EA Terminates Casual Label

7 11 2008


Electronic Arts confirmed today that they will roll up their casual label, with president of it Kathy Vrabeck leaving and the label itself along with the Hasbro license being merged into their Sims label (as reported by Gamsutra). This quote is particularly interesting:

“We’ve learned a lot about casual entertainment in the past two years, and found that casual gaming defies a single genre and demographic,”

EA Casual was an expensive prototype with interesting results. It makes total sense that casual players have all kinds of tastes and come from all demographics, but it’s the kind of insight many people only have retroactively. For several years, the casual player has been thought of and talked about as a bored mid-thirties housewife, but this isn’t necessarily true.

(Apologies for the neglect over the last two weeks. We’ve been at the London Games Festival where we ran more events than we’ve ever done before, so things have been quite busy).

(CC image by Cosmovisión)

Infovore: Playing Together

28 08 2008

Tom Armitage has given a talk on games and social software entitled “Playing Together” at NLGD and also at Develop. We unfortunately missed it at the latter because we were running Games:EDU a couple of rooms away, but Tom has now posted text and images.

It’s a really broad ranging talk with some great thinking on what humans are and how we use games. It moves through the kind of social circles we engage in, how social software has drawn on playful experiences to cater to those, how people in turn find new ways of playing with things and each other, and what videogame designers might be able to learn from all of this. The large structure makes it difficult to quote from, so I suggest you go and read the whole thing.

And what do you discover about Nike+? You discover there’s a metagame to it. People start syncing late – filling up their run data and then only syncing at the last minute – to disguise how much they’re doing. They mess around!

Nike+ is ticking so many of our boxes: it’s asynchronous; it’s designed perhaps best for small groups; it turns running into a social object, putting it online. It’s a really great example of future for social play.

And it goes where I am: it’s a game that I don’t have to learn how to play. I already know how to run.

(CC image of volleyball by flyzipper)

The Image of Social Games

8 08 2008

A few days ago, Keith Stuart wrote an exceptionally good post on the Guardian Gamesblog, about the current advertising Nintendo are putting out for the DS.

It’s not just targeting older gamers and families, but now everyone, and with a slightly different approach. Very little gameplay footage is shown compared to social interaction, and this is sending a very different and positive message about games out into mainstream culture:

What he doesn’t mention is the way in which the relationship forms the focal point of the ad, not the game. It’s the same with the other adverts in the series (and the earlier versions which appeared at the end of last year), all of them based around warm, playful friendships in which the handheld console becomes a social/conversational facilitator. The message is, games aren’t something you slope off to do in private, they’re something to be shared. They’re normal.

The ads are also interesting in their use of a documentary-style presentation – they appear unscripted and ‘natural’, as though we’re peeping into private moments, as though Patrick Stewart and Julie Walters really do share a love of brain training software.

Go and read the whole post now 🙂

KZero: Virtual Pursuits Breakdown

25 07 2008

KZero have an excellent visualisation of different types of MMO and what age groups play them. There are many there I hadn’t heard of, all neatly categorised. Follow this link for a full size version, and this one for a post by them breaking it down.

(via the infringalicious Wonderland 🙂 Note to KZero – people copying your stuff on the web is a good thing when they point back to you).

NESTA, Innovation In the Games Industry

8 07 2008

Yesterday I went to the NESTA Innovation and Growth in the Games Sector report launch. It was a good event in a well run venue.

The big news was that NESTA are launching a £450,000 fund to address the games industry skill shortage, and TIGA are using some of it to develop a social networking site specifically aimed at job sharing and job swapping, i.e. encouraging professionals from industries such as VFX and animation to join the games industry.

This would be a massive and significant boost to games industry skills, since the overlapping skillsets of such people have been pushed to an extremely high degree of technical competency by the film and television industries.

Rory Cellan-Jones from the BBC gave a good outsider view of the industry, saying that we need to exploit “star power”, we need games industry Alan Sugars and Richard Bransons to emerge. He also talked about the development of videogames news stories, which started out as panic-mongering social issues, but have recently become business stories. In particular, he cited the launch of GTA IV being treated as a cultural and economic event.

Obtaining figures on the industry is very difficult, he said (it’s true), going on to urge us to work towards a single trade body that would present a united front. Quote: “There are two at the moment, and most journalists haven’t heard of either”. Richard Wilson of TIGA later countered this to a certain extent by pointing out that, for instance, the UK chemical industry has over 20 trade bodies, so in comparison the games industry is not doing too badly.

Adam Gee also spoke about Channel 4’s approach to games and interactive, summing things up for traditional media quite pithily I thought: “We’re making a transition to public service broadcaster to public service network”. He also revealed that they’ve been working with Introversion.

I know quite a few people, in various industries, who are quite traditionally trained. They see the internet, user-generated content, crowdsourcing, etc. as a cataclysm, something that will sweep by them leaving only unemployment behind. There are plenty who see this kind of change as an opportunity though, and on that count the games industry seems quite split.

AAA studios look set to keep pumping out big-budget first person shooters, while many smaller companies are rushing in to exploit the opportunities presented by everything from MMOs to mobile and casual. It’s becoming a stereotype that big, traditional studios are lumbering dinosaurs baying under a descending meteor, but that’s not entirely true. Nonetheless, Rory Cellan-Jones’ presentation, along with the people I met there, hit home to me that in some respects right now there is more insight on games coming from people outside the industry than in, and even the latter tend to be from smaller companies you haven’t necessarily heard of. While that may seem gloomy, these people are extremely ahead of the curve compared to most from more established industries.

Plenty more quotes about the NESTA fund over at Develop.

(Image: Jetpack Brontosaurus, now in Alpha).

“Casual” Taking a Chunk From “Hardcore”?

30 06 2008


Ben Cousins, Executive Producer of Battlefield Heroes, claimed this week that

[the] gulf between core and casual games was akin to that of cinema and TV. And, like TV, casual is set to take a chunk out of the core market.

To quote him:

“[Like games retail] cinema is all about your week one box office,” said Cousins. “But, like casual gaming, TV is all about growing your audience over time.

“Cinema and TV now coexist,” he added. “TV didn’t kill cinema, but it took a big chunk out of it.”

Ultimatley, online and web games will “become very mainstream”, predicted Cousins, saying that games will experience the exact same things which film and music have experienced – that is, the move away from hardware-driven delivery of goods to software-driven delivery.

There are a lot of ways to nitpick his argument that I’ll avoid. The main one is that core and casual, like TV and cinema, are both very different things, and games are at a very different position to the one cinema was in when TV came along. Games haven’t yet deposed TV the way TV and radio gutted Vaudeville shows; in the present environment, all media are suddenly struggling to get to grips with digital networks.

I’m not surprised that things may look this way to Cousins from the inside of a large publisher. EA reallocated a lot of resources to the Wii and casual over the past few years, and at first had not been prepared for such a transformation in the market.

However, there’s an established market for “hardcore” games, and while casual may be growing faster at the moment because it was such a neglected market until recently, all sections of games are experiencing growth right now. The traditional gamers aren’t suddenly going to desert FPS and RTS games for Peggle, Bejeweled, or Battlefield heroes.

Cousins cites digital distribution too, and that casual games fit more easily with this, but bandwidth is going up. There are too many trends for simplistic comparisons to be useful right now.

(CC image by bcostin)

Third Party 360s?

27 06 2008


Normally, I wouldn’t bother posting something on the basis of a rumour, but this is the most interesting one I’ve heard in a long time:

We’ll tell you what’s up with Microsoft: new hardware options. It may sound totally insane — trust us, we did a double-take the first time Qmann whispered it in our ears — but word has it that Microsoft may begin allowing third-party manufacturers to create Xbox 360 hardware. And we’re not talking about peripherals, people; we mean hardware that runs 360 game discs created by someone other than Microsoft. It’s a novel way of dealing with that red ring issue, don’t you think?

I think this would quite literally be a stroke of genius.

It would greater enable hardware to adapt to the end of five year cycles through convergence with other devices, e.g. a Blu-Ray 360, or whatever is around in 2 – 4 years time. It seems like a next step from the multiple SKUs that Microsoft has been offering, from the Core to the Elite. TVs, set-top boxes etc could be sold as “360 capable”, sneaking the hardware into all kinds of other sales.

In this respect it’d be the opposite approach to Sony with the PS3: Instead of a high end console that does many other things, licensed 360s could be whatever people primarily wanted, with the capability to play games also in there.

It would mitigate problems like the Red Ring Of Death, while also offloading a lot of Microsoft’s customer support to licensees of the technology. It would allow all kinds of platform tweaks and revisions, ala firmware upgrades for Blu-Ray players. If Microsoft were getting license fees and even royalties, much of the worry about attach rates and marketing would be passed on to third party manufacturers.

It would further help to shed any residual nerdy image gaming has, because manufacturers are likely to try all manner of convergence and aesthetics. This would be especially apt for Microsoft, who have a “men-in-suits” image themselves while many customers for the Xbox are still imagined to be fanboys and stereotypical teenage gamers.

It was an open yet standardised specification coupled with some proprietary technology that allowed the PC to be launched and become such a dominant platform (Though the legal cloning of IBM’s proprietary BIOS probably helped to propel it even further).

Licensing of 360 technology seems a little too good, and too lacking in conservatism, to even possibly be true. Microsoft own the chips this time round though, and could do it. On the downside, the opening of such a platform would probably work in favour of piracy. Nonetheless, Apple, Microsoft and Sony, among others, have all been talking about the convergent future, and money is following. Multiple SKUs and interchangable faceplates seem like a mere stepping stone on the way there.

(CC image: 360 in the fridge by shaymus022)

Casual Games Cost 12K To Develop?

20 06 2008

Speaking at the GameHorizon conference, Geoff Iddison, CEO of Jagex, claimed that it only takes around £12,800 to develop a casual game.

“We launched FunOrb with a low budget, adding games every two weeks. The cost per game is less that $25,000. That’s bearing in mind that we’ve got [development] infrastructure already in place and that it depends on [whether it’s a] single or multiplayer game.”

Perfectly true, but as the commenters point out, they’re making flash games and the work is outsourced to China. Development costs in the UK would be significantly higher, and clearly there’s going to be a larger gamut of budgets running between that and more traditional game development.

What I find more interesting though is the undercurrent to the comments of “Those aren’t proper games!”. Plainly what was once regarded as “the games industry” is becoming the blockbuster part of it, with plenty of other businesses rushing into the lower budget spaces underneath.

Casual is certainly a viable proposition now. To illustrate, here are a few more stories just from the past few days on casualgaming.biz:

Portals will now get developers to sign exclusivity deals. MumboJumbo in particular are seeking to differentiate themselves from other casual game publishers/developers by positioning their games as “premium casual games”.

Majesco’s performance is getting better, and all on the back of non-hardcore game content seen as being aimed at more casual players.

Big media are continuing to rush towards game development with handfuls of cash. Nickleodeon in particular seem to be trying to cover the entire gamut of game development, with everything from two casual portals to console titles.

Pictured above is Peggle, the most perfect casual game yet. A lot of game designers have massive problems with the way it offers disproportionate rewards for what is largely a game of chance, but it sucks in hardcore gamers like nothing else, and with content that’s decidedly not aimed at them. Truly, finger ingested crack.

Phones and Motion

19 06 2008

Sony motion sensing phone

I’ve spoken before about Bruce Sterling citing mobile phones as a “technological black hole”, sucking in a long list of other devices and putting them in our pockets (You can see the talk he raised this in here, about 12m 50s in). Gaming devices are going to be no exception.

We’re a long way off having a phone that can plug into an external display and run games well, but convergence is inevitable. While each new step can easily confuse people at first, the trailing edge catches up until a given form makes sense to people, or fails altogether.

Sony Ericsson’s new motion sensing phone is yet another thing pushing this trend forward, as are the games demoed on the iPhone at Apple’s developer conference last week.

Of course, both of these companies are attempting to capitalise on the popularity of the Wii, but it shows the growing involvement of other sectors with games is spreading beyond the purchase of games companies, and into more deep rooted involvements and collaborations.

Mobile developers have had a difficult time for the past few years, with clunky interfaces, lack of standardisation and weak hardware meaning mobile gaming has been a footnote on the portals of European network operators, earning a pittance in comparison to call charges and ringtones. It’s become a chicken and egg problem, with the lack of attention attracting shovelware while at the same time damning well crafted games.

Better displays, processing power and motion sensing could prove to be the factors that tip mobile gaming into the mainstream. While these phones are nothing on the PSP and DS, they’re certainly surpassing previous generations of handhelds.

Dan Houser: “Fuck all this stuff about casual gaming”

6 05 2008

Boom Blox

Rockstar North have always been very culturally switched on, but now not only are they expressing that in their games, but in the people they talk to publicly as well. Manhunt 2 seemed to signal a big change in the way Rockstar dealt with PR and controversy. They’re out in force to support GTA IV and are doing really well at hitting it home as a cultural event.

It’s easy to take Houser’s words out of context with everyone in the games press using those ones as the headline, but here’s the full quote:

Yeah, fuck all this stuff about casual gaming. I think people still want games that are groundbreaking. The Wii is doing something totally different, which is fantastic. We’re hopefully going to prove that there’s also a very big audience for people who want entertainment in another form, who think of games as being a narrative device that can challenge movies. We always said: We’re not going release a large number of games. They’re going to have the production values of movies. They’re gonna be about themes that interest us whatever the medium, instead of the weird, special video game–only themes that too many people make — orcs and elves, or monsters, or space. We felt you could make a good game and have it be about something we could actually relate to. Or aspire to.

Naturally, a lot of games are staying well away from release dates in the week after GTA IV landed, but interestingly, not Wii title Boom Blox, which is released on May the 9th in Europe. GTA IV will probably have little impact on it, given that the Wii is such a different market.

Together, Houser’s words and Boom Blox are quite a challenge to the shovelware that’s been inundating it (I like the idea of the Wii, but nothing has convinced me to get one yet. I live in hope).

The limits on the craft of games are mainly technical and financial. While it can be difficult and risky to push cultural limits outward by trying new things, the Wii and casual markets seem to have been catastrophically conservative so far.