CGS: GameLab's Zimmerman Says Casual Games are Dead (Sort Of)

You can’t make money making casual games, said GameLab's Eric Zimmerman at GDC -- low royalties, tons of middlemen, a hugely saturated market, ever-increasing production values, and now big publisher competition -- imploring his audience to take more desi
Eric Zimmerman of Gamelab is disgruntled with the state of causal games. “I’m surprised by the optimism in the talks so far,” he began. Although he admits an obituary is premature, the field is both financially and creatively dead. You can’t make money making casual games, Zimmerman said. It’s a broken business model for developers, with low royalties, a ton of middlemen, a high turnover of software, a hugely saturated market, and ever-increasing production values, therefore production cost. Finally, now that the casual industry is no longer just a little club in a back room, the “big boys” like EA have shouldered their way in, driving independent developers ever more to the periphery. On the creative end, “Casual games began with a promise.” They were meant to be a meritocracy, Zimmerman said; smaller in scope, and therefore more conducive to experimentation than big-budget mainstream games. Instead, the field has “almost become a parody of itself… The degree of shameless clones seems, to my eye, to be more prevalent than other sectors of the game industry… I’m not seeing that innovation is rewarded.” What Are Main Streams? Deepening the problem is what Zimmerman sees as a “misunderstanding of what mass-market means.” In other media, there is no concept of one movie, one song, one show that appeals to everyone, yet there is this concept that a solid, salable game must do so. “We’ve had trouble figuring out who’s buying our games.” The result is an industry plagued by “watered-down, risk-adverse content.” Though this is a problem throughout the game industry, in the causal sector it is “particularly egregious.” “Where do we go from here?” Zimmerman asked. Well, we can find new funding models. Stuffed animals have, bizarrely enough, turned out to be one of the more progressive and successful resources in a while. Other ideas are investors in individual games – as happens with feature films – or schmoozing for grant money. Beyond that, the industry needs to take more design risks; to be smarter about the market. How do games fit into people’s lifestyles? If there’s going to be a casual game industry, its audience should be all the people who bought The Sims -- people who don’t own an Xbox, yet neither do they resort to Yahoo! for their entertainment. Developers should be courting the Netflix/Facebook/ demographic. And Now for the Encouragement “We can do this!” Zimmerman exclaimed. “The casual game industry is no longer in this nascent stage where we don’t know what we’re doing.” Furthermore, causal developers are skilled in ways that mainstream game developers often overlook. They know about addictive gameplay, about “thinking small” (conceptually and practically), and about drawing users. Finally, casual developers know a heck of a lot about non-gamers, which in a sense puts them ahead of the mainstream – which is still more or less caught chasing its own tail, placating an audience of existing gamers. “We’ve some things to bring to the table, and that’s what we need to use.”

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