Postcard from GDC 2005: Casual Games Summit: Web & Downloadable Panel

The all-day Casual Games Summit addressed the issue of simple, deceptively time-consuming games that are quickly becoming a larger part of the industry. This panel takes a look at the present state and future potential of casual games.

John Welch, Dave Rohrl, and Steve Meretzky set up for the Casual Games Summit.

The all-day Casual Games Summit at Game Developers Conference 2005 addressed the issue of simple, deceptively time-consuming games that are becoming a larger and larger part of the industry. As Steve Meretzky, an IGDA board member and principal game designer at WorldWinner, pointed out in his introduction to the summit, the market for casual games is expected to quintuple by the year 2009, and will likely hit $1 billion by 2007. Venture capitalists are getting interested in exploiting games, and the overhead is still low enough that a small team or even a couple of people can still produce a successful casual game.

After his brief introduction, Meretzky took the role of moderator for the summit's first panel, Web and Downloadable Games. (In keeping with the industry-standard model of limiting trial play of downloadable games to 60 minutes, Meretzky warned the panel that he would strictly enforce time limits, and jokingly threatened to have the panelists pelted with Nerf darts by his deputies in the audience if they tried to go over time.)

The panelists for the Web and Downloadable games panel were: John Welch, president and CEO of PlayFirst as well as former VP of Games and Product at Shockwave, where he launched the first downloadable game; Dave Rohrl, lead producer and creator of Pogo To Go, the EA-owned's downloadable service; Dan Ryan, general manager of Microsoft Game Studios and overseer of their Online Games studio, which runs the MSN Games Channel, Messenger Games Channel, and new Xbox Live Arcade service; and Stephan Smith, president of Fresh Games.

Welch began the panel with a mini-keynote speech, explaining the basics of the downloadable Web game world. Some things that make it attractive to new developers, he explained, was its relative ease to get into, with games costing around $100k-$150k to produce and teams not needing years of prior experience to be funded; greater control over IP than a similarly-sized game would be in the mobile phone game arena; and the fact that downloadable games are now a $120 million market in the U.S., and expected to grow to ten times that size in the near future.

Giving a brief history of downloadable games, Welch noted that: "Four years ago, the only entertainment product you could purchase online with a credit card was pornography." Downloadable games began to appear in 2001, and got bigger in the years ahead as the web ad market collapsed and other, ad-based game revenue models faltered. In the future, Welch sees Hollywood and console game licenses becoming more important to downloadable games, and expects more consolidation such as the recent Real/GameHouse acquisition to occur. Multiplayer play will also likely increase in importance: "You can't really walk into a retail game store and find single-player PC games," Welch noted. "I think the download space will become like that over the next couple years."

After Welch's keynote, Meretzsky began moderating the panel, beginning by asking the participants how set in stone the 60-minute trial period was. "When I see a shorter trial, I think you're sending signals," said Rohrl. "A 15-minute trial says to the customer, this may be a game you'll burn out on after an hour." At the other end of the scale, he said, "Would you be more likely to buy if you had a 3-hour trial? Not as much. People just like free stuff."

Meretzky next pointed out that mobile games were driven almost entirely by licensing familiar properties, either existing console games or other media, and asked if that was as important in downloadable games.

GameHouse's SpongeBob Collapse

Welch pointed out that: "In the downloadable space, there really haven't been any branded successes. Scrabble's a huge success, but basically every other attempt has failed. SpongeBob Collapse did okay, but that was combining a brand with another brand, so it's hard to say." Dave Rohrl agreed, saying, "Licensed brands and intellectual properties may be a little less important in this space than in the kids' game space, where purchasing decisions get made via branding and beloved characters." More users buy downloadable games after trying them out for themselves, he explained, so the license wasn't necessary to entice consumers to make a blind purchase; Dan Ryan, however, argue that a licensed property would "drive your trial rating way up," ultimately leading to more purchases.

Asked about getting money out of buyers past the initial purchase, the panel was fairly dismissive of the idea; Welch said that "Everyone likes the idea of buying items in the game, but does that map out to what the portal will support? Can you support it to your own?" Ryan agreed, saying that "The audience doesn't really understand mods, or expansion packs. It's much easier to repackage it as the gold edition, and re-ship it out."

The last panel topic before the audience Q&A was the issue of "shelf life," or how long a given title would continue to get downloads before petering out. Claiming that it was all due to the quality of a game, Ryan said "Bejeweled stayed where it was because it was so great. We introduced it to a new audience on XBL Arcade," but admitted that more often, "We're looking at 60 days, 90 days for B-titles. It's all about the launch now."

Audience questions had to do with Welch's earlier claim that the current portal take of 30-40% of the revenue from the game was exorbitant, to which he said that "Wal-Mart keeps around 20-30 percent of what a consumer pays. So if Wal-Mart, who has to manage boxes, has to pay the content owner 75%, why do we get less? I don't think it's a natural state, it doesn't map onto anything else." The last question had to do with web revenue models other than downloads, and the panel explained that "There are really only two subscription services that'll make money for you now, GameBlast at Real and GamePass at Shockwave. The most successful subscriptions to this day is Club Pogo, but I don't know how much of an opportunity there is for outside content. Here and there, but not everyone should go out and develop content for Club Pogo."


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