Casual Summit Keynote: PlayFirst’s Welch On A More Innovative Casual Future

At his keynote for the 2008 Game Developers Conference Casual Game Summit, PlayFirst CEO John Welch said that even with an overwhelming and diverse userbase, the casual front is still just emerging with innovation, urging publishers to take bigger risks.
John Welch, president and CEO of PlayFirst gave this year's Casual Summit’s first keynote. He first addressed the fact that in order to be mass market, games must be accessible to everyone. This means not only in terms of design, but also platform. Welch brought up some key questions, such as: Do people want to buy it? Can they? Is it in a store? In terms of platforms, accessibility is key. Socially, do most people want to play it and tell their friends about it? Do they feel comfortable doing it? Is the controller intimidating? Do they feel they have time for it? These are the questions that are currently being partially addressed by everything from the Wii to microtransactions – but we’re not there yet, Welch says. Mobile is appealing as a platform, in terms of being pervasive. Everyone has a mobile phone, and they all support gaming now. But do most people download games? Welch says no, in spite of his company’s many successful forays into the market. “While it’s selling millions of units,” he says, “it’s not sending tens of millions of units. The mainstream is not buying it.” But it’s very accessible as a platform. Can consoles be a casual platform, he postulated? Interactivity will keep getting more widespread, with interactive TV and works from Hollywood. There will be a box in the living room into the future – it may not be a dedicated console, but it’ll play games. Consoles are important but we’re not there today. The PC is still both the most casual and the most hardcore platform, said Welch, shared some statistics to prove the point. Today 76% of Americans have PCs, and there are 238 million U.S. internet users, and most play casual games. Even WoW players play casual games like Facebook Zombies, showing that the hardcore doesn’t exactly shy away from the casual. “The fact that (the market is) getting more confusing – what the heck is a casual game – is because the genre is getting so much wider,” offered Welch. “What I think is more important than the definition is the promise.” That promise being a true mass market experience. All people read, watch, and listen. Welch maintains that we need to diversify genres of media, on diverse platforms. It’s not necessary that you appeal to everyone - not everyone plays Bejeweled, but we do need to broaden as an industry. One thing the industry needs to work on is failure, he says: “How often has someone ever failed to watch at a half hour TV show because they weren’t good enough at watching it?” In books you “fail” to read something if it doesn’t interest you, not because you’re not good enough. “Over the years,” says Welch, “I’ve developed a vision that’s inspired me, and I think it’s (the same vision that has) inspired a lot of people.” “We have the opportunity to elevate video games to be something that’s important culturally,” he elaborated. “Something as entertaining to them as watching television or reading what they like to read. I think we’re not quite there yet.” 28% of the world’s online population self-identify as “gamers” says Welch, and 34% are actually playing weekly. Gaming is the #1 activity (length of time) on the PC. “You could say we’ve made it,” he said, but he still thinks we’re not there yet. Even game development teams are becoming more diverse – Welch boasted that 26% of PlayFirst’s game production staff is female. “There’s a lot of venture money coming to the (casual) industry. A lot. It was difficult to raise $5 million a few years ago, but now it’s a whole lot easier,” he says. Even big publishers are talking about casual gaming, but Welch says they don’t have the capacity to produce small enough. So is casual done creatively? Done inventing genres? No, he says, there’s much more to do. Popcap is the only small publisher with a presence on XBLA, for instance. “There’s a lot more opportunity out there,” he said. “We’re just now emerging from this cocoon and seeing incredibly amounts of innovation. You can’t kill innovation – what you can do is get left out.” “We are the future,” he added. “We are the ones who have the opportunity to understand, because we’ve seen and made the mistakes.” The internet is where you can innovate, he maintains. Internet innovations dwarf console ones like DDR, Guitar Hero, and Wii Sports. But at the same time, when trying to move to a microtransactions model – only one out of 30 of their titles, and only Yahoo would publish it, nobody else. Welch also had some choice words for portals: differentiate your service. Innovation is already happening, he says. “Do you want us to stop innovating so that the teenagers in their bedrooms can beat us at our own game? Say yes to innovation!” And to publishers, he says: take the financial risk, with higher budgets, lower royalties. “If I hear one more publisher say ‘at the end of the project, we lost money.’ Well you’re stupid, and your publisher is stupid! You shouldn’t be losing money, the risk should be on the publishers.” When we succeed in “making it” is when casual goes away as a category, Welch maintains, specifying, “When casual go away as a category, and hardcore is the niche within games.” He ended up with commentary on the summit’s growth at GDC from a single day, to now having two-day status, saying “I think ultimately we’ll have a two day traditional game summit at the beginning of GDC, and none of us will be in the room.”

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