Lyon GDC: How to succeed in casual games

Lyon GDC: How to succeed in casual games
Michael French

By Michael French

December 3rd 2007 at 1:32PM

Casual Games Association head Jessica Tams reveals inner workings of fast-growing industry category

Jessica Tams, the head of the Casual Games Association, today took delegates at Lyon GDC through the inner workings of the casual games sector, revealing key trends and ways for newcomers to the category to succeed.

Drawing on data collated by the CGA from its members - portals, sites, and content firms - Tams started by giving a general overview and definition of the market, rubbishing the stereotypical views on casual games being purely for an older female demographic.

She said: "When we think of casual games inside the CGA we see casual games as more than a genre or demographic. It's more than middle aged women. Or Solitaire. Or Tetris. The games are defined by how the user is interacting with the game." She explained that casual games area available on a wide range of platforms. but are completely platform independent as moving across platforms "doesn't fundamentally change the game". Instead, platforms are "simply more opportunities for revenue".

Reflecting on the demographic, she said that the casual games playing consumer base is diverse, consisting of everything from angry teenagers to bored people and old ladies, with some start differences between their pursuits and interests and those of a hardcore player. Casual players play for fun and relaxation - while a large proportion of casual players are middle aged women, they usually have less free time, and are looking for some escape. This is different from a typical hard enthusiast who is playing to explore or for an adrenaline rush, said Tams.

Breaking down the casual demographic further, Tams explained that those consumers paying for casual games are 74 per cent female, 72 percent are over 35. "This is your stereotypical 'casual gamer'," said Tams explaining where the view that casual gamers are predominantly female comes from. "But that's not necessarily true, because there is a whole other demographic in that is playing without paying." Specifically, these are the playing customers who are playing casual games, which adds more equality to the statistic - playing consumers are 51 per cent female and 62 per cent are over 35. "So these games are being played by everybody, it's just that the guys don't admit it."

Tams then provided a whistle stop tour of the history of casual games, pointing out shared roots with the traditional games market (via 1972's Pong, Asteroids in 1979 and the release of the NES in 1983), and then moments of key diversion - specifically the first version of Windows' Solitaire in 1985. The release of Tetris in 1989 was also a key stepping stone for casual games, said Tams, adding that it wasn't until 1999 with the arrival of online portals and then the 2001 release of Bejeweled and the 2004 arrival of Xbox Live Arcade which helped define this new market.

On looking at those distribution channels, Tams said the past seven years had key milestones when it came to the evolution of how players obtain casual games. The first was in 2001 with the rise of digital distribution in the post-'bubble burst' period of the web, followed by the rise of the community around the now EA-owned Club Pogo in 2003. Microtransactions were first introduced in 2004 via KartRider and MapleStory, and "represented an important way to monetise consumers who would otherwise not pay for content via trial-to-purchase or subscription offerings". Meanwhile the first monetising of the male casual gamer audience can be seen in the rise of Xbox Live Arcade in 2006, Tams added. Now, in 2007, we're starting to see the rise of user-generated content-based casual titles and portals. All of this, Tams pointed out, has helped incrementally build a diverse and varied business for casual games, harnessing various facets of the digitial distribution and online community chain.

Casual games are much more hit -driven, because "players are free to decide if they like a game and whether they will play it"

Tams also outlined a number of design milestones in the history of casual games, naming the release of Bejewelled (2001) and Yahoo's Scrabble game (2002) as key early titles. 2004's Jewel Quest, she added was noteworthy because it introduced a story elements to casual games. The approach paid off, she pointed out: there have been two games in the franchise, with a budget of around $100,000 to $500,000, and have since release generated $27m in consumer revenues across four million units sold (2m on PC, 2m on mobile, and around 100,000 via Xbox Live Arcade).

The next design milestone was Diner Dash, which in two years since its 2005 release has generated 200m downloads, $35m consumer spending and introduced the casual games industry to click-management, character driven experiences. Plus, given the game's production and publishing via GameLab and PlayFIrst, "this was an important cross road in casual because people had previously been bankrolling development themselves, but had now moved to the publisher model."

Another big hitter, added Tams, was 2006's Mystery Case Files from Big Fish, this game hailed from Eastern Europe and introduced both the hidden object genre and large download sizes. The last point, said, Tams proves that "people will wait for content - the same demographic that is playing Bejeweled will wait for an adventure mystery to download." 1.2m units of the Mystery Case Files have been sold so far.

All of this has helped add up to a casual games market worth some $2.25bn said Tams, saying that the figure includes Wester markets, worldwide mobile, asian casual. In line with this booming sector, studios have rocketed in size, she said: "They started out with nobody in 1999, but by 2007 we have over 1,000 people who are part of these companies." With the amount of developers in the casual games space almost doubling each year, Tams pointed out that another stereotypical view of casual games - that of a small team of developers - is also being disproven. "With 100 developers for each casual games firm they outnumber many key independent studios," she added.

So what lessons were there to learn from casual games? Tams said there were multiple ways new studios could enter the casual games space or take principles from it and apply it to the core games industry.

The first was a point "the entire gaming industry could benefit from", specifically, that it is gameplay which rules the casual games sector. Said Tams: "Gameplay investments have higher returns than marketing and licensing investments. Because the consumer can try the produce before they purchase people don't care if yo u have a licence, they care how good the game is." She added that this isn't to say that licence-based games don't sell, it's just that consumers react just as strongly to a good concept as they do a well-known brand.

The next point was on IP. "The most successful and stable companies own their IP," said Tams. "This will come as no shock to those in the games industry. This is something we can see in the casual games industry that people aren't impressed by licenced titles. So when you're going into this industry it's best to make your own IP. You can't make up for lack-luster content with marketing and licences. It's something we can't tell so much in the core industry because people go into a store, and then buy a game based on its box," she explained, pointing out how crucial the 'try before you buy' process in casual games is. Tams also provoked some thought from attendees when she asked them to consider what such a model might have meant for boxed product: "Imagine the console game you've made, which the consumer buys it form the store - think how many consumers would bring that game back." Tams said that a lot of retail games would be unsold or returned if that was the case. So, she said, it's worth "thinking about what might discourage a player to play or bring them back to the store" as key for working in the casual games business.

Because of the strength of new ideas in the casual games space, Tams said studios should "prepare for a hit-driven market. Experineced developers usually have one hit for every five to ten failures or average games - but don't get disenchanted because you can always try again."

Tams also took delegates through the various costs for a casual games. It can cost between $50,000 to $500,000 to develop a casual game, with the added cost coming form porting to other platforms such as iPod, mobile or PDA ($20,000 for the core port), see-top box ($10,000) Live Arcade ($230,000) DS, PSP ($300,000) Wii ($300,000 to $2m). All of which is quite modest compared to the conservative average for a next-gen game - $15m - Tams said.

As for production itself, Tams said that average staff figures saw about 10 people working on a casual game, with a mix of full and part time people, with most programming spent on gameplay programming. The biggest difference, however, said Tams "is the prototyping phase. In core games a lot of time is spent on art and technology - but in casual it is different. Most of the preproduction and design phase is spent doing prototypes," she explained. Casual games firms make ten to 20 test ideas before making a full game. Said Tams: "It's important you do not release a game before it is ready".