Many GamersInfo.net readers are not familiar with me. I've been writing exclusively about massively multiplayer online games and the MMOG industry for the past seven years, only writing and reviewing casual games and children's games for Ophelea since early this year. So, to walk into a game conference where I knew absolutely no one was a little different, to say the least. The focus, the genre, the business models, the atmosphere are quite different from the MMOG arena.
The conference started with Marc Whitten's keynote presentation. Marc Whitten is Microsoft's General Manager for Casual Games and spoke of its recent games initiative into the casual games arena with Xbox Arcade, and where he thought the casual games industry was going. The Taper Auditorium at Seattle's Benaroya Hall was packed with attendees, analysts and press.
Marc believes that the industry is at its tipping point — that is, it is reaching critical mass; and far from being the red-headed step-child of the gaming industry it will soon become a mainstream, commonly accepted, well-known gaming style.
"This is the growth industry for games. Period!" he said. "And Microsoft is serious in driving this growth." He informed the audience of Microsoft's five-pronged approach with Xbox Live, Xbox Live Arcade, Games for Windows, MSN Games and Windows Live Messenger. "Core games, distilled to their simplest forms, have two models: the retail and the subscription model. Whereas, in the casual games arena, any model works, and each model does not cannibalize or negate the profitability of the other."
"Casual games are also easier and cheaper to get into," Marc said. "We're looking at development budgets of $100,000 to $500,000, unlike the millions of dollars spent on core games." He also pointed to successful bootstrap companies, of people who started out of their homes and garages, using the example of Small Arms, one of the most popular video games for the Xbox 360. "It was created by four guys in their 20s, working in a single-room office accessed through an alley in Seattle's Capitol Hill district."
Microsoft is also capitalizing on another form of viral marketing: They are releasing their XNA game studio, which is a set of tools for players to create their own module and levels for Microsoft games.
My day was a mixture of attending conference programs and meeting with the bigwigs of several casual games development companies. The interesting thing about this arena is also the amount of collaborative effort between companies. Perhaps it grew from just struggling to survive in the early days, but consumers will find the same game — say Bejeweled 2 — offered by many, many Web sites, in different monetization formats. All they need to do is find the format they prefer. Unlimited play with ads, with high-score tracking, win money by playing against other players, without ads, download only, flash only ... the permutations and combinations are limitless.
These companies also have their own IPs that they develop, have published others, have had their own IPs published by others and distribute their games and other games. Again, all permutations and combinations thereof exist in a single place.
Sandlot Game's current most well-known game is Cake Mania, in which we follow the adventures of heroine Jill as she strives to save her parents' bakery. Sandlot was founded by Daniel Bernstein, who studied music composition in college. I met with Jared Nieuwenhuis, the director of Global Marketing over turkey sandwiches and pasta salad to learn more about Sandlot Games and its latest offerings. He attributes the success of Sandlot Games to the quality of its graphics and music.
"Daniel has done the music composition for most of the games, and that's over 30 games," Jared said.
Superior music has differentiated the company's games from the rest of the herd, and Sandlot has also leveraged its large gaming community by providing forums.
"We have a great fan base," Jared said. "And we've released a toolkit to allow users to create new modules and levels for our games."
I am told that the next version of Sandlot's community Web site will have better tools to promote, recommend and rate player-created levels.
We chatted about the mobile platform, where they recently ported Cake Mania.
"It's a much more complicated space," Jared said, "mainly because there are so many platforms and handsets, especially in the U.S."
Sandlot has evaluated its games on a game-by-game basis to see if they will translate onto the mobile platform.
What about new games to come? Well, Cake Mania 2 is just around the corner, I am told. Jill is now 29. She has saved the bakery and is ready to branch out on her own. It's a different story with its own set of challenges but based on the same premise as the original Cake Mania.
Also, remember Tradewinds? Or better yet ... remember Taipan for the Apple II? Sandlot is developing a Tradewinds MMOG. Daniel tells me that there are over 20 million players of all the Tradewinds franchise (Tradewinds, Tradewinds 2 and Tradewinds Legends). If there was a ready made player base ... this is more than a year away, but as Daniel said with a smile, "It's not a secret." I haven't played Tradewinds, but I remember Taipan fondly, and by all descriptions and reviews, Tradewinds is the successor to Taipan.
Erik Goossens, vice president of Games Content is a hoot to speak to."In the casual games model, where you are allowed to try before you buy, we have a 1-2 percent conversion rate," he said. That is, 1 to 2 percent of the people that download a game for free will buy it. "We're the guys of the adver-gaming model of monetization."
What that is, is that players can play the game free, but advertisements, whether a still or video spot is delivered at natural breaks and pauses of the game.
After three months of real-world testing and now, almost a year after the launch, Erik tells me that they have two models. One is the 90-minute demo download in which the customer may play the game for 90 minutes and then have to purchase the game if they wish to continue playing; the other is the unlimited play, adver-gaming model. The latter yielded the most revenue.
"But," he says, "Most developers are too chicken to go it that way. They dare not trust the 'other revenue' stream business model and want to 'sell' their games rather than make more money through the ads.
"Arcade and puzzle games were traditionally the 'casual' games, and the biggest excuse given for playing these games were 'I'm training my memory,' but why should there be an excuse to play a casual game?" Erik asked.
I don't know, but the number of male friends — self-proclaimed hardcore gamers — whose wives are "outing" them for playing Diner Dash or some other "girly" game on their pink DS Lite handhelds are growing day by day as I let them know that I'm covering casual games these days.
"Anyway, we're releasing more memory training games, so everyone will have an excuse to play!" Erik continued, listing all the games to come: Sodoku, Mind Medly and Super Collapse! Puzzle Gallery 2.
In the same vein, they have signed an agreement with Mattel to develop, publish and distribute Scrabble, Uno, Monopoly Hear and Now and some other game titles.
If there's one thing I've realized from this conference, it's that there is a lot of collaboration in the casual games space. A publisher may send out a game to two or three different studios to bring it to market on different platforms. The studios will work collaboratively, and gives and takes that are advantageous on one platform often make it into another. Another phenomenon peculiar to the casual games market is online game distributors. Most companies do three things to one extent or the other: They develop their own games and own the IP; they publish games developed by other studios; and they distribute games published by other companies. Games such as Bejeweled 2 or Cake Mania will be offered on many sites. So much so that tracing the "origins" or the developer of a particular game can require a bit of detective work.
The conference ran through four days, beginning with the Casual Games Academy — a series of educational and informative lectures. As of writing, the show isn't over yet. My regret is that it ran immediately after E3, and with my other commitments, I was not able to attend the academy.