The videogame industry is nearly 40-years old, and brought in $74 billion dollars last year alone. World of Warcraft has 10.3 million subscriptions (each with a monthly charge of $15). Motion-sensor cameras let you move your entire body, while broadband connects you to anyone playing anywhere in the world at any time. The television station, G4, was the first of its kind, creating content geared specifically towards videogamers - it’s not the greatest television, but it does exist. The “geeks” have grown up playing games and are now teaching their own kids how to game. The videogame industry has become its own entity, existing alongside movies and music - a staple part of our culture.
So what is a casual game, and what is gamification?
The easiest mark of a casual game is where it exists. If it lives on your phone, or inside Facebook - it is most likely a casual game, like Cityville or Draw Something. Instead of shooting aliens or saving Princesses, casual gaming tasks the gamer with simple actions, that can be done repetitively and continuously.
As a genre, they are fairly innocuous diversions, so why is it significant to talk about casual games?
The biggest reason: they completely destroyed the zero-sum game.
Back in the 90s, there were the “Console Wars”. Companies like Nintendo, Sega, Sony, (and later Microsoft) were all fighting, primarily over eight year-olds. Their market share was the collective allowances of kids, and maybe how weak their parents were to begging. There were a finite number of kids, so if one dollar went to Nintendo, then a dollar was lost for Sega or Sony or Microsoft.
Casual games changed that. Eight year-olds aren’t necessarily playing Cityville, but their moms are, and their uncles, and their aunts, and their cousins… The accessibility and playability hasn’t stolen market share, in fact, it has created new markets. As aforementioned, World of Warcraft has 10.3 million monthly subscriptions, while Cityville has six million people playing every single day. These are brand-new gamers, people who don’t know Mario & Luigi, but are now spending 99 cents here or $2.99 there to build a gas station in their virtual city.
These games are engineered for new demographics. Easy to start playing, ubiquitous (always on your phone reminding you to build houses), and socially-binding (you always know when your Facebook friends do something on the same game.) Which leads to the other fundamental development of gaming culture: the psychology of addiction has matured. The principles of rewarding players at certain tasks, having your friends play to make it a localized place to socialize, time-delaying certain aspects to encourage returning - these concepts have been refined over the past decades, and are now being tracked down to the click for these “casual” games.
Which leads the other gaming shift: gamification. To “gamify” something is to apply these principles to non-traditional gaming environments. Adding rewards for reading a blog, or collecting points for posting comments. To be able to track your “progress” for shopping, and compare it against other shoppers is a new level of granular psychology that wasn’t possible before the ubiquity of internet usage. You are no longer “keeping up with the Jones’ family” but also the Smiths, the Adeoyes, and the Chengs.
Tim Roger’s essay on Casual Games: who killed videogames? (a ghost story)
Brian Reynolds, Chief Designer at Zynga: A brief interview of Reynolds about how casual games differ from traditional videogames.