What is there to Talk About Casual Games?

Posted in Games

Most of the writing around video games focuses on PC and console gaming: these were the platforms that have been around for decades, which now enjoy devotees in their adult years who have the disposable income to spend.

Apparently, someone at TechCrunch believes that coverage should begin to shift to mobile, casual games. The rationale is simply that there’s so many more people who play these games, and that they command an increasing share of the money spent on games, at least from a consumption standpoint. If there’s any explanation, it’s that journalists themselves are stubborn against change.

This is of course true on some level; the folks who have clout in the media[1] tend to have earned it over the years, and thus be biased towards the more traditional notions of gaming as it appears on consoles and PCs. The systems, relationships, and institutions are all built to support this worldview.

There was a flurry of activity when Zynga showed that Facebook and social/casual games could be immensely profitable, but that has mostly died down once that platform ceded to mobile. That there’s no equivalent renaissance in mobile gaming speaks to the added difficulty in mobile development and the increased competition; the “free” viral channels that Zynga exploited on Facebook aren’t as powerful or prevalent on iOS or Android. User acquisition via expensive TV ads is probably not sustainable either.

Then there’s the fact a lot of the discussion around success in mobile games center on monetization. While there have been interesting games with novel design and presentation elements[2], most of the money is made by free-to-play (F2P) Clash-of-Clans-type clones. The novelty is mostly in how these free games compel their players to throw down a few dollars by putting in clever paywalls and progression gates.

Which gets to the heart of the issue: for gamer-journalists who want to pontificate about the myriad aspects of game quality, there’s not enough game for them to chew on in mobile. A lot of the mechanically-interesting games are actually ported from or to PC/console to capture that engaged audience[3], but the standard F2P faire that’s so prevalent on mobile never makes it to other platforms as the cost of development becomes prohibitive. Again, the discussion revolves around the business aspects of these games, and almost never actual gameplay.

Yet another lens to view the discrepancy is via developers. It’s well understood that the leaders of mobile gaming are very data-driven; they’re plagiarizing the Zynga playbook, and will continually tweak their games to maximize player retention + engagement + spending. The games end up being a ship vehicle for a study in player interactions, and most of its developers don’t bother playing these games recreationally. Contrast that with more traditional game development, where overwork (and underpay) is common, but continues to attract talented developers largely on their passion of games in general. In other words, casual game developers don’t even want to play their games, whereas their non-casual counterparts routinely sacrifice their own livelihoods for making games[4].

The dichotomy is not between mobile and desktop, but between casual and non-casual gaming, with much of the media attention – I’d say rightfully so – focused on the latter.

Footnotes    (↑ returns to text)

  1. Though even this definition of “media”, largely centered around journalists, can be argued to be outdated when new-wave personalities dominate YouTube and Twitch.
  2. I have played and enjoyed a lot of them. Off the top of my head: Monument Valley, Hitman GO, Cytus, Threes, Ridiculous Fishing, The Room, TripleTown, 10000000, etc. The TouchArcade top reviews list is an indispensable resource for great mobile gaming.
  3. E.g., Hearthstone, Frozen Synapse, FTL, etc.
  4. All that said, I’m really saddened by amount of worker exploitation in the gaming industry, and passion is a sore bandaid over serious problems of work/life balance and pay differences.