[Starting a new casual game-specific monthly column, Reflexive's Russell Carroll explains the distribution mechanism for casual games in unprecedented detail, comparing catalog and features for the major online game portals and explaining just how they make money.]
The casual games industry, for better or worse, is beholden to game distribution websites known as portals (or 'evil portals,' depending on who you are). Each of the portals carries a large catalog of games that is fairly unique, but regardless of this fact, casual surveyors of the industry find the portals to be about as dissimilar as the games they carry -- which is to say, not very.
The attack laid at portals' feet -- that they are essentially clones of each other -- has some merit, but it is more a case of the portals using a format that works well to compete for the same customer than anything else. While it may seem strange to be similar to your competition in order to compete with them, it shouldn't be too surprising. Consider grocery stores, for instance. Most stores are laid out in a very similar fashion and carry essentially the same products. When you go into a grocery store, you expect that they'll have cereal -- and that it won't be located near the butcher shop. The shared layouts used by different grocery stores help new customers feel comfortable when they walk in the door, but still allows the store to compete for the customer in other ways, such as discount programs.
Likewise, the casual game portals are competing for similar customers and selling similar products. Due to these similarities, at a quick glance, the portals don't look too dissimilar. In the case of grocery stores, I think the similarities are a good thing, a starting point that helps customers feel comfortable with their surroundings. And customers who feel comfortable are more likely to buy something instead of leaving the store.
However, just because there are obvious and useful similarities between the portals doesn't mean that there aren't subtle and significant differences. Though not quite as obvious to casual visitor, these differences are the lifeblood of each portal, and when compared, they can give you an insider's view of the battle taking place in the casual games industry.
The following is a breakdown of some of the key aspects of the different portals. A more detailed table of the differences, per my own research, can be found at the end of this article. Before I go too much further, I should also mention that my employment at Reflexive Entertainment puts me deep in the trenches of this battle every day.
The Game Catalog Question
The majority of the intrigues happening in the casual games space show up in the games that each portal carries. Though it may seem that the portals all have essentially the same catalog, there are quite a few mutually-exclusive catalogs in the industry.
The three biggest publishers in the industry are Oberon, Big Fish Games, and Game House (a branch of Real Arcade). The three biggest distributors are arguably also Real Arcade, Oberon and Big Fish Games. Being a publisher and a distributor in the same industry is something quite unique to casual games and leads to the occasional skirmish.
Initially, each portal carried all of the games available in the casual space, selling even their competitors' games on their own websites and through their own distribution networks. However, as the competition increased, some of the portals, those who were both distributors and publishers, stopped selling the games published by their competitors. Soon the competition followed suit, and currently we have a fair amount of unique material in the game catalogs at most of the portals. Game House games are not on the Big Fish Games portal, or on Pogo.com, whose downloadable game catalog is run by Oberon. Likewise, games developed by both Big Fish and Oberon are not available on Real Arcade.
While the change was dramatic, its impact was felt more by the business operators than by the average customer. Since the casual games industry is filled with games that are 'kinda similar' to each other, and few if any strong brands exist, most customers don't notice the difference between the catalogs from the different publishers. The casual games customer simply asks for a hidden object game and, be it Mortimer Becket and the Spooky Manor
or Mystery Case Files: Ravenhearst
, they play and move on. I'd liken it to the battle between Coke and Pepsi. When eating at a restaurant, most people just want a cola drink and won't leave if their brand of preference isn't available. The products are similar enough that casual substitution is common. In fact, at many restaurants they may bring you a Pepsi after you've ordered a Coke without even mentioning the replacement.
Though the three big publishers are responsible for a large number of the hit games in the casual games industry, the majority of the games still come from smaller developers. Those developers have more recently been brought into the thick of the battle between the portals, as timed exclusives have become a new focus of the portals in trying to promote themselves. Promises of riches and high-pressure deals have become more common as developers are wooed to give their game as a 4 or 6-week exclusive to a specific portal.
As interesting as all this maneuvering is within the industry, it is generally unseen from the outside. Because the games in the casual games space have so much in common with each other, to an outsider, the exclusives and the unique portions of the game catalogs on each portal simply go unnoticed. However, a closer examination shows an underworld full of intrigue, as the battle over the casual game customer rages on.
Why Social Gamers Matter
The majority of the casual game portals are ignoring players who want to connect to each other in-game. This may be due to Pogo's prominence in the field, or, more likely, because it is an approach that is too costly for most portals to casually implement.
The focus on Pogo.com is online games with community features and aspects. Pogo will allow you to create a membership that you can use for bragging rights through earning badges -- somewhat similar to, though predating Xbox achievements. While playing the games, players also earn tokens that are used to enter drawings for cash and prizes. Each game is played online with chat room lobbies included in the game window. Alongside their online community of chatting and competing gamers, Pogo has downloadable games just like everyone else.
Pogo is no longer the only portal working to bring in social gamers. MSN also has badges and online games, PlayFirst is taking Diner Dash
into the world of microtransactions, and iWin is trying subscriptions with online versions of popular TV game shows.
The appeal to social gamers is a little more obvious to the casual visitor than most of the differences between the portals. Where Pogo has found success, other portals are learning the ropes and following suit. Many are hoping to infiltrate the online space and capture a piece of the social gamer market for themselves.
The Pluses Of Portal Navigation
The area where most of the portals are more or less in unison is navigation. Though some have search boxes and others don't, all have genre listings that are quite similar in structure and layout.
This is one place where familiarity can help drive sales, and so the only changes typically made are those that increase sales without sacrificing familiarity. While new ideas are infrequent, it is not uncommon to find a new approach to navigation on one site quickly spreading to all the portals.
Of course website layout all over the internet is quite viral; navigation isn't a place where you really want to stand out as being different, because if you do, no one can find what they are looking for. If you want to draw a battle line in the sand to differentiate your website, navigation is not the place to do it.
The Search for More Money
Though it isn't always readily apparent, the billing and revenue generation tactics of the different portals are widely different. In fact, it may be the area where there is the most variation among the portals.
Portals do all that they can to keep their customers' game-buying in one place. Much like the grocery stores I mentioned earlier, the majority of portals use a variety of subscription programs, including full access to all games (all-you-can-eat), free monthly games, and special game discounts to keep customers loyal.
While offering customers various incentives to buy a game at a lower price is certainly attractive to the portal, it often leaves the developers feeling like the casualties of this war, as they are paid a percentage of the retail price, and the typical $19.99 sticker price is routinely slashed to $9.99 or lower. Of the 13 portals I surveyed, only 3 did not offer a discount, subscription service, or some other way to immediately lower the price of the game. While the portals often brush off developers stating that it is only good economic theory to match the supply curve to the demand curve in multiple spots, the truth of the deep discounting probably has more to do with competing with the other portals on price than it does with maximizing the developer's overall revenue.
In addition to competing on price, the casual portals are pursuing a variety of additional revenue paths. Nearly every portal uses advertisements on their websites (only Reflexive and PlayFirst do not) and many portals are adding advertisements into the games. Real Arcade was one of the first to offer unlimited play on some games in exchange for watching ads, iWin has a similar set-up, and Wild Games has free game sessions using Wild Coins that are paid for by advertisers.
Among the portals, there is a wide range of pricing, subscription programs and other revenue-generating pursuits that differ tremendously with new tactics being tried everyday. Much like grocery stores, though the portals may seem to be more or less the same, what you have to give up at the register in terms of cash and privacy varies greatly.
Battles Left to be Won
While the portals all may look quite similar, they are fierce competitors working for every advantage they can get to beat out their rivals. The involvement by the major players in the industry in both publishing and distribution has forced the portals to be friendly in public as they work together to acquire the same games and grow the same industry. However, the portals' fierce competition for the same customers paints the truth of what is happening behind closed doors where you'll see competition at its hottest.
So the next time you visit a portal and think that it is just like any other portal, take a closer look. Though the portals may appear to all be similar on the outside, not too far underneath the surface there is a battle waging that is anything but casual.
Conclusion: The Chart
This chart was created by visiting the various portals listed. The different areas considered are listed on the left and the portals are across the top. For each category, a portal that contained the item in question received a green or yellow square. Green squares meant that the portal had the item in question, yellow squares mean that the item in question was only partially present. A white square means that the item in question was not found at the portal.
The categories are as follows:
Social Profile with Achievements - users can create a profile and track the records across multiple games
Multiplayer - Presence of multiplayer games occurring on the portal's servers
Website account - Users can create a user account on the portal
Customer Reviews - Users can review games on the portal
Subscriptions - Players can subscribe to a monthly program to lower the cost of the games
Other Discounts / Coupons - Portal offers discount program other than/in addition to subscriptions
Free Web Games - Free games available, either flash games or web versions of downloadable games
CD Available - Customers can purchase the game on CD, or a CD back-up when ordering
Try Before you Buy - Demo may be downloaded before purchasing the game
In-Game Ads - Games include in-game ads
Play for Cash / Prizes - Players can compete for the chance at cash and prize rewards for playing
Website Ads - Website includes advertisements
Mac Games -The Portal has games for the Apple Macintosh
Exclusives touted -The portal prominently mentions that it has exclusive games
Have BF games -The portal carries games by Big Fish Games
Have GH games -The portal carries games by Game House
Developer -The portal is also a developer
Publisher -The portal is also a publisher
Download Client -The portal has a download client
Game Search -There is a game search box on the portal's website
Recommendations -There are game recommendations given
Editorial Content -There is editorial content (blogs, reviews, interviews) on the site