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Event Wrap Up: 2005 Indie Games Conference: Casual Games


October 18, 2005
 

Casual gaming is a increasingly popular genre that offers a myriad of opportunities for emerging indie game developers, and industry professionals profiled the casual gamer's world of portals and downloadables at the Indie Games Conference held in Eugene, Oregon, October 7-9. Both the conference keynote and a well-attended roundtable encouraged developers to exploit this market, causing attendees to buzz about casual games during meals and breaks.


Casual games were available to play at the Show-Off Center.

Casual Gaming Roundtable

In the casual gaming roundtable at IGC, publishers and developers addressed trends and changes in the casual games market. James Gwertzman of PopCap pointed to mobile as a significant market opening for casual games; games like Bejeweled, which gamers have downloaded over six million times, have an opportunity to hit mobile. Jessica Tams of game distributor Trymedia, now part of Macrovision, agreed that market growth is going the way of wireless and handheld venues, which translates into growth in networking opportunities and resources. Gwertzman and James C. Smith of indie/casual developer Reflexive also commented on the availability of tools and the impressive production qualities in new games made with Torque and the PopCap game engine.

The speakers in the roundtable also discussed issues such as game developer revenue, IP rights, and loss of creative innovation. According to Reflexive's Smith, the growing popularity of casual games is negative from an innovation standpoint, because it will erode indie freedom. In the past, developers were either completely owned by a publisher and lost IP rights, or were independent and struggled to achieve self-support. But now there is a middle ground for negotiating testing, globalization, and funding. Dave Nixon of Oberon Media disagreed, saying that casual games are still relatively small in terms of costs and that many publishing options exist. Some games are owned by publishers because the ideas come straight from the publishers, whereas ideas that come from indie developers can either split costs with the publisher and retain IP or hand over the IP in order to attain complete cost coverage.

There are built-in safety values in the industry that prevent a monopoly, unlike in retail. PopCap's Gwertzman advised indie developers to view publishers as a starting point that they can split costs with, because one game hit will give a developer leverage to multiply influence and reputation. Playfirst's Dinkin recommended finding partners to prevent getting smaller. However, he cautioned against making a hasty choice. Developers need to make sure they find a publisher that complements them and shares their vision. In Gwertzman's experience, however, multiplayer games are much harder to deal with in terms of networking, but technology is changing. Oberon's Nixon agreed that the process will be difficult, but that mobile technology and growing comfort in the casual games market will create a convergence of communities. Meanwhile, Reflexive's Smith shifted focus from Internet connection multiplayer games and described his experience with face to face, head to head multiplayer casual games on a computer. In either case, no matter what the platform, multiplayer facets extend a game's life dramatically.


In the Groove

The panel differed about the very term “casual games.” Microsot Casual Games' Greg Canessa dislikes the term. He believes that business is evolving beyond the restrictive term, which he feels limits developers to card, word, trivia, puzzle, and casino games. He prefers a term that suggests broad-appeal, byte-sized and fun experiences, and small downloadable games that require small time commitment.

Oberon's Nixon addressed how the game industry is unlike other entertainment industries in its attempt to always define genres for consumers. He thinks it is time to re-educate consumers, whereas Reflexive's Smith asserted that consumers who play casual games usually don't define themselves as gamers, or often even admit to playing games at all. The term “casual games” is irrelevant to consumers, but critical within the industry, where it signifies a company on the cutting edge of game development.

Panelists concluded by discussing upcoming opportunities in casual games. PopCap's Gwertzman specified the impressive interconnected Asian gaming experience, which is mostly derived from multiplayer pirated and hacked versions of games, as a model that developers and publishers can emulate on a larger scale. Trymedia's Tams anticipates a community of developers, publishers, and distributors, as well as the expansion to mobile and handheld platforms. Playfirst's Dinkin cautioned indie developers that the commoditization of casual games will hinder innovation that indies capitalize on, and advised watching the market as it balloons and tips. Finally, Reflexive's Smith recommended that indies capitalize on the Mac market before competitors recognize Mac opportunities and step in, and Microsoft's Canessa ended by reminding attendees that the casual games franchise is not a well-known yet, and digital objects and micro-transactions are really happening.

Thoughts from Attendees

Seemingly limitless opinions from indie game developers sparked hours of discussion and debate over everything from what makes someone a casual gamer versus a hardcore gamer to the future of the casual games market.

The hottest topic, the term “casual games,” spurred differing points of view. Jason Asbahr of Roxor Games, developer of In the Groove, a dance game now available on PlayStation 2, saw the term as a reasonable description for fun games that involve a light investment of time. Andy Schatz of Pocketwatch Games, developer of Wildlife Tycoon: Venture Africa, which received the second place awards in Most Innovative and Best Overall at IGC, hesitated over the word “casual.” He believes it implies a gameplay mechanic and falsely assumes certain play behaviors. He was also extremely wary of the way in which “indie” games are often synonymous with “casual” games. He suggested the term “microgames” as an alternative.

To Josh Dallman of Red Thumb Games, developer of Shelled!, a 3D turtle tank artillery game, the term is fine as identified by the game industry, but he noted that confusion occurs when deciding if a game is casual or not due to the nature of casual games. He feels that a casual game is one that places less demand on the player in one of two dimensions: either less demanding depth, or less demanding game breadth. Jeremy Alessi of Leadfoot Productions, developer of Aerial Antics, a jet pack flying game where players complete levels by traversing obstacles, cited statistics at IGC indicating that a gamer who averages 30 hours of game play a week on casual games still does not identify herself as a casual gamer. He believes the term is comfortable for a mass audience.


Luxor

Despite this debate, most indie game developers were positive about the future of the genre. Asbahr described Roxor Games' focus on arcade games. They typically develop first for the arcade and then port to the home. In the arcade space, casual games have established a niche in two areas: bar-top systems and video redemption, where redemption tickets or points are awarded based on how well the player masters the game. Asbahr feels that developers of casual games have a great opportunity to add coin-op support in the arcade space.

 

Pocketwatch's Schatz pointed out that indie developers are capable of shifting and expanding the market and the genre map of video games in general, and although it won't change the hit-driven environment of the game industry, it is open to indies. He warned against assuming that yet another puzzle game would hit big, since publishers are already dividing territory amongst Bejeweled and Luxor clones. Although casual games may move up the food chain and join the world of big publishers, market space will exist for those seeking to innovate. The key is targeting a niche audience and working with game engines that support indie developers.

Meanwhile, Leadfoot Productions' Alessi asserted that consoles dominate the future of casual games. He plans to rely on the specifications of consoles to innovate new casual games. Finally, Red Thumb Games' Dallman stated that now is the best time to get into casual games, because the AAA studios have already made forays into the casual game space, previously the exclusive territory of shareware and indies.

The Indie Games Conference promoted casual games as a viable path for indie game developers to hit big. Although game developers and publishers can't agree on what the term “casual games” even means, clearly the market is wide open and aching for innovation.

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