casual games

When Did You Finish Your Last Game?

When I came back from my trip to Australia, I hadn't played video games in about six weeks. Before I went, I started playing Mass Effect 2 for a little while—basically just enough to get an idea of the gameplay and sense why it got rave reviews. Then when I came back, something funny happened. I was reluctant to pick it up again. Instead I played Wario Land on my Virtual Boy. Mass Effect, as brilliant as it is, seemed too much of a commitment. I arrived at a stage where I was asked to scan planets for minerals and cross the universe for quests. Hours upon hours of gameplay lay ahead of me. I refused; my time budget would have been blown.

The next game I played was Heavy Rain, which I got for cheap during my stopover in Hong Kong. I bought it because I was curious about its adult content; but I also bought it because it is linear, it is divided into shorter chapters, and because I could finish it in 10 hours or less.

One thing I liked about Modern Warfare 2 was that the single-player campaign was brief but sweet. It was an intense action-filled six-hour experience with no pause. I loved it. For everyone else there was the multi-player.

The thing is: I'm the norm.

Yes, games get bigger, and yes this ambition is hailed by a vocal part of the gaming public and critics. And really, why wouldn't we want more?

However, John Davison at Gamepro says:

The problem is, the vast majority of gamers don't really behave the way they say they do. How do we know this? Because an increasing number of games incorporate telemetry systems that track our every action. They measure the time we play, they watch where we get stuck, and they broadcast our behaviour back to the people that make the games so they can tune the experience accordingly.

Every studio I've spoken to that does this, to a fault, says that many of the games they've released are far too big and far too hard for most players' behaviour. As a general rule, less than five percent of a game's audience plays a title through to completion. I've had several studios tell me that their general observation is that "more than 90 percent" of a games audience will play it for "just four or five hours."

Moreover, as Davison points out, the game business, unlike any other part of the entertainment business, is maturing at roughly the same pace as its most influential (or at least most affluent) consumers. Not only the players are getting older, but also the designers.

As designers are deciding that they want to make different experiences to indulge their own lives, they can be fairly confident that their audience is in the same boat.

So what could this mean for the future of games?

For once they are going to become more modular, offering a (shorter and cheaper) core experience that can be expanded by downloadable content (DLC) or episodic content, which can accommodate different tastes.

This is something Namco recently recognized:

Namco Bandai’s Vice President Olivier Conte has said that game companies should diversify videogame selling in the future. He even went as far as saying that videogames are “too expensive for the audience” and that “a good price of a game should be around £20.”

He suggested making games cheaper by shortening them to around “four or five hours” and using additional DLC to increase revenue from the titles. “Games just have one model, the sale of the product either as a box or a digital download. So we need to think about how we can develop a secondary business model”.

Of course one of the dangers is that in the long run this gateway to micro-transactions will come with a hefty price tag.

The other change could be to accommodate players' tendency to, as calls Davison calls it, "dick around". How did you spend your time in GTA IV? Doing all the missions or having fun with its open world?

Games could increasingly reward this behaviour and become more of a playground. They might be based on actual player behaviour and not misguided assumptions about it. You don't have to follow certain structures; you will get something you can enjoy in small doses, something that feels less like "work"—follow the rules, get rewarded, move on—and liberating. This is why the GTA series, for example, has a reward system for spectacular car crashes.

What do you think? When was the last time you completed a game? How many unfinished games do you have lying around? What games do you want to play in the future?


Men are from Planet Xbox Women are from Planet Wii: How the Genders Play Differently

Parker directed my attention towards this short yet insightful post by Jenni Mac about how videogames appeal more and more to a female demographic:

[W]atching the report it was clear that this involvement is actually because of two very different reasons. Men enjoy the activity, the skill, and the challenge. Although some women do enjoy these aspects as well, by listening to the interviews and examining the information it is evident women are interested in video games for the same reason they are interested in many other activities, the social aspect. Women quoted enjoying talking about it, getting together with friends for parties to do it and talking to people through the video games. Therefore although women are getting involved it seems to reinforce the true nature of the differences between the genders instead of providing evidence to how they are becoming more "similar" as the report seemed to detail.

Jenni makes a very good point here – one that's also proven by sales records: The Sims, a game whose development team consists of an equal mix of male and female staffers and whose parent company Maxis has a female general manager, sold more than 100 million copies in all its different instalments with almost 60% of its players being females. What is the game all about? Basically: Being social.

This could also explain why the non-casual genre that has the biggest percentage of female players is the MMO with self reported numbers of between 20-25% female audience. As a study by the Nottingham Trent University states:

MMORPGs were found to be highly socially interactive environments providing the opportunity to create strong friendships and emotional relationships. The study demonstrated that the social interactions in online gaming form a considerable element in the enjoyment of playing. The study showed MMORPGs can be extremely social games, with high percentages of gamers making life-long friends and partners. It was concluded that virtual gaming may allow players to express themselves in ways they may not feel comfortable doing in real life because of their appearance, gender, sexuality, and/or age.


And then of course there's the Wii which more than any other console encouraged social play: There're no entry barriers, enough content to appeal to a female demographic and sheer fun of getting together with a couple of friends in front of the TV (probably also one of the reasons why Nintendo neglects its online business). The result: Even after two years after the Wii's release Nintendo still has trouble meeting demand.

Of course men also like to be connected, but this mostly happens within a very competitive framework; Halo or Call of Duty being a case in point (probably also one of the reasons why Microsoft looks so much after its online business).

Then there's the uncanny hate/ disinterest for Nintendo's "albino waggle box“ on the part of the traditional male hardcore crowd ("I haven't touched my Wii in ages!“) not to mention the shame when buying casual games – apparently all these things offend male sensitivities and the traditional (male) technicity of the industry. But hey, what can we do? It's all in our brains.

Allan Reiss, MD, and his colleagues have a pretty good idea why your husband or boyfriend can't put down the Halo 3. In a first-of-its-kind imaging study, the Stanford University School of Medicine researchers have shown that the part of the brain that generates rewarding feelings is more activated in men than women during video-game play. (…) The findings indicate, the researchers said, that successfully acquiring territory in a computer game format is more rewarding for men than for women. And Reiss, for one, isn't surprised. "I think it's fair to say that males tend to be more intrinsically territorial," he said. "It doesn't take a genius to figure out who historically are the conquerors and tyrants of our species-they're the males."

What about you? If you're a female gamer, what games do you play and why?


More on Communities and Casual Gaming

Some more news from the social gaming world: Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has invested $3 million into user-generated casual gaming site Kongregate. Says Kongregate founder Jim Greer:

He looked at it the way he looks at the Amazon seller business. Amazon is a better place to sell your stuff than on your own site, and Kongregate is a better place to host your games. Community is really important. He said you should really consider developers your customers to the same extent that you consider players your customers. That was his big emphasis.

It might not be all sunshine and lollipops for a developer who wants to sell their game through Kongregate though, the main problem being brand erosion. As Daniel Cook points out in his excellent Casual Game Manifesto on Gamasutra:

[Portals] are using disposable casual games to build a loyal community that they can continue to rely upon for years to come. This places an expensive integration burden on the casual game developers. It also increases the chance that customers will look to the portal for future purchases, not the developer of their favorite game.

All these issues reduce the developer's bargaining power and their profit margin.

From a player's perspective though it's good to hear that Kongregate has a (in its deatils yet to be reveiled) Facebook strategy up its sleeve as it will start launching the most popular games as standalone Facebook apps: There's no need to register oneself at another site, Facebook offers every possibility to create a socially rich community around the games, the shelf life of a successful social networked game is much higher due to its viral effect that helps it to keep momentum and if my girlfriend's scrabble-addicted mum is anything to go by it potentially is a great portal to attract casual players.

Although: The question remains how smart it is to limit oneself to Facebook only. As Juan Gril in another Gamasutra piece points out:

But if you are a game developer and you tie your game to just one social network, you are shooting yourself in the foot, as you are losing a lot of the potential audience that uses the other networks. Your best bet is to see how can you create a web game that can be either be accessed from inside a social network and out of it, and make use of the features a social network has...