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How casual games conquered the world

Casual games

Despite being significantly less powerful than its rivals, the Wii has sold over 85 million to date, taking a 46% share of the console market. Microsoft’s Kinect just became the fastest-selling consumer electronics device on record, shifting 10 million units since November. Over 10 billion apps have been downloaded on iOS, a significant proportion of which are games. Recent valuations of Zynga, the leading Facebook game publisher, put it on par with EA. You might be forgiven for thinking that ‘casual’ games are taking over the world.

Here’s why.

The nature of videogames has slowly changed throughout the industry’s short history, but this change has accelerated in recent years. Many now divide games and those who play them into ‘hardcore’ and ‘casual’. When you compare Call of Duty and Angry Birds, it’s not a hard distinction to make.

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Yet such terms are not only loaded, but inadequately convey the reasons why each are successful. Those who write about ‘casual’ games (including our own staff) frequently paint a picture of pensioners in front of a Wii. “Look at them, how silly!” you’re meant to think, “it’s a shame that they’ll never get to experience Half-Life 2, but then, they wouldn’t appreciate it, would they?” Concentrating on who is playing and what is being played is missing the point though. Why some people find these types of games more appealing is significantly more important.

A number of factors have contributed to the success of ‘casual’ games, including price, cute graphics, effective marketing and the relative openness of platforms, compared to traditional consoles. One factor is universal though: a fit with the context of use a game is being played in.

Context of use is a phrase that describes the environment something is being used in, and the expectations of the person interacting with whatever that might be.

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“Concentrating on who is playing and what is being played is missing the point”For example, consider the context of use for someone using a train ticket collection kiosk. They’re in a hurry and have a queue of equally impatient people behind them. It’s noisy and there are numerous distractions. They can only use one hand, since the other is holding travel documents. Any software on the kiosk has to cater for these circumstances, making it as quick and easy as possible for someone to retrieve those tickets and continue on their journey.

For videogames, the same principles apply and the Wii is a classic example. Consoles are played on TVs, which are usually situated in a communal area. Houses might have more than one TV, but the main one can almost always be found in the living room/lounge. This room is used by everyone from young to old, to relax and socialise in what spare time they have.

The Wii fits the living room’s context of use perfectly. The controller is easily understandable by the wide range of people in this room because of its simple button layout and direct metaphorical connection to the action on screen. With the Xbox, you press a button representing an action on screen; with the Wii, you point at the action and control it in a seemingly more direct fashion. The Wii controller looks like it belongs in the living room, appearing less intimidating than other controllers.

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Many Wii games have a shallow structure, requiring less time commitment than other titles. This suits those who pass through the living room during the day, who don’t have or want to spend hours in front of the TV. Nintendo also market it as a social gaming experience, to be played with others. This matches where the Wii lives, in a room which many people occupy. Playing a singleplayer game while other people are around can be antisocial, but sharing the experience is enjoyable for everyone.

The Wii’s broad appeal centres around its fit with the living room’s context of use. It’s better suited to this environment and the people within it than the competition.

The popularity of iPhone and iPod Touch games is a similar case. Low app prices and a more open marketplace than on consoles has helped, but central to their success is a match with the context of use.

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Phones are used to access information and services on the move, and more importantly, to alleviate boredom during the day. You might be standing in a queue, waiting at the doctor’s surgery or waiting for friends to turn up. In these short breaks, phones provide a perfect short burst of entertainment.

Offering short, rewarding experiences that can be quickly paused and resumed, many mobile games fit this context of use perfectly. Games that require greater time commitment can be appealing, but suit fewer occasions during the day when they could be used. The moments when games can be played are also more frequent on mobiles because people carry them everywhere they go. This is in contrast to a dedicated mobile console like the DS, which the owner has to make a conscious decision to take with them.

Facebook games are another huge ‘casual’ gaming success story. For many, everyone they know is on Facebook, with most visiting the site at least once a day. Games like CityVille are built around social obligation and the need to repeatedly return to check progress, which exactly matches how Facebook – the environment it’s in – works.

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Such successes have been greeted with mixed reactions by traditional videogames enthusiasts. There’s been a longstanding desire for games (and by association, those who play them) to become more socially acceptable. Whether framed as going ‘mainstream’ or the industry ‘maturing’, the implication is the same: one day, games will be an equal to TV, film and music in society.

This change is now well underway, but it’s not quite how many expected it to pan out. The number of people playing videogames has rapidly increased, but most of that growth is in ‘casual’ gaming. Videogames are now more popular than they’ve ever been, but while this is seen as positive by many, the type of games being played is at odds with what has made games so fun for many in the first place.

Our own Oliver Banham sums up this attitude in an article written two years ago, “These games are not helping to paint videogame culture in a sophisticated, technically astounding light, as they should be, and as they are. These people will miss out on the BioShocks and the Fallout 3s, and not realise just how impressive gaming experiences can get.” His article perfectly captures this struggle between having videogames become more popular and the method by which this has happened.

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“There is clearly still a huge market for traditional titles”The consequence, many fear, is that videogames will become more popular at the expense of traditional games. Manufacturers and publishers will concentrate on ‘casual’ games and the quality of the games that got the industry here in the first place will decline. The Wii is the most significant evidence for this view, with the industry’s more prominent company altering its entire strategy to cater for a new market.

This is generally not a zero-sum game though. ‘Casual’ games are often sold in addition to ‘hardcore’ games, not instead of them. Just because you buy Angry Birds to make your commute more entertaining doesn’t mean that you won’t buy Call of Duty to play once you get home. There is clearly still a huge market for traditional titles that cater to our expectations and there always will be.

Games will become ‘mainstream’ when they are played by the majority of people. To reach that point, they must either alter the context of use in which they exist or match it. Needless to say, the former is much more difficult than the latter. Videogames in their traditional form have and will continue to rise slowly in popularity, but to reach a mainstream level with this alone will take the industry a great deal of time. ‘Casual’ titles that fit the context of use for those that don’t normally play games provide a shortcut to this, and profit for those who make them. Understanding and embracing the reasons behind the change that will bring videogames the level of popularity it has always craved is crucial to accepting this new reality.

The author of this fine article

is the Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in November 2000. Get in touch on Twitter @PhilipMorton.

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