Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

The End of the “Casual Era?”

Posted by Rampant Coyote on November 17, 2014

First things first: so-called “Casual Games?” Not going away. Ever. In fact, you could argue that thanks to mobile gaming, they are bigger than ever. WAY bigger.

What are casual games? They are games¬†preferred by “casual gamers” – the ones who don’t have the depth of interest or time commitment of the hardcore fans. They are often the ‘coffee-break games’ – games you can play in just a few minutes, that have very simple and easy-to-grasp gameplay mechanics, and usually ¬†bright, “cute” graphics that are non-threatening to players. And – until a few years ago – they were often web-based.

And that’s what I think of as the “casual era.” Around 2006 or so, casual games were “It.” Everybody was doing it. Popcap was the pioneer – particularly with Bejeweled but they had a stable of games that were serious moneymakers. And out of the battle royale of casual game websites, Big Fish Games emerged as the top dog. Or top fish. Whatever. Anyway, in what passes for the “indie community,” getting your game on Big Fish was the golden ticket, a lot like getting your game onto Steam is now. A large chunk of the indie community completely hitched their fate to that of Big Fish Games.

It was quite the thing for a while. As more and more “casual game developers” jumped on board, we saw a massive “race to the bottom” price war, clones galore, and new “categories” / genres of games emerge. And we saw a whole ton of indie game studios form, blossom, and collapse.

Well, PopCap is now a division of EA, and has been hurting, laying off employees, and closing down branches. And now Big Fish Games, which has had to close a couple of offices in the recent past, is now being sold to racetrack operator Churchill Downs. It’s for a little shy of $900 million, so it’s not like it’s at a bargain basement price or anything. Rumor has it that their real-money gambling business has been growing even as their casual game business has been shrinking, so the acquisition even makes some kind of sense.

But it’s the “casual games shrinking” thing that’s the issue. Really, what it means is that casual gaming has largely moved to mobile, and that’s not being controlled by these casual game portals. I don’t know the financials or the details. But if there was any doubt that the now-old-school “casual game era” has come to an end, this would be a big nail in the coffin.

What does it mean? Not much, really. In the very short term, it means very little. In the long term, Big Fish Games could disappear tomorrow and not make much of a footnote in the history of the industry – which feels weird to say, as it was such a giant gatekeeping god to indie studios six or so years ago. In the medium-term, however, it could mean a lot to “casual” indie studios that have come to rely on it. But mainly, it just serves as an illustration of the cyclical nature of the industry. There are always new technologies, new trends, and new bandwagons to jump on as a business. Nothing is permanent. But – nothing ever completely goes away, either. There are still studios out there making games for long-dead platforms (and … while maybe not making the big bucks, still finding an audience).

I think game developers would be well-served to diversify – stay agile on platform, but not to throw all their eggs into one trendy basket. And even more importantly – for anybody calling themselves “indie” – not to grow too dependent upon any one company or platform for your own company’s survival.


Filed Under: Biz, Casual Games - Comments: 4 Comments to Read



  • Rampant Coyote said,

    As far as “forever” is concerned – I remember talking to a guy at GDC back in the late 90s who was formerly a game developer for Intellivision. He said that back then, they were deliberately not making games too difficult so that they’d appeal to the more casual players. They still had space ships and aliens, but again — “casual gaming” has been around since Pong. Literally. It’s forms and formats and platforms change, but it wasn’t a fad.

  • Xian said,

    I think this might tell the tale right here for Popcap:
    http://popcap.mediaroom.com/index.php?s=30836

    Not a single new game released in 2014, or if they did they didn’t make a press release for it. The last I remember hearing about was Plants vs Zombies 2, but can’t remember how long ago that was.

    You can’t rest on your laurels, so with nothing new coming out they are inevitability going to go into decline. I just have to wonder how much of that is due to being assimilated into the EA collective, since EA has a track record of buying companies then running them into the ground. Are they just not green lighting any new concepts or ideas? Have the creative talents behind Popcap left?

  • Mephane said,

    @Xian:

    They released a new DLC to Garden Warfare as recent as September 2014.

  • Alberto said,

    Q.E.D.
    Top indie Cliffski has been giving for years sensible advices such as do not depend on Steam&pals, try to build traffic to *your own* website, depend as little as possible on third parties, etc.

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