The prime message for the Casual Games Summit this year is that the casual game market is expanding so much, trickling over into so many demographics, that the old, rather lazy ways of thinking about the format and its audience have begun to stifle the potential of casual games, and turn them into a bit of a mockery of themselves.
The target audience, declared Microsoft Casual Games' Chris Early, is no longer the stereotypical soccer mom. "Everyone's playing casual games now, and they're playing them in places we never thought they'd play them before." Everyone who works with a computer is now either a customer or a customer in the making. So the big new question is, "who are you going to design your game for?"
Change, My Dear
Early spent most of his speech elucidating the pervasive nature of change. Nothing in the industry stands still, Early explained, from audience to hardware, to game design itself.
On that last point, Early observed, when casual games first appeared on the PC, they were primarily practical applications; they taught people how to navigate graphical user interfaces. Solitaire teaches people how to drag; minesweeper teaches point-and-click mechanics.
Besides training and education, other sources of innovation are emergent play -- where users take control of features and subvert them to their own purposes -- and changes in business models.
The Fountain of Newth
So how do developers identify new and emergent concepts before they hit the mainstream? Early broke down a bunch of current games into qualities that, to him, represent tangible value on a level beyond simply zoning out and playing a videogame. Webkins, the popular plush animal raising sim, bridges the "Physical to Digital crossover". In that the game itself is just one component of a larger framework of play, involving the toys, there is a built-in metagame or value system, plus persistence of data and character.
Social games on Facebook and MySpace have a human component and asynchronous play, plus the persistence again. Puzzle Quest has persistence by the truckload, and the whole concept is based around a metagame, giving context and meaning to the core gameplay.
"One of the things that upset me the most is that I bought Zuma four or five times," and then each time soon deleted it out of disgust, irritated with himself for the empty feeling it left in him. Though it's fun in the moment, and superficially addictive, the game has no lasting value, and therefore in retrospect it feels like a tremendous waste of time.
That said, "What you can't forget is the fun. The rest of this, you could call it artifice around the fun." Early gave the example of Donkey Kong, and its protagonist, Jumpman (as Mario was originally named). The entire game is based around a highly-refined jumping mechanism -- a mechanism so well-developed that it resulted in a long-running series, starring the jumping man. If the core mechanism isn't fun, it doesn't matter how many tentacles it tries to reach out into the player's life. Yet if the game is fun, that's really only the beginning of its true potential.