Casual games: Power to the people

The graphics are simple and the visual effects are non-existent. Yet ultra-basic 'casual games' have an irrestistible appeal that's giving the blockbuster console titles a run for their money. Toby Green investigates
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The Independent Tech

For years now, the battle between the companies that make video games has resembled something of an arms race. The big manufacturers have been locked in battle, constantly trying to create more powerful hardware capable of producing better graphics and faster action, while game developers have been fighting over whose titles can best take advantage of rapidly-advancing technology. The bigger the visual thrills, the better the game – or at least, that's the idea.

Yet as this conflict has raged, there has been another, quieter, movement going on. Games that have basic graphics coupled with simple but compelling gameplay have found themselves a growing audience, one consisting of people who either don't know or don't care about frame rates or real-time rendering.

They are casual gamers and if you have ever played Solitaire on your computer or Snake on your phone, you are one of them. But if you thought that nobody was making any money out of these lo-fi games then you would be wrong. While the mainstream gaming industry continues to be a financial success story, the world of casual gaming is also starting to bring home the money.

For an example of how budget games can make big bucks, you need look no further than PopCap. Founded in 2000, even if you do not recognise the Seattle-based company's name, in all likelihood you will have played one of their games. According to PopCap, in 2009 consumers are set to spend over $200m (£120m) on their titles, and as a result they have grown from humble beginnings to one of the biggest forces in gaming.

It is a success story that has taken even its creators by surprise. "We didn't start PopCap to make millions of dollars and go public," says John Vechey, who along with fellow developers Brian Fiete and Jason Kapalka founded the company. "We started PopCap because we wanted to make games that were good, without a lot of crap around us. And it just kept on getting more popular – now there are 240 people worldwide, with offices in four countries. It is a bit insane."

What is the secret of their success? Of course, the main reason is the quality of the product, with PopCap having hit on a winning formula of simple but addictive games, the most famous of which is the vividly-coloured gem-based Bejeweled. "We spent a lot of time trying to really make it so that our games could all be played by someone who has never played games before," says Vechey.

"While games such as Bejeweled may not get the coverage they deserve from the games press, don't let that deceive you into thinking they are not important products," says Ben Parfitt, the editor of CasualGaming.biz, a business site devoted to the casual gaming industry.

"In fact, PopCap's titles are so popular that they are even shaping the look and design of other emerging technologies," he says. "PopCap's Bejeweled Blitz, a Facebook variant of the puzzler, is enjoying incredible user numbers. Next thing you know, MySpace declares that it is to redesign itself as a social gaming hub."

PopCap has been able to capatalise on the quality of the games with a business model built for the internet age. Generally, a PopCap game will have a trial version that users can play for free inside an internet browser, and then a full version that must be bought. It is an age-old strategy – get them hooked and then take their money – updated for the 21st century.

Vechey says these trial versions are an important way to get people start playing PopCap games in the first place. "If a consumer doesn't know they're going to love a game, how do you convince them to try it out?" he says. "If they have to buy a magazine, read all the reviews, figure out what game they would like, and then go buy that game – they'll never do it if they've never done it before and they don't know they'll like it."

It is not just PopCap taking advantage of the business opportunities offered by producing casual games for the web. "Breaking into the console market in today's day and age is an almost insurmountable challenge for the newcomer," says Parfitt. "It's hard for anyone to compete with the multimillion-pound development and marketing budgets that typify the big-name console titles. But there are plenty of cases of small studios or even lone developers creating global hits in the casual sector. A viral Flash web game can be played by millions thanks to word of mouth alone."

The varied audience attracted to casual games also makes a difference. "Casual gaming is not burdened by the pressure to conform to the ingrained buying habits of core gamers," says Parfitt. "By their nature, casual games appeal to literally anybody. They enjoy a higher percentage of female users and are very popular among the elderly. In addition, they often appeal to the traditional games audience too."

Yet, the rise of casual gaming hasn't pleased everyone. "There are certainly some – be it a vocal minority or otherwise –who would say that the rise of casual gaming has had a significant impact on traditional gaming," says Parfitt. "When [the president of Nintendo] Satoru Iwata took to the stage at E3 this year and dedicated a significant slot to the company's upcoming "Vitality Sensor" (basically a pulse monitor that attaches to the finger) the core were up in arms – they feel Nintendo should be focusing on its traditional offerings. Of course, Nintendo still services its oldest fans but undoubtedly its main focus now lies elsewhere."

However, Parfitt feels gamers and the business shouldn't panic too much. "None of this should lead you to believe that serious gaming is under threat," he says. "Halo 3 just sold its 10-millionth copy, and the release last year of Grand Theft Auto IV was hailed as 'the biggest entertainment launch of all time', so with the right product there are huge profits to be made. And as large as the casual audience may or may not become, the core audience is a dedicated one with some serious spending power – no industry in the world would turn its back on that."

For PopCap, the future looks bright, with Vechey looking towards social networking playing a large role in future products. "We are no longer going to be in a world where you play Bejeweled on the internet, and it is wholly separate from the Bejeweled you play on your Xbox," he says. "As Facebook becomes more successful at getting people to connect out there in the world and giving every platform the tools, we will take advantage of those tools to connect our games."

Fancy a game of Plants vs Zombies?

Zuma

Awarded "game of the year" in 2004, the Aztec-themed puzzle game Zuma consists of trying to stop coloured balls from being sucked into a temple statue. The sequel, "Zuma's Revenge", is out this week.

Bejeweled

PopCap's leading game and its first major hit. Games from the franchise – which include a sequel – have been downloaded over 350 million times, and you can even play a version of the gem-swapping puzzler on Facebook.

Plants vs Zombies

A tower defence game, "Plants vs Zombies" sees players pitting aggressive plants against the undead. The title, released earlier this year, has garnered impressive review scores and also offers gamers a "zen garden", where players can care for plants they acquire from fallen zombies during gameplay.

Bookworm Adventures 2

The game that, at time of writing, sits at the top of the best-sellers chart on PopCap's website, this sequel – released earlier this year – sees players building words and fighting monsters with Lex the bookworm.

Peggle

Based on the popular Japanese pastime "Pachinko", "Peggle" first saw the light of day in 2007 and this addictive game has been especially popular on the iPhone.

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