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GDC: Casual Games Summit 2006: An Existential Panel

March 22, 2006

Following a quick snack, the Casual Games Summit resumed with another five-part moderated panel, populated by: Popcap director of business development James Gwertzman; Atom Entertainment chief marketing officer Dave Williams; Joju Games president Joel Brodie; Oberon Media director of publishing David Nixon; and PlayFirst president and CEO John Welch.

Take the Power Back

The panel stretched its joints by working out if there was any consensus as to how the balance of power is situated in the casual game universe. The thread of design was established to start at the developer and run through to the consumer in the following pattern:

Developer -> Publisher -> Distributor -> Retailer -> Customer

The implication seemed to be that the developer and the consumer should be the parties with the greatest degree of control, as they're ultimately the parties that are communicating. Joel Brodie indeed opined that consumers are the ultimate controlling force; they buy what they want, and they don't buy what they don't want. Dave Williams figured the balance was pretty even among all parties. Mr. Gwertzman was certain that publishers and portals are the "God" in the equation, while Nixon and Welch agreed that retailers are the major factor in what gets seen and purchased, therefore what developments receive support.

Through the Looking Glass

In the case of casual games, portals are the major dissemination outlet, serving a role as both distributor and retailer. What might or might not be a sticking point is that not a lot really distinguishes one portal from another; they all look pretty much the same, offer the same games (or the same type), and work under similar rules. The panel next discussed what implications, if any, this uniformity might have.

James Gwertzman proposed that one way to break up the sameness is for developers to modify their games on a site-by-site basis, to customize the software for the style and personality of any given outlet. David Nixon contested that all portals are alike, as there are a fair number of unusual places to find games; it's just the most well-known ones that all seem to read from the same book. The smaller, quirkier sites still make the rounds through word of mouth and email and messaging clients, so they're not to be discounted entirely. John Welch just dismissed the question entirely, arguing that a cardboard box will always be more flexible than the Internet; by putting together their own package, publishers can do “whatever they want” with a product. He chose not to elaborate.

Tears of a Clone

Ultimately, the bulk of the discussion revolved around the issue of the clone-happy nature of the industry. Even some of the most well-known casual franchises, like Zuma and Snood, are blatant rip-offs of established properties (Puzzlink and Puzzle Bobble, in these cases). Others, like Diner Dash, are clearly inspired by games like Tapper – and then whenever a developer has hit upon a new successful concept, it is cloned almost immediately, with perhaps only the graphics changed a little.

Bust A Move (Puzzle Bobble)

James Gwertzman argued that the best way to protect one's self against clones is just not to make cloneable games; make the systems as hard to analyze and copy as possible. Joel Brodie, on the other hand, returned to the consumers; if users didn't want clones, they wouldn't buy clones. Clearly if clones exist there's a market for them. They're what people want. So therefore there is no “clone problem”, they're just what the market calls for.

John Welch figures that the whole “intellectual property” system, as it currently exists, is out-of-date and needs to be revised from the ground up. He wants to get rid of the patent office entirely, and just put most of the focus on copyright. He spoke at length on the difference between playing a game and enjoying it, and then being inspired to do something of your own that was kind of like it, and running a game on a second monitor and painstakingly copying it, detail for detail, then introducing it to an audience who aren't familiar with the original work (as with games like Zuma and Snood). “Is cloning a big deal? Yeah, because it's against the law.” Joel Brodie asked Welch what would happen if there weren't any laws; if this were the Wild West. “The Wild West?” Welch replied. “Then you take my s--t, I kick your ass.”

Consensus eventually arrived that the best defense against cloning was in building a strong brand – which is something that “no one really does” online, as it's much harder to do than in other distribution channels. Lately, as casual games have been blurring over into places like retail bargain bins and supermarket checkout aisles, branding has become a little easier. Games like Bejeweled, Diner Dash, and Zuma, have a very broad brand awareness; if anyone copies them, to most people it's immediately obvious what's going on.

The problem is coming to be an issue of the “haves” versus the “have-nots”, as to who is in a position to properly establish a brand. The more profitable a company, the more money it can put into refining and advertising a brand. In theory, though, branding is more of a publishing than a development duty. That's the publisher's job; to take something rough and make something distinctive and compelling out of it.


Supermom Saves the Princess

In the last few minutes, with some aid from audience members, the panel discussed the logistics of the hypothetical “soccer mom” audience toward which casual games tend to be developed.

One audience member was curious how the dynamics of “soccer mom gamerdom” worked out; do soccer moms become less casual as they gain more experience? Is Zuma a “gateway game”, that will lead them to upgrade to World of Warcraft between a year, or do they tend to stay at pretty much the same level?

The panel replied that, at present, there are a couple of levels to address. There will always be new players, who need to be fed and coddled. At the same time, casual games have been around long enough that there's a significant experienced contingent, looking for games with a little more substance to them. Although they are more sophisticated than the entry-level players, the main limitation will always be time – which is basically what defines a casual gamer. Actually, part of the growth of casual games is from former “core” gamers, as they age and their time and interest wanes; they gradually turn casual.

The last note of the panel was on the limits of the “soccer mom” stereotype, as certainly other demographics play casual games – and a lot of them have interests that aren't really being met, namely in the form of more action-centric, male-oriented games. In Europe and, especially, in Japan, on mobile phones and elsewhere, there is far more action-based content than is generally available in the United States; the panel's perception is that at present, there is a whole potential audience left starved for content. That issue will need to be addressed sooner or later.



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