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The Future of Games with David Braben
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The Future of Games with David Braben

March 19, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 4 Next

I wanted to ask your thoughts on a variety of bits and pieces from the current state of the gaming industry. So first off -- casual games. We're seeing lots of people leaving AAA companies to work on casual games, mobile games, Facebook games. How do you feel about casual games?

DB: Well firstly, the word "casual" is almost like a rude word. It's the collective name given to games that are a bit shit. [laughs] Now some of them are actually quite good, don't get me wrong, but what I mean by that is that there's a bandwagon where people have seen Facebook games get oodles of revenue, and then have tried to jump on thinking that the reason these games are good is that they're casual.

That's not why they're good. They're somehow addictive via very traditional gameplay roots, and if you look at the amount of tuning that a game like FarmVille has had -- and also don't forget that Zynga were not the people who made it to start with -- there were other companies that each ripped each other off, as far as I could see, with games that were a gnat's whisker apart from each other! Even the graphics looked similar.

I was surprised that happened, and that was allowed to happen... but that aside, there haven't been that many successful ones in numbers. You know, the games that are often given that "casual" tag are mainly given so because they are 2D games on Facebook. So the perception is that they're quite easy to write and that they make their money out of microtransactions.

I mean, there have been a few successes, but it's not a huge number compared to the number of failures that there have been. You hear about all these Facebook games, and then you never hear of them again, and that's because they're not very good. And they have got this tag, "casual".

Thankfully, a lot of these games have crashed and burned, but I think that is starting to change. What we've seen in the mobile space already is the 1980s and '90s condensed into about two years -- you know, where we started off with really simplistic games playing on a little phone, and then smartphone displays have gone bananas, going from low-res blocky graphics playing on a numeric keypad, to iPhone games that look gorgeous and feel a bit consoley.

I think browser games are also going through the same thing. I think the combinations of HTML5 and all the various tools that enable better games to be run in a browser, that's going to go through a similar transition.

We were saying earlier that Kinect is helping to bring people into gaming who normally wouldn't play games. Do you feel like casual games are also doing that?

DB: Oh yeah, that's a great thing. It's like Brain Training [Brain Age in the U.S.] -- I think if that came out now, it would be called a casual game. It's just the term wasn't really there at the time for people to criticize it with.

I mean, people have said, "Wow, games were great in the '80s. It was the golden age of gaming! Why aren't games like that now?" Actually, games in the '80s were rubbish! But history sort of condenses it down into a glorified, wide-angle lens, and so we've got lots of games that have been remembered for being good, but there was lots of tosh which, in today's world, would be called casual games.

Also, the terms "casual" and "social" are almost used in conjunction. Is FarmVille a social game? Well, no, it's not really. But people hang around their farms, which is sort of a bit social. The term hasn't really got much meaning, and I'm not sure what "casual" really means. It's often just brightly colored graphics with relatively shallow gameplay that is somehow addictive.

I think if you ask what "casual" is again at the same time next year, I think it will be attached to something slightly different. For example, I like playing online Scrabble, and the great thing about that is that you can have one go, but have several games on the go. Is that casual? No, I take it very seriously! [laughs] Is it social? Well, the other person isn't there, but it is sort of social... so what do you call that? Turn-based gaming? It falls under the "social" term now, but I'm not quite sure why.

For myself, the word "casual" sort of describes the kind of game that you can be playing, but not focusing on as much as you would with a regular game.

DB: That's true. But I think we need to find a new vocabulary for these things. They're changing so quickly, that we're attaching names to things, but then some time later these things have changed...

Yeah, it's very much a grey area. How do you feel, then, about free-to-play games?

DB: If you look at other industries, such as the gambling industry -- they started off with premium games, then they found that if they lowered the price, they got more people in. They then lowered it to zero -- freemium -- and even more people came in. Then they lowered it beyond zero, so they actually give you free chips.

Now their industry has matured, and apparently the average cost of acquisition of a customer is over $100. So why go to freemium? If we stay at 99 cents, people will still play. Otherwise, from an industry point of view, you get this diminishing spiral where, the only reason you're really lowering the price is to take customers away from other developers.

And they'll do the same -- hence the gambling industry going to minus $100. It's what we call a pissing contest. The company with deeper pockets will try to acquire the customer more because the presumption is that the customer will then stay loyal. But that presumption often isn't all that tested.

The problem with our industry is that we're selling ourselves short. There are already a lot of games that are a lot cheaper than perhaps they ought to be. How many developers have very little chance of recovering their costs? There are a lot of people making games for iOS where they're living hand-to-mouth and doing the odd bit of work elsewhere to prop up their hobby. That is a problem, and it's partly because games are going for 99 cents. You've got to sell a lot of games to have anything close to a salary.

Do you think there's a way back?

DB: Yes. I think if we can hold the price, then that might actually bring some of the revenue back in. But I think the other option is to see slightly more money for premium games -- and we are seeing that. I mean, I've got to watch what I say, because we've just brought a game out at £1.99 and £2.49, which bizzarely is quite a lot for a mobile game.

Yeah you're right -- that's the kind of price where the average person would be wary to spend that much.

DB: But you see these people then going and spending £30 or £40 on an Xbox game! A lot of it is down to psychology -- for a £3.99 game, you'd give as much thought about buying it as you would for a game that was £39.99. I think it's down to expectation.

I mean, compared to the App Store, you've got Nintendo's eShop, and all you hear from people is that the £5 games in the eShop cost far too much, and that the prices need to be dropped to the same price as the App Store.

DB: Well, there is an argument that I've heard that people will pay a lot more for a Ferrari than a Mini, but they both still get you from A to B -- it's just that your experience en route is far better. And that may be the case for a higher-end device -- essentially, the reason you're paying less on a phone is that you're playing it on a phone. But I think that's been eroded over time, especially as up-market devices like the iPhone and the iPad have come out.

I think the bigger problem is the experience in some of these stores. The eShop experience is a challenge. Even to get the eShop to work in the first place is a challenge! I think that's a bigger obstacle. In a sense iOS has probably done a lot of damage in terms of price expectation, and whereas in the past, there were people who had a PlayStation 3, a Wii, an Xbox -- they then may have gone out and got a DS for gaming on the move, and the expectation was that the games were massively inferior because you were playing it on the move. I think iOS has damaged that expectation.

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