These days, it’s impossible to ignore casual games. With the popularity of the Wii, and with Microsoft and Sony expanding their downloadable content offerings, casual gaming is growing into much more than just a niche market. However, this growth may come with a cost. As more money is made off casual gaming it's possible developers will begin investing a bigger percentage of their budget into their games. And this begs the question, will the growth in casual gaming be detrimental to the traditional, hardcore gamer?
A Growing Divide
Back in 1985, when the Nintendo Entertainment System was released, video games were simpler and much more accessible. Controllers had a D-pad and two buttons. Graphics were mostly limited to blocky side-scrollers and games with top down views. Press ‘A’, and you jump. Press ‘B’, and you shoot. Ask most girls in their mid twenties, and they’ll tell you they loved Super Mario Brothers 3 or Bubble Bobble. It was a simpler time, when games were primarily marketed to children, and they were easy enough that your sister could jump in for a few hours and not be intimidated.
But slowly games evolved. The Super Nintendo added ‘X’ and ‘Y’ buttons along with ‘L’ and ‘R’ buttons on the top of the controller. Pretty soon you had dual analog sticks along with your D-Pad and as many as four triggers. Games became 3D, and PC gaming took off with twitchy first person shooters and real time strategy games so complex they would take weeks to truly master. If you were a teenage boy learning and growing with each new trend and addition, you could keep up. But everyone else who just had a passing interest in video games was left behind to play their old consoles or maybe even a web based flash game.
Games are now truly marketed to a hardcore audience. Games like Grand Theft Auto and Gears of War are mature, violent, and complex. We here at G4 and other gamers like us are thrilled to have such engaging and interactive experiences, and publishers are thrilled that we are buying them by the millions.
However, recently there has been a shift in the gaming landscape. With the introduction of the Nintendo Wii in late 2006, controls on a console were simplified for the first time ever. High-end graphics were not made a priority. And suddenly, people’s grandparents were playing Wii Sports
. Stories from across the country told of entire families spending their Thanksgiving eating turkey and playing the Wii together. The Wii (along with the handheld DS) sold like crazy, broadening the gaming market to groups much larger than just men under the age of 35. Game makers took notice, and this development may force them to shift their strategies in response.
Hard To Be Hardcore
The number of traditional of hardcore gamers is significant. The Playstation 2 sold over 120 million units, and both the X-Box 360 and Playstation 3 are selling rapidly in the current console war. However, while the install base of potential users is high, the development cost of games has skyrocketed. It is commonly estimated that a triple A title on either the Xbox 360 or Playstation 3 costs between $15-20 million to develop. All it takes is for one game to flop and a studio can find itself in financial trouble. For example, Clover Studios, makers of Viewtiful Joe and the critically acclaimed Okami, was shut down in 2006 after its games just didn’t sell.
With games like the annual Madden sequel always amongst the best sellers, it often doesn’t make sense for big publishers who are beholden to the demands of shareholders to risk a huge amount of money on an original idea. Therefore, the hardcore gamer suffers as they are subjected to sequel after sequel of established IPs. Granted, we aren’t complaining about Call of Duty 4
or Halo 3
, but good original games are what bring new players into the gaming audience. A game like Gears of War
or Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune
could appeal to someone who has never been that into games before, and as soon as they buy a system, it expands the market and lessens a developer’s risk.
In addition, developers must be cautious in designing their games. While gamers often want either increased realism or fantasy levels of gore and violence, opportunistic politicians and uninformed media are quick to attack them as immoral. Part of the problem is that many people over the age of 40 believe that games are for kids, while a huge number of men over the age of 18 actually play them. It creates a problem when developers can’t create the mature games that their audience desires without subjecting themselves to attack. With all of the controversy that followed the GTA: San Andreas Hot Coffee mod, and the banning of Manhunt 2 in various countries; it’s safer for developers to create simple, family friendly games and not risk a backlash.
Casual Is In
“Casual games are really, really big. You can tell just by the size of the room we're in this year. The point here is we have the opportunity to elevate video games to become a first-tier form of entertainment, like TV. We will have succeeded when 'casual games' goes away as a category and 'hardcore games' is the niche."
--PlayFirst CEO John Welch at this years Game Developer’s Conference Casual Games Summit. (Via Gamespot.com
While casual games have had some success in the past (such as EA’s The Sims franchise), it hasn’t been until recently that they have become fully “mainstream.” The primary facilitator of this new wave of gaming is the Nintendo Wii, which, through its pack-in title Wii Sports, has made gaming accessible to young and old alike. In addition, the positive media blitz that Nintendo has received has elevated the Wii’s status as not only an excellent casual gaming device, but as the must-have toy of the past two holiday seasons. With sales outperforming those of the Xbox 360 and the Playstation 3 every month since launch, the developers have taken notice of Nintendo’s little white box, and are shifting strategy to support the system. Mini game collections have been released by the boatload, leaving owners of the system who prefer more intricate games questioning if they should have purchased a 360 or PS3 instead.
However, both Sony and Microsoft have made in-roads in the casual games market. Microsoft has been touting the Xbox Live Arcade from day 1 of the 360’s launch, and a number of solid downloadable titles have been released. In addition, a key component of Microsoft’s Press Conference at the just completed GDC focused on the community developed XNA games, which are simpler games created by independent developers. Sony, on the other hand, is heavily promoting its upcoming customizable, side scrolling platformer Little Big Planet
, and is developing its own downloadable content, led by Echocrome
. It is clear that no one can afford to ignore casual gaming, although both Sony and Microsoft are still primarily focused on cultivating their hard-core audience.
In addition, there has been a growth in games that bridge the gap between the casual and hardcore audiences. Guitar Hero
and Rock Band
are instrumental in bringing these two distinct groups together. Rock Band
is especially accessible, as hard and expert guitar and drums will provide a challenge to most avid gamers, while you can also usually get just about any girl at a party to pick up the mic and sing a few songs. The developers at Harmonix are very aware of the broad appeal of their game, as they have been releasing downloadable songs from bands like The Police and The Ramones that appeal to an older audience, while also unleashing the occasional chick rock track for the ladies. Another game with the potential to be appealing to all gamers is Spore
. This giant upcoming game from the creators of The Sims
promises immeasurable amounts of user created content along with varied gameplay that will hopefully provide something for everybody.
A Hard To The Core Industry
While the case is compelling for casual games to one day rule the gaming world, there are a few simple reasons why this may never happen. One is that casual gamers tend to buy one or two games and play them for a long time, while the core gaming audience purchases many, many more. So far, no game has managed to captivate the audience that plays The Sims
with a new franchise. Also the Xbox 360 has the highest attach rate of games purchased in history, while the Nintendo has struggled to sell additional software for the Wii. So while it may seem like there is this vast untapped audience of casual gamers out there, they may be just like MMO gamers and only play one or two games.
Hardcore gamers, on the other hand, buy games. Gears of War
has sold over 4.5 million copies. Super Mario Galaxy
has sold over 5 Million. Call of Duty 4
has sold over 7 million copies across all platforms. Resistance: Fall of Man
sold over 2 million. Halo 3
is over 8 million. Smaller games like Dead Rising, Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion,
all broke a million. And all of this has happened while the next-gen systems are still growing their install base. While a few casual games like Mario Party, Big Brain Academy
and WarioWare: Smooth Moves
have broken through with excellent sales figures, they are all first party Nintendo titles. So far, 3rd
party publishers have not found a way to sell or market their games to casual gamers.
Another issue is that at this current stage, many casual games just aren’t very good. While there have been numerous mini game collections released on the Wii since its launch, most of them are mediocre to bad. Just one look at the aggregate scores of Nintendo Wii games on Metacritic.com, and you will see that many developers have been looking to quickly cash in on the Wii craze. Thankfully most gamers are smart enough to do their homework on games or at least try before they buy. As time goes on, developers will figure out that if they are going to appeal to a casual market, they need to develop games that, while accessible, are just as well made and engaging as the top titles on the market today.
In the end, the hardcore audience is rabid, always seeking the next big game, while the casual audience is still finding its way. Some day, casual gamers might be clued in to the point where they are looking for the big game, but as that happens, there is also a good chance they will start looking for deeper, more challenging games (and hence become a little more ‘hardcore’).
Can We Be Friends?
In the end, it’s likely that both casual and hardcore gamers can peacefully coexist. There is still too much money to be made cranking out epic games like Final Fantasy
and Metal Gear
for that market to be ignored. At the same time, it is possible that some developers will shift their strategy to target newer, casual markets. In the long run, the emergence of casual gamers can only be good for the gaming industry, as it will bring in more fans, more money, and more talent to create great games. Besides, wouldn’t it be great if your parents understood what you are wasting all of your time doing?
As gaming as an entertainment medium continues to grow, there may exist a future where the industry mirrors that of television and movies. Some games will be big budget summer blockbusters. Others will be indy sleeper hits. And others will fulfill the need of those who would rather just casually watch a romantic comedy.