[Why weren't there more traditional developers attending last week's Casual Connect conference? In this opinion column, Divide By Zero's James Portnow warns of the peril in treating casual games like a separate industry.]
Each year, the Casual Connect conference in Seattle takes up more space. This year it had more vendors, more lectures and more attendees than ever before. This isn’t unexpected. What surprised me is how we, the "proper" video games industry, seem not to have noticed.
It’s not that we don’t know that "casual games" are big business: we just don’t seem to think that they’re our business, or, at the very least, we seem to think that we can enter the field of casual games without being involved with any of the companies that call themselves "casual game developers."
Why do I say this? Because as I walked the halls of Casual Connect I realized how few people I actually knew there. This may sound ridiculous, even pretentious, but I’m sure many of you have the same problem: you can’t go two feet at GDC without running into someone you know.
Somewhere between the parties and the lectures at Casual Connect it clicked... these are two different industries.
This splitting of the industry is terrible. Not just for us, but for everyone involved.
We can see this clearly simply by looking to the serious games industry. I try to stay involved with the serious/educational games community, because I find much of the research coming out of that sector fascinating…and the one thing that doing so has made me certain of is that there is plenty both serious and “big”(we need some term for our sector of the industry other than “the videogame industry”) games can learn from one another.
In general, I’ve found that the serious crew could pick up a fair amount about production from “the industry,” and we in turn could learn a lot about conveying complicated ideas and addressing weighty subject matter. Learning, or at least leeching, from each other, we might be able to present games that are fun, polished and deeply meaningful (which is something neither industry does well consistently).
If we let the casual games industry go the same way, we leave an enormous amount of money on the table. Not because of the fact that we won’t be making casual games – lots of developers specialize, making only RPGs or only racing games – but because of the knowledge we leave behind.
We’ve seen how successful crossover hybrids can be (Puzzle Quest, Portal
), and we’ve frequently acknowledged that we often have a hard time including puzzles in our games without them seeming forced or hackneyed. There are people out there who have already spent 10,000 hours thinking about these problems.
The Split from the Other Side
A few years ago I used to hear casual games guys talk about how they were going to revolutionize the industry, about how they were going to achieve legitimacy and be recognized as a driving force in the industry. Nobody talked about “the industry” this year.
And why should they? They’ve got Mochi and Wild Tangent throwing parties that rival anything put on at GDC. They’ve got PopCap grabbing its own headlines and making profits on par with many of the most successful AAA games developers/publishers. They’ve got their own big ballers. They don’t need our recognition any more.
What they do need is our knowledge. They do need much of what we bring to the table... but this year I certainly sensed that we as industries had alienated each other to some degree.
After all those years of looking to us for support, for publishing partners and distribution channels, I got the feeling that some on the casual side of the table were quite happy to become a separate industry and to keep to themselves what they had earned.
It’s more than just information exchange, there’s all sorts of advantages to having a unified industry. As a block we can do more. It sounds silly, but there are things we’re going to want to lobby for. There are things which we’ll want a unified front to address.
The near future is going to be a complicated time, morally and legally, for the games industry. We’ve finally grown to the point where many issues have to be tackled on a national and international level (for example, digital property rights). To get the results that best suit us all we must be willing to act together and in order to act together we must rid ourselves of this imaginary divide.
I don’t ask that we all start making casual games. That would be ludicrous. I simply ask that we don’t drift so far apart as to become two separate industries.
Right now we have no embassies and we have no envoys to the strictly casual world. There were a handful of guys from Bioware and a few of the local Games for Windows crew in attendance this last week at Casual Connect, other than that almost all of the tags came from strictly casual game companies. Almost every major developer I know of could have learnt something from that conference.
Does this mean that everyone needs to send somebody to conferences like Casual Connect? No, but every AAA studio should have somebody in the office who has a good contact at PopCap or Zynga or WildTangent. They’ll be a day when you’ll be wanting it.
[James Portnow is a game designer, formerly of Activision, and now at Divide by Zero Games, where he is also the founder and CCO. He received his master's degree in Entertainment Technology from Carnegie Mellon University. He can be contacted at [email protected] or JamesPortnow on Twitter for comments on this article.]