Ubiquity is the keyword as casual gaming comes of age.
Every few years, the videogames sector gives birth to a new sub-sector which rapidly develops its own buzzwords, figureheads and key players - while much of the traditional industry continues to look on with a cocked eyebrow and an unconvinced air.
You can identify the emergence of such sectors by the proliferation of conferences and events which will spring up to service the nascent market. Mobile gaming was one such sector; the seemingly paradoxical serious gaming another. One might consider in-game advertising to be a sub-sector in its own right, of course, and to complete the set, there's casual gaming.
Of course, the irony of casual gaming is that it's a sector which has always existed, to some extent, and whose growth has proceeded along a path largely undetermined by the worthies who discuss it at conferences. Any commuter on a London-bound train in the past decade could have told you that casual gaming existed simply by pointing to the office workers in their carriage busily playing Tetris on their Game Boys or Solitaire on their laptops to while away the journey.
The advent of the Internet saw countless people around the world being entranced by small web-based games, mostly created by amateurs in their free time and played by bored desk jockeys during quiet moments in the office. The growth has been steady, organic, and largely removed from the world of expensive consoles - not least because so little money was changing hands.
In recent years, the entertainment industry at large has been sitting up and taking notice of casual games. The primary revelation is that any medium which is getting office workers with Internet access (read: reasonably well salaried) and some level of technical competence and interest in games (read: probably relatively young) to sit in front of it willingly for well over ten minutes a day is, of course, an incredibly valuable marketing medium.
The second revelation is that even existing console and PC gamers - generally considered to be a relatively hardcore bunch - don't always want game experiences that cost upwards of 30 pounds and take 40 hours to complete. Sometimes, a snack between meals is what's desired, not a four course dinner.
These two core factors have led to an explosion in casual gaming in the last few years, with the sector branching out in a number of different directions. On one hand, marketing firms have successfully employed free casual games as viral tools to promote movies, games and consumer brands. At the other end of the spectrum, the next-gen consoles give gamers the option to download and play cheap, high quality casual games from services such as Xbox Live Arcade and the PlayStation Store.
Nintendo's Wii takes the concept even further, with leading titles on the system being composed of a collection of casual games - while on the Nintendo DS, it could be argued that many of the top games (such as Brain Age and Nintendogs) are, in effect, casual.
Somewhere in the middle ground of all of this, organisations such as RealNetworks and MSN have launched successful casual game download sites for PC users, while companies such as PopCap and sites such as NewGrounds have emerged as new names from the seemingly fertile soil of the sector.
The name game
In other words, casual gaming is booming - and the irony is that the success of the sector also means that the writing is on the wall for the whole concept. "Casual games" is an awkward and disingenuous label which implies that it is truly a sector distinct from the existing videogames market. The growth of this part of the market has led to a broadening of the definition which is now blurring the lines between "casual games" and "videogames" to the extent where those lines no longer exist.
It's all just "games" now, and if anything, the insistence on using the term "casual games" (and occasionally, wheeling out unpleasant rhetoric about how casual games are the real mass market proposition, thus attempting to dismiss the vast market enjoyed by existing videogames as though it were a hardcore niche) does little other than devalue the enormous contribution which the pioneers of this sector have made to the growth of the market as a whole.
This is not, however, to say that serious challenges do not await the ongoing push to make small, accessible games into a primary leisure time pursuit for the mass market. For one thing, there are still question marks over how the revenue models for the sector should work - and worse, the only answers to those questions available right now suggest that multiple different models will be required.
The reason for that is the other huge challenge faced by casual games and the reach into the mass-market - the challenge to become truly ubiquitious.
For traditional games, being ubiquitous means being present on perhaps seven platforms - PS2, Wii, Xbox 360, PS3, PSP, DS and PC. For casual games, however, it means far more - it means being available on multiple platforms with entirely different functionality and interfaces, through a variety of different distribution systems and allowing for countless different play environments.
Casual games extend their tendrils into every platform from mobile phones (a key market, and one which alone accounts for hundreds of individual platforms) to web-browsers, from the Wii Virtual Console to Xbox Live Arcade, from the Nintendo DS to the iPod Video. Of course, not every casual game must be available on every platform; but the sector as a whole is represented across all of these platforms, and at its most successful; it's this ubiquity which will drive acceptance by the mass market.
This in itself reveals the difficulty of setting out a business model for this rapidly expanding end of the games market. Titles for the Wii and DS follow a traditional games business model, but other parts of the spectrum are vastly more complex.
The web browser based game market looks set to be fully advertising-supported, as do parts of the PC download market; the mobile phone game market has settled on a game purchase model, but may yet find itself forced to consider pay-per-play, rental and advertising supported models.
Games on Xbox Live Arcade, the PlayStation Store and the Wii Virtual Console follow yet another business model, and in the wings are entirely different models such as episodic content or sponsored content.
In a sense, it's a good challenge for mass market gaming to face - it's clear that there is an audience, but the question now is which combination of business models and content will provide the healthiest business ecosystem to allow these titles to thrive.
This may well be the second huge gift of "casual gaming" to the overall videogames market; having challenged it to extend the reach of its content and encompass a far wider selection of audiences and leisure times, the gauntlet is now being laid down to re-evaluate how content is priced, delivered and supported.
No longer a sub-sector, but rather a crucial part of the videogames business, casual games may well be the biggest driver for change in the industry as a whole over the coming years.