Since the debut of the Nintendo Wii, journalists have claimed there’s gold in the hills of casual gaming. Now, the claim–or is it, shark?–appears to have been jumped.
Late last week, Forbes declared, “Casual Gold Bust”. Venture capitalists such as Sharon Wienbar have predicted that most players in the casual gaming market will not survive the deluge of titles flooding the marketplace. PlayFirst CEO Jack Welch sees “a lot of dead bodies on the side of the road in casual gaming” coming soon.
Contrast that with announcements such as Viacom’s investment of $100 million to add 6,000 new titles to its roster of gaming sites, the 20-percent growth year over year in the casual games market, and Nintendo’s ongoing success with the Wii and the DS.
What’s going on here?
Casual games–and, I think, gaming in general–are evolving. Not disintegrating as some may claim, but changing. And I believe a brief look into the history of modern casual games reveals we’re at the end of one era and the start of the next.
Previous Casual Gaming Generations
The first modern casual-gaming generation starts with the debut of Solitaire on Windows 3.0 in 1990. (Yes, Tetris came out the year before, but you needed specialized hardware like a Game Boy to digitally waste time; the PC was far more ubiquitous). In 1991, the nascent World Wide Web started wiring its way into people’s lives, paving the path to…
The HTML gaming generation: fueled by display advertising and driven by active server and client connections, this generation kicked off with the debuts of Gamesville.com and Uproar.com in 1996–moving from simple time-wasters played alone on a PC to time-wasters played with others, over the Web, with true business models underpinning the services.
Four years later, in 2000, the next generation in casual games began: the downloadable games generation. Headlined by the launch of PopCap’s Diamond Mine, and followed by Insaniquarium, Diner Dash and countless others. This generation also saw the debut of multiple business models including advergaming, and online skill-based gaming with the launch of WorldWinner.
Video game heavyweight Electronic Arts waded into casual games with the debut of The Sims on PC, and the purchase of popular casual games site Pogo.com, which came to successfully package together several different business models, from advertising to subscription to downloadable games.
A New Generation
I believe we’re now experiencing the end of the downloadable games generation and the start of a new generation marked by social connections and evolved monetization schemes.
Again, downloadable try-before-you-buy games will not disappear (Xbox Live Arcade, I’m looking at you). But as more and more companies flood the marketplace, and consumers start to hunger for new experiences, it’s only natural that a new cycle will begin, marked by new functionality and new or evolving business models.
Look at what’s happened in the last few months alone:
- EA launched Scrabble on Facebook, Pogo, mobile, and iPod
- Gamesville moved from display ads to video advertising between sessions of timed, massively multiplayer bingo games.
- With “Catch 21,” GSN is starting to complement its TV experience with WorldWinner’s online games and vice-versa.
- Yahoo! is migrating from “try-before-you-buy” for its downloadable games model to “watch-these-ads’-to-keep-playing.”
- Facebook and the iPhone have opened up new venues for both game distribution and monetization. The list goes on.
So, are casual games dead? No. Pick-up-and-play titles are here to stay. Competition will remain fierce. New distribution channels and play patterns will emerge. And this generation will continue taking shape.
With some 200 million people playing casual games online each month, the real question is not, are casual games dead. The real question is, how will the overall gaming experience change as games become more and more integrated into the everyday lives of mainstream consumers around the world?
Christopher Cummings, author of The Left Click columns appearing on DailyGame.net, is senior product manager for Gamesville.com, where thousands of people compete daily in free, massively multiplayer games to win real cash prizes. You can join the Gamesville group on Facebook
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