Skip to main content

Casual Ware

Denki boss Colin Anderson on how casual gaming is continuing to evolve.

In part one of this guest editorial, Denki Games managing director Colin Anderson looks at the growth of casual gaming and the issue of game length versus game quality. He also offers his views on the new opportunities offered by the latest generation of consoles - and of the old traps platform holders may be falling into.

Visit next week to read part two, where Anderson will explode some of the myths around casual gaming and explain why a whole new approach is needed.

'Casual Gaming', that's what it's called. We didn't know it had a name when we founded Denki. We just knew we couldn't be the only ones who thought fun was more important than flash in games. It turns out we were somewhat ahead of the market, especially the console games market.

I've lost count of the number of pitch sessions we've had with publishers who stifled laughs at the mention of a 2D game. But finally, after almost seven years and the launch of another new generation of consoles, it feels like we're making progress. Casual gaming is finally making an impact on the mainstream games industry. Even the mighty has recently run editorials about it.

The realisation that there is very large (and rapidly growing) audience of gamers who are already playing games on their PC browsers, mobile phones and TV set-top boxes has struck a chord within the mainstream industry. Until now, they've been a novelty; a curiosity viewed as some kind of sideshow to the main event, with developers and publishers contemplating the striking similarities yet viewing them with something approaching pity.

However, following the launch of the new generation of connected consoles and the almost ubiquitous penetration of broadband connections, developers are discovering that they can address a whole new audience - one with an entirely new set of values and criteria for judging a 'good game'.

PC and console games have long been rewarded just for their scale, since this was quantifiable and easy to describe in print. 'This game takes four hours to complete,' 'This one takes 40 hours...' The 40 hour game is clearly ten times better. Crude, but surprisingly difficult to get past.

This is no different than judging how good a book is by the number of pages it has, or how good a film is by the number of minutes it runs to. It may sound crazy, but we've had meetings where publishers demanded bigger games. If the only way to achieve this was to dilute the ten great levels to create 40 poor ones, so be it.

The casual games market doesn't work like that. Short, snack-size play portions and familiar, uncomplicated control methods are the key drivers in the market right now. Whether they're playing old classics (Backgammon, Blackjack and Tic-Tac-Toe), remakes of arcade hits (Puzzle Bobble) or titles based around simple new ideas (Bejeweled), casual gamers don't share any of the traditional gamers' expectations.

This is something the mainstream industry is struggling with. Developers and publishers are comfortable with the existing genres. Many people complain about the lack of originality in the industry and the reliance on franchises, sequels and crowded genres, but within those tight constraints many companies are doing quite well, thank you.

So why risk changing anything? Stretching into new and unexplored areas can be intimidating, especially when you don't really understand the audience's fickle tastes. Embarking on a mission to create something entirely new with little or no reference to anything built before can be daunting.

The new consoles' online channels offer something of a halfway house and are likely to form the front lines during this initial phase of conflict between traditional and casual games. The majority of consoles are owned by traditional gamers and creating games for Xbox Live Arcade or Sony's Electronic Distribution channel allows developers to experiment while staying within familiar territory. They can create something different from the mainstream console market, yet find the same audience at the end.

At least that's the theory. That was the brave new world offered when Microsoft first unleashed Live Arcade upon an unsuspecting and appreciative public. In practice we're already beginning to see the traditional games publishers flood these new channels with re-hashed versions of the same tired old products.

They don't even appear to be 'sympathetic re-interpretations', they're just knock-offs of familiar products, uncaringly converted with just enough 'enhanced' features to plausibly deny accusations of not caring about the product or audience.

What's worse is that Microsoft appears to be permitting this. Perhaps not deliberately, but whether through choice or simply a lack of long-term vision they appear to be trivialising their service.

However, even in this somewhat limited guise it's an attractive option for many traditional developers, and it may just help to expand the possibilities for new game experiences - for both industry and audience alike.

Ultimately, developers are going to have to face the fact that casual gamers are different. They are predominantly female, over 30, and don't want to spend time learning new game mechanics or control systems. The titles performing best in the casual games market are the shape-matching games, the word puzzles, the card games - there's no Gears of War lite.

If casual gaming represents a whole new era for the industry (and we believe it does), then the industry must cast aside a lot of preconceptions and baggage so it can engage successfully with its new audience.

Colin Anderson is managing director of Denki Games. Visit next week to read part two of this editorial.

Read this next

Ellie Gibson avatar
Ellie Gibson: Ellie spent nearly a decade working at Eurogamer, specialising in hard-hitting executive interviews and nob jokes. These days she does a comedy show and podcast. She pops back now and again to write the odd article and steal our biscuits.