I’m back from Casual Connect in Seattle. It’s a smallish gaming conference for folks in the casual games space , which encompasses basically any game that isn’t a disc- or cartridge-based console (Xbox 360/Wii/PS3/DS/PSP) title. There’s a little bit of cross-over on the two leading handheld consoles, but most of the folks at the conference were either in the casual downloadable space, or inventing ways to take money from those people.
It was my first time at the conference. With a tight economy, i hadn’t planned to go, until my colleague Kala from Alien Concepts here in Toronto clued me in to the fact that the Canadian feds were comping $550 passes to the show. Can’t beat that.
If you weren’t able to attend, let’s save you five hundred bucks. Here are the things everyone couldn’t shaddup about.
These are games tied to social networks like MySpace and Twitter – but mostly Facebook, with its oft-cited 250 million active member install base. That’s ACTIVE members. Facebook defines an active member as someone who’s logged in at least once in the past thirty days.
Tired of seeing endless messages in the stream like “So-and-so from your grade ten biology class who you friended just to be polite just gifted a virtual tchotchke to that girl you had a crush on from cadet camp who’s really let herself go since her skiing accident”? Expect to see a LOT more noise along those lines in the near future, as game developers harness the power of social media spam to get the word out about their (usually) microtransaction-based social games.
Think Facebook is spammy NOW? Wait a year.
MochiMedia unveiled their new MochiCoins system to compete with a few others in the increasingly crowded payment provision space. MochiCoins uses a digital wallet that players can fill with fake cash (using their real cash, via credit cards and various other means). Then, players spend their coins on bonus content and digital bric-a-brac in any of the (soon-to-be) bajillions of Flash games that implement the system. A number of these types solutions have been released for Flash developers, (HeyZap, GamerSafe) and the whole thing is well worth a separate article.
Payment Providers Aplenty
i couldn’t walk a few feet through the conference hall without slamming into a payment provider booth. These are joints that set you up with online transaction pages so that you can charge real money for your digital crap, and there are SCADS of them. The companies take a cut of whatever sales you rack up. Their percentage depends on how much crap you sell. They don’t give you a lot of love if you’re a small studio like Untold Entertainment, because they don’t stand to make a lot of money on you in the very near future. Forget about treating people well when they’re small to foster a strong relationship when the company grows. Most of these companies are all about making money NOW, baby! Yeah! Oh, garçon! More cocaine, please.
The sheer number of payment providers at Casual Connect left a strong scent of snake oil
The Long Tail
Please stop using this term. It makes my left eye twitch.
Building Strong Brands and Innovating
The call for innovation rings out loud and true at many conference, i’m sure – even gatherings of paperclip manufacturers and vacuum cleaner salesman. Innovation is a good thing, and no one can disagree with you if you stand on a stage and thump the podium, driving home your plea for differentiation. What most speakers don’t do, however, is tell the audience how to innovate. Why give away great ideas at a show when you can execute them yourself? So you wind up with a bunch of panels and lectures with everyone on stage stressing the need to innovate, everyone in the audience agreeing, and nothing getting accomplished. One only has to look at the throngs of hidden object or match-3 games on portals, or the flagrant farm game rip-offs on Facebook, to know that there are those who innovate, and there are those who clone. I know which side of that equation i’d like to be on.
Casual Gaming: Attack of the Clones
But a word about strong brands: i got a lot of strange looks when i told people the name of our newest game, Interrupting Cow Trivia. That’s because it’s a stupid name. But it’s stupid by design. We went through a pile of name ideas before settling on ICT that were even crazier – Welfare-Dependant Antelope Trivia and Obsessive-Compulsive Aardvark Trivia are two that come to mind before we settled on Interrupting Cow Trivia, which is a little more familiar to people because of the knock-knock joke.
Sideline! I’m amazed that some people aren’t familiar with the joke. Here it is:
– Knock, knock!
– Who’s there?
– Interrupting cow,
– Interrupting c…
The whole strategy behind picking a nutzoid name for that game is (hopefully) obvious. If we named the thing Super IQ Trivia or Brain Buster Knowledge-O-Matic Trivia or Thinky-Pants Trivia, you’d probably forget the title pretty quickly, and the game would be lost amid piles of generically-named trivia products. We haven’t said much about the graphic style of the game, but it also doesn’t make a lot of sense. It’s a rather different look for a trivia game. Just one more way we’re hoping to create a jarring, disruptive presence online and stick out in people’s brainheads.
Throw Mama from the Train
One of the distinct advantages of the casual games business is that it’s like Gigantipus, an enormous sea squid slowly converting non-gamers to gaming addicts with its terrifying robo-tentacles and face-melting eyeball beams. The portal owners and portal game developers have long boasted to the core console side of the business that they’ve landed the coveted female demographic, creating games and services that appeal to 35-year-old (and up) soccer moms. Their words, not mine. “Soccer moms.” i wondered how many non-North American audience members understood the term (in Canada, it’s usually “hockey moms”). These are usually high-strung, type-A personality women who drive their kids to soccer practice in SUVs, inhaling coffee and getting a little too involved in the competitive and social aspects of their kids’ lives.
This past week at Casual Connect, many of the speakers dreamed of reaching a demographic beyond soccer moms. It all had an air of world domination, but in a good way … in a way that makes everyone’s eyes bug out and go bloodshot as they try to match just three more gems.
Who wouldn’t want this lady in his target demo?
Here are a few things that weren’t spoken of very often, which surprised me.
I expect this to be the buzzword at Casual Connect 2009. Augmented reality is bleeding edge visual technology where (generally) graphics are overlayed on a device’s video camera display, often using awareness of the user’s position and direction. The classic example is a user pointing his smartphone around a mall, and in the video camera image on the phone he sees little graphic fly-outs popping out of the stores saying “50% off fattening cinnamon buns here!” and “more crap you don’t need but are gonna purchase anyway over here!” It’s a lot like the shopping mall scene in Minority Report, except that the user actually requests this noise using a device he paid six hundred dollars for.
Here’s a very cool example of Augmented Reality in games:
The Futility of Ad-Supported Free-to-Play
Many of the panels were well-represented by companies like MochiMedia and AdMob protecting their interests and squawking about the amazing distribution potential, customer engagement and accessibility that ad support lends to their games. Of course, what they weren’t saying is that the eCMP rate is utter trash, and that precious few developers can ever hope to make an honest wage solely by injecting ads. It seems to do alright business for the likes of MochiMedia, though, who threw a swanky open-bar party at the Fairmont hotel.
Check out our Pimp My Game series if you haven’t already. It chaffs me that i’ve cooked up a cool eighty dollars in a YEAR by running one of my games through multiple monetization schemes, including MochiAds, Flash Game License and Kongregate. My new plan was to make up the difference by drinking a few thousand dollars worth of booze at the MochiMedia party. But since i don’t drink, it’d have to be Coca-Cola, and i’m not sure i could manage it. But i was tempted to give it a shot – that’s what matters. Watch yourselves, Mochi.
(i rag on the MochiMedia people a lot, but i finally had the chance to meet a few of them and they were lovely people. But even a shark has a gleaming smile before it chews your hip bones out of your body)
The Embarrassing Number of Rip-Offs in Casual Gaming
This was touched on a few times in the panels i attended, but nowhere did anyone apologize for the flagrant and downright embarrassing amount of copying going on in casual gaming. Dave Rorhl (a nice guy in his own right) with a straight face, and without apology, discussed the Facebook hit game Farm-Something, and his own company Playdom’s utter knock-off Farm-Something-Else, with a passing nod to Zynga’s Farm-Whatever. Dave just left Zynga a short time ago. He also discussed Playdom’s Also a Mafia Game, an “homage” to the inexplicably popular shopping list-inspired Facebook hit A Mafia Game. No batting of eyes. Not a single red-faced, navel-gazing mutter of explanation or justification.
What are we – Hollywood?
Here at Untold Entertainment, our games are not completely unique either. Kahoots™ uses a fairly well-known math mechanic, and Interrupting Cow Trivia is inspired by Internet Relay Chat-style trivia bots. There’s nothing wrong with taking what works and spinning it in your own game. But these farm and hidden object games are the online equivalent to the toy section at the dollar store, where you can pick up a few “G.I. Jon” action figures, and something called a “Slunky”.
The galaxy trembles before Dorth Vudder
Why farming, Dave? Why not take what works and set it somewhere else, like outer space or a toy factory or at a summer camp or at the mall? I think we can all aspire to something better.
P.S. … Moo.