."
Of course, even in this transitional stage, some traditionally held views still hold up. "Pirates are still the biggest group of casual game downloaders according to our numbers," said Carroll, "and as far as to who is buying them, most of the buyers are still the female over-35 group that has become so commonly quoted -- our own internal surveys haven't refuted that information."
However, this demographic's tastes are evolving. "Match-3 will never die," said John Welch, something which both Carroll and Kapalka agree on. "However, the casual consumer is becoming more sophisticated in their tastes. A simple match-3 game might do well on a cell phone, where you're looking for a few minutes of fun in between other things, but that's not what you're going to seek out to download for 'me-time'."
"That's why time-management, hidden object, simulation and adventure games are the big winners today. They're immersive experiences, rather than amusing momentary distractions."
PopCap's Bejeweled 2
"Certainly the key drivers to the market right now are hidden object games and click-management games," agreed Carroll. However, he did feel that perhaps the industry itself was reaching fatigue point for the current hot genres:
"Honestly, I think many people in the industry, but apparently not the consumers, have grown a bit tired of hidden object and fashion/food click-management games and are waiting for something else to catch on. So far, nothing has."