In-Depth: Casual Game Execs Aim For New Audiences On Core Platforms

Casual game companies seem be heading full-tilt for consoles, handhelds and traditional gaming's retail shelves -- and muscling squarely into what used to be "core market" territory. What's going on? Gamasutra talks to PopCap's Greg Canessa and RealNetwor
Peggle's coming to DS, and casual games company RealNetworks has WiiWare titles in the works. These new developments are but a few examples of a recent trend that sees casual game companies escaping their traditional Flash portal confines for the home console and handheld arena. PopCap is releasing casual titles on DS like Amazing Adventures: The Forgotten Ruins and Mystery P.I.: Portrait of a Thief -- plus the anticipated Peggle collaboration with celebrated Lumines creator Q Entertainment, which comes out in March 2009. At the same time, fellow casual games mainstay RealNetworks just launched Mortimer Beckett And The Spooky Manor for Wii, as well as Tropix and Sally's Salon on DS. So while traditional game publishers appear a little more wary these days about traditional packaged goods because of concerns about piracy and retailer behavior in a down economy, casual companies seem be heading full-tilt for the shelves -- and muscling squarely into the territory of a "core" market that used to overlook it. What's going on? The Backstory PopCap video game platforms VP Greg Canessa says the phenomenon is not nearly as recent as some think. "I give plenty of credit to Nintendo for popularizing the idea of casual entertainment in the living room over the last 24 months or so," he tells Gamasutra. "But having said that, the concept of casual games in the home predates the Wii by a long shot," says Canessa, who was the former general manager of Xbox Live Arcade, and played a leading role in the inception of the service -- which featured casual games like Hardwood Solitaire and Super Collapse II at its launch. Even before then, the simple titles of the 80's that were popular at arcades would qualify today as "casual games," thanks to the simplicity of their mechanics. Canessa suggests the ghettoization of the casual biz within the larger commercial games business became a matter of perception, both from the audience and from the culture. The hardcore audience had also been "pigeonholed," Canessa says, and had grown accustomed to games getting marketed as if the entire industry was "about teenage boys sitting in their room killing stuff." RealNetworks sales and marketing GM Sean Amann agrees that by the time he'd made a career in games, the demographic was that quintessential, 18-24 young male "core." Amann has worked with Trip Hawkins on the 3DO's launch, and from there continued on to work on Hitman, Timesplitters and Deus Ex and at Sega on Darkwatch and Condemned. Four years ago, before joining RealNetworks, he left traditional games to lead consumer marketing for Glu Mobile's titles. "That was a watershed moment in my career, suddenly being exposed to a whole different customer base, and finding out that gamers weren't the people that I had always targeted," he says. "Gamers were probably 80 percent of the population, if you only had a product at a price with a distribution model that made sense for that gamer." So how did the distinction between "hardcore" and "casual" begin to lose relevance and create an environment where traditional "gamers" are eager to get their hands on Peggle DS? Watershed Moments One recent development that stuck out to Amann was the appearance of a match-three puzzle minigame - actually a version of PopCap's Bejeweled -- inside of Blizzard's World of Warcraft. "If you look at what Blizzard has done," says Amann, "obviously the definition of who would be interested in playing Collapse is a lot broader than [what you'd see] just looking at the traffic on RealArcade." Canessa says that the original vision of Xbox Live Arcade played a key role in the cultural and business shift, as it began in an environment where consumers were becoming accustomed to digitally-distributed entertainment. At that time, the indie movement was also important, Canessa notes, as companies like GarageGames framed their endeavors around the needs of independent developers amid a "backlash against big publishers and a birth of innovation in the space." Add in a nostalgia movement that reached a fever pitch in about 2004, and "that's what birthed the idea behind Xbox Live Arcade." And PopCap was a launch partner for the original XBLA, putting five games on the service and being there on day one for the launch of XBLA on the Xbox 360. "It became a huge phenomenon," Canessa says. "PopCap made a ton of money and enthusiastically got behind the platform." "That really was a huge step forward in terms of the popularization of casual games," Canessa says. "And then you have Wii come along, DS happening starting around that time, and then you have this thing gathering steam." Discovering New Customers This evolving environment allows RealNetworks' Amann to take a broader-lens view of the casual customer. "And our customer, really, is anybody who would enjoy playing Collapse," he says. "So instead of looking at who comes to RealArcade or GameHouse, and doing a survey and figuring out what their demographic is and saying, 'that is our customer,' we're looking at our brand and our prod and saying, 'who would enjoy playing this game?'" PopCap's Peggle hits DS in March 2009, and Canessa says it's the fruition of an "organic" process to bring game properties to new audiences, and by offering audiences game experiences wherever they are playing. Canessa says PopCap aims to create a low-impact entry point for curious gamers with its new shelf offerings. Interestingly, he said that properties like Zuma and Peggle are "evergreen" -- the word used by Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime recently to describe Wii Fit, as he discussed why wider-market games enjoy longer-lasting appeal. Both casual execs highlighted the ways their mainstay game mechanics are being tailored for their new platforms, and for that platform's audiences. "We make sure Peggle DS is as full featured as you'd come to expect from a Nintendo DS title," Canessa says, also noting the appeal of the Q Entertainment contribution to the more core-market DS consumer. "Collapse is defined as a brick-breaker game, and we're not going to completely shatter that game mechanic when we bring it to other platforms," says Amann. "But we sure are going to optimize that game mechanic for different platforms." "The WiiWare customer is different than the iPhone customer is different than the PC online customer, and if we don't pay attention to what the expectations are from a pure product perspective -- even if we get the price, promotion and place correct, we still don't have a hit on our hands." So casual game companies are likely to continue eyeing new platforms where they haven't traditionally been front-and-center -- "We're super excited about the Wii going forward, as well," says Canessa. "There's always potential to be looking at other platforms such as PlayStation Network and PSP," says Amann. "Those platforms, we haven't really started to focus on yet -- we're trying to follow the casual customer, and not trying to lead them... really, trying to figure out who they are and then make an offering that appeals."

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