"If we look at casual games in 2015 what's out there is mostly crap"
Binary Family's Thorsten Rauser kicked off Casual Connect with a sobering appraisal of the public's changing view of free-to-play
Casual Connect Europe was give a rousing start by The Binary Family's Thorsten Rauser, who offered a bracing dissection of the ruinous influence of the free-to-play model on the casual gaming sector.
Rauser, who has worked on more than 50 casual titles in a career spanning 20 years, looked back to 2006 as a time when Casual Connect was defined by, "Great games, great concepts. It was full of creative game developers." Companies like PopCap and, as it was then, Big Fish.
If there was any confusion as to whether Rauser has observed a change for the worse, they were quickly dispelled as slides with phrases like "We are fucked" and "Our industry has become a joke" were projected for the audience. To illustrate the last point, Rauser showed a supercut of a recent South Park episode, which neatly skewered the predatory underpinnings of the worst examples of 'casual' free-to-play games targeted at young players - products he described as having, "bad karma."
"We're selling games to children. We sell them $100 packages of fake currency and make their parents pay because we can easily manipulate them"
"If we look at our industry today, there's reason to believe that we are fucked," he said. "The thing is, our industry has become bad; society's view of our industry has become bad. We try to get as much money out of the player as possible. That's what the job of the [casual] game designer has become. That's how people see us.
"If we look at casual games in 2015, what's out there is mostly crap. It's three or four game principles. We use different characters, we use different sounds, we use different setups, but it's all the same thing. What we're doing is selling games to children. I think it's so disgusting. We sell them $100 packages of fake currency and make their parents pay because we can easily manipulate them.
"This is the thinking of the gambling industry, and if you look at the people that have come into the show over the last few years, a lot of those people have backgrounds in the gambling industry. And yes, this is how we make our money these days."
In terms of the App Store - which was absolutely vital to the explosion in popularity of casual games - Rauser believes that the turning point arrived in 2012, when Apple acquired a search-engine startup called Chomp. By the end of the year, something fundamental in the App Store's search algorithm changed.
"If you looked for a Trivia game or a Sudoku game or a Solitaire game in May 2012 you would have Free results and Paid results," he said. "By the end of 2012, there were only Free results... The problem Apple gave us after that initial blasting is that good content became hard to find."
Of course, the obvious counter-argument is that, even if the algorithm didn't prioritise Free content over Paid content, the audience would still be likely to choose whatever costs the least money. For Rauser, though, that position obfuscates the real problem: the casual audience, and specifically the parents whose children play games that incentivise high-value in-app purchases, are steadily losing patience.
"We have to be really aware of that, because with all of the free-to-play crap that we're delivering to the audience at the moment... Yes, we make money, but we make money with a very, very small percentage, and at some point people will get sick of what we're delivering.
"We make money, but we make money with a very, very small percentage, and at some point people will get sick of what we're delivering
"We have lost a lot of them, and over the next few years we'll lose an even bigger part of them. People are not stupid."
This claim, in particular, is difficult to quantify or map onto a graph, but there is a clear indication of its validity in recent court cases, legal settlements, legislation changes and revisions of App Store policy - all around free-to-play games aimed at children.
It's a difficult problem, and one that a significant part of the casual gaming sector is bound up in, but Rauser believes that the same creative instinct that used to be so prevalent at Casual Connect still exists in a huge number of frustrated developers.
"Refusing to make games that manipulate people? I would love to know the solution," Rauser admitted in closing, while also stressing the tremendous business opportunity that the question implies.
"I'll be here, at this show, every year to try and find the ones who have a way to reach the audience with premium content and make a business model out of that.
"And that's what we need. We need premium distribution channels. We had them before, but now they're gone. We need to be on the lookout. The free-to-play ship is sinking. It will not disappear, but it's imploding."
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