The Casual Connect Clusterflux

i’m at the Seattle airport waiting for a flight, and i thought i’d blog about the Casual Connect conference i attended this week.

CGA Logo

The conference is held by the Casual Games Association, or Cuh-GAAAAH for short.

This was my second time at the conference, and like most repeat visits to places, the show lost a lot of its lustre for me. i’m just going to offer my Monet-like, impressionistic view of the show without going into gory detail like i usually do, because you’re very busy and you have awesome things to do.

Juggling Chainsaws

You really need to get back to this.

Hive Mind

Casual Connect is a conference of singularity. The show itself hosts mostly casual game industry companies – these are the folks who pioneered the “pay $20, download a match-3 desktop game” model in the early aughts. They were essentially riffing on the shareware model, where they’d offer a free time- or feature-limited trial, and the customer would pay to unlock the full experience. Companies like Big Fish Games, Pogo, and GameHouse/Real Networks became content aggregators, the game-centric equivalents of TUCOWS and Download.com, and they grew massive audiences of mostly soccer moms who lapped up games and genres that are largely derided by “real” gamers. These were games like Match-3 (Bejewelled), HOGs/Hidden Object Games (Mystery Case Files) and other light, friendly and very dumbed-down puzzle games engineered to have wide appeal to the lowest common denominator of players.

Haunted Manor: Lord of Mirrors

Vanilla character design, baroque artwork and mindless gameplay are the hallmarks of these games.

i say the show is singular, because the casual games industry really gets on these kicks. Once the industry is riding a wave, it’s all you hear about. Five years ago at GDC, it was the casual downloadable model that i just mentioned. Last year, everyone was nuts about social games on Facebook. It’s all i heard.

This year was interesting. The conference had one common focus: lack of focus.

Agreeing to Disagree

The buzz this year, even more than last year when social was exploding, was that the casual downloadable payment model is either dead or dying, depending on who you talk to. Companies like Big Fish Games, who made their millions on that model, naturally begged to differ. They attempted to show that the model was actually growing by 20-30% every year. In one talk, Big Fish’s Sean Clark interestingly turned it back around on social, reminding everyone that in there was a massive disparity between the money Zynga was raking in, and the money that the other 9 companies in the top 10 were earning … and that once you leave the top 10, the drop-off is precipitous. Big Fish’s corporate line is now to call social a “red herring”, or as two Big Fish employees repeated to me, a “distraction”.

Oz behind the curtain

Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain! I am the great and powerful Big Fish Games!

That’s actually how i’ve long felt about social. You hear these fantastic success stories about the space, but you really only hear them about three or four companies. i don’t run one of those companies. My best strategy there is to release something on Facebook, trump myself up and hope to get bought by Playdom or some other social company. That’s not what i want out of this life. Very early in the show, i had a brief chat with Erik Bethke, whose company was bought by Zynga. i’ve heard Erik talk about his game GoPets for years at GDC and elsewhere, and i found it really sad to see him swallowed up by Zynga, and to have his game shut down. When i expressed that sentiment to a few folks at the conference, they said “it must have been worth the money.” i remain conflicted about it.

GoPets

Party’s over: hand in all your virtual goods, players.

The gatekeeper issue is the single largest factor keeping me from charging into Facebook game development. Just before production stalled on Interrupting Cow Trivia a few months ago, we were working on adding Facebook Connect integration to the game. Not long afterward, Facebook yanked the feature entirely. And enough articles have been written on the 30% drop in traffic social games receive in what the Casual Connect crowd dubs the “post-viral era”, after Facebook changed its policies around how game devs can tap into the graph to spam the users about their games. Very shortly, we expect Facebook to cut out all external payment providers and force devs to use Facebook credits. i run a really small shop, and simply lack the money and time to constantly tune my games according to the whims of a gatekeeper.

Ghostbusters Gatekeeper

Let’s show this prehistoric bitch how we do things downtown.

Robotic Game Design

Beyond downloads vs social, the other big argument going on this year was data-driven design vs what i’ll call “organic” design. If you can coin a better term, please let me know. Data-driven design is like flying a plane by the dials. You release something half-baked to the audience, load it up with tracking hooks, and build out the rest of the game using heavy A/B testing to figure out what they players are interested in.

Canadian

Flying by the dials can produce impressive results, but it doesn’t preclude people crashing and dying.

Organic game design is old-school. You come up with an idea for a game that you think people would like to play. Then you build that game and hope for the best.

Nowhere was this issue laid bare more than at the six-person panel i attended on day two, which was stacked with head honchos from Sandlot Games, Playrix, Large Animal, HipSoft, Last Day of Work and Shockwave/MTV. The panel was called “Taking Your Games to the Next Level: Investing In Your IP”, but it should have been called “Sassy bitch slap-fight”. i like a contentious panel discussion, and this one didn’t disappoint.

The thread running through the talk, punctuated by the terse exchanges between George Donovan of Gogii Games and Last Day of Work’s Arthur Humphrey, was this data-driven vs organic design debate. George is all about spending as little money as possible to develop games that ride the wave of whatever his metrics tell him is most popular on the casual games portals. Arthur is about developing games passionately, and sinking a lot of money into them to make them the best experiences possible.

Bring It On

This is an actual photo i took of George Donovan and Arthur Humphrey at the event. (Arthur is the black teenaged girl cheerleader on the right.)

i assume both approaches have merit, because both of these girls remain in business. It won’t surprise you to know that i side with folks like Arthur on this debate. i make video games because i like video games. i don’t want to fly by the dials and develop dramatically dumbed-down experiences to please Midwest soccer moms desperate for an escape, for whom casual games have become a substitute for Harlequin Romance paperbacks. No thanks. Design-by-data has made a lot of money for a lot of people, but it’s also ruined a lot of stuff (read up on the test audience that demanded a happy ending for Little Shop of Horrors. Why i oughta …).

Call me a terrible, irresponsible bidnessman, but i’m led by my passion. i would much rather create build games by my gut, intuition, and love of the medium, hoping that i find that perfect mix of creative ingenuity and luck, than to deliver rote me-too experiences according to what the top ten charts told me was popular a month ago. If i wanted to do that, there are plenty of service jobs that demand far less time and mental energy from me.

Buy Our Crap

i may as well raise this post to full-fledged rant status by calling out the (many) speakers who used their sessions solely to promote their companies (Joel Breton of Addictinggames, i’m looking at you). Google ran a Trojan horse session where they roped everyone in ostensibly to talk about their upcoming Google Chrome Marketplace, and used scant information on that to house a long-winded ad for HTML5.

This is starting to annoy me far more than speakers who leave the mouse cursor in the middle of a video during a presentation. i don’t spend thousands of dollars and fly across the continent to attend hour-long commercials for your products. Put in a quick plug, point me to the brochures at the back of the room, and then tell me something useful. Or shut up.

In Summary

So there it is: Casual Connect Seattle left me with the impression that the chinks in the industry’s armour are showing up all over the place. Confusion, conflict and uncertainty reign. It’s an industry dominated by business types paying passing lip service to the creative work that fuels the money flow, and whatever scant creativity does exist is being eroded by a hit-driven, top 10 sales chart mentality.

And then we die.

20 thoughts on “The Casual Connect Clusterflux

  1. Alex Schearer

    I was debating attending this year so I’m glad to read some of your impressions. One thing that stood out was your discussion on data driven design versus “organic design”. I think you’ve set up a false dichotomy to justify your position. I think a better title for “data driven design” would be “experiment driven design” because ultimately it’s about what theories you come up with and how you verify them.

    In my opinion there’s still plenty of room for creativity and passion in formulating your theory of fun and designing experiments to verify it. In fact how you go about those things would look exactly like what game designers traditionally do. The real advantage comes when you have to convince the Highest Paid Person in the Room. When you have data demonstrating that his theory is not as effective on key metrics you both agree on then there really isn’t much more to be said.

    Reply
    1. Ryan

      Alex – agreed. Twice now (at GDC and Casual Connect) i’ve heard that data-driven design helps to steamroll any egos in the room. If the numbers say otherwise, there’s nothing for it.

      i do worry about handing too much control to the numbers, because we act as if it’s a scientific approach, when it may not be. Imagine a scenario where you’ve spent a bunch of time, money and love developing (say) a level design feature. Your metrics show that far fewer players use that feature than those who play the single-player mode. Data-driven design demands that you scrap the feature, and rally your efforts around the single-player stuff – and the big ego quietly sobbing in the back of the room be damned.

      BUT … was your approach really scientific? Data does not equal science. It’s very possible that the reason your players keep missing the feature is a user experience/user interface fault. And that’s not necessarily going to show up in your data.

      We’re bordering on a classic sci-fi argument of machines vs. people here! :) Numbers can certainly help, but you gotta have soul.

      Reply
      1. Alex Schearer

        Again, I don’t think the choice is between “soul” and “data-driven”. As you say, what questions you ask, how you measure, and what you do with the data all influence the results. The point is that given the medium we work with it’s possible to create a hypothesis and test it. It doesn’t tell you what to do once you’ve verified your hypothesis. That’s where creativity, personality, and passion come into play.

        Reply
  2. Kevin

    I really enjoyed the candidness of this post, I’ve been to a few conferences myself where I also wanted to say similar things. I don’t think anybody wants to hear pitches positioned as sessions. There also is no value when everybody congratulates themselves and avoids having conversations/debates about the larger picture .

    What direction do you think the conference should have gone? Is social still viable or could specific aspects of popular social games be integrated within the online gaming landscape?

    Reply
    1. Ryan

      Kevin – social is very viable, particularly if you’re Zynga. i’d like to see it help far more companies do gangbusters business. It just feels like Zynga has all the marbles right now. At the Casual Connect conference last year, they even said so themselves: they told the crowd not to get into social, because they were already so far ahead of the pack it would be impossible to catch them. This was a few weeks after they launched Farmville. Of course, most of that was likely posturing, but as it turns out, they’re right. So far.

      i got a little weary that the conference constantly put the very biggest, wealthiest and most powerful people up on the stage. There’s a great deal of bidness acumen i can absorb from these session, but there’s a far greater amount of material that’s impossibly out of my reach. These companies are just operating on magnitudes of scale that so savagely dwarf the size of my operation … it’s like if i was an independent folk/rock band attending a conference like SXSW, and all the speakers were U2, Lady Gaga, the Rolling Stones and their management teams.

      So in addition to putting all the usual suspects on stage, it would have been nice to hear from much smaller oufits so that the rest of us could feel like we had a chance to play. The precious few talks i saw on content – you know, the actual games – were a drink of water in the desert. i enjoy content talks when they are post mortems covering the speakers’ mistakes and learnings, rather than (again) showcases for products.

      Reply
  3. Tim

    Wow. I mean. Just. Wow.
    I hung on every word. I was laid off by a small studio jumping into this social space, when consultants decided – “No, you can’t be profitable at it”. Now, I’m on the market banging in the doors of these me-too game makers to earn my living. We need more like you Ryan. Keep it up, you have a new reader.

    Reply
  4. Joseph Cassano

    Glad to hear some support for “organic” game design, as you call it. I would much rather play something disastrous forged with passion than something “fun” that is largely soulless.

    Reply
    1. Ryan

      Joe – i think you’ve cooked up a viable tagline for me. “Spellirium: Disastrous and Forged with Passion!”

      Reply
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  6. Facebook Indie Games

    For the last few years every Casual Connect has presented some new, revolutionary method for extracting huge amounts of money out of idiots. This year there was no new way. Casual game developers have to work out how to run a business like everybody else, without new bandwagons arriving every five minutes.

    Reply
  7. Bwakathaboom

    That’s pretty tough talk from Big Fish Games considering the past year they’ve had the stink of desperation wafting off them. I’m willing to bet a large chunk of their growth is based on the clawing back of their formerly generous affiliate program. Between that and cutting out 3rd party developers it looked like Big Fish Games was trying to position themselves for a sale. In the end Amazon picked up Reflexive games but I wonder if BFG was also on their shopping list at one point.

    The slavery to metrics is why gaming has little to no culture. Art has to bear some reflection of the creatives who made it. Even the worst of the bubblegum pop movies and music tend to have distinct looks and sounds based on the artists who created the work. Farmville has no such distinction, neither does Gears of War – they could have come from any studio. The creatives (writers, designers, programmers) behind the games are treated as utterly interchangeable.

    The metric-centric approach also plays into the “studio” culture of the games industry where the executives reap and burn all of the revenue while the developers’ pay rates remain largely static. For the $5 billion dollar valuation, I wonder how many millionaires work at Zynga (outside of the executive offices).

    Reply
  8. Joseph Burchett

    Great article, sadly I was unable to attend but it seems you summed it all up pretty nicely :-) About that data-driven vs organic design talk, man, wish I could have seen that talk; “Sassy bitch slap-fight”, ha! But that really seems like the whole “indie vs corporate” or “hippy vs ‘the man'”, I don’t see why both can’t work. Use the data to drive the organic design. I am a huge fan of having large amounts of data to study the different patterns of the user and to tweak the game accordingly (especially with social).

    Also even though I totally agree with having to obey the gatekeepers rules sucks especially for a small shop, I can’t help but think that Interrupting Cow Trivia would have done much better if it was a facebook game… I mean the way you built it was already pretty social, oh well :-/

    Reply
  9. Rob Anderson

    Great read.
    I took much the same opinion from the conference but I suspect that it being my first time I also had more of the sparkle in my eyes.
    It’s funny, having spent so many years in the TV Animation world I have seen this happen before. An explosive growth in an emerging market that all of a sudden sees itself as either stabilizing or collapsing.
    What I got out of the conference is that the big players are in a bit of a panic concerning the growth that they no longer see as taking place. I would disagree that there is no more growth or that “virality” is dead, as one speaker put it.
    I am convinced more than ever that the world of the small developer is alive and well as it is being run by conscientious and well educated folks like yourself. Sure the Zynga bucks may be nearly impossible to attain at the moment but so what? Never before have we seen such a huge collection of potential consumers in one platform. A platform that allows for such a massive variety of content.
    As for metrics, data is only as good as how you interpret it. Ignoring it is a mistake in my thinking but using it to make a better story/game is great. Just know that it will only help you depending on your own experience and ability to weather risk.
    That isn’t to say that you should go as far as some of the market research that has been done for major films and such. I hear that movies that have a main character who is a cop sell better if he is suicidal and lives in a trailer park near the ocean…

    Reply
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  11. Bonnie

    I am a former player of GoPets and we were told they sold the company because they ran out of money to be able to fund it (they were developing content with people who were not being paid specifically for their work on GoPets and were no where close to breaking even with subscriptions). I think the game would have been more successful had the staff not gotten so personally involved with the customers as it led to a lot of strife when business decisions had to be made. The game heavily relied on forums for interaction and that was a big part of its downfall. The creators/owners were buddies with the moderators and they were not all unbiased judges. When a new UI was introduced and FULL of bugs, I remember a moderator in particular stating that they didn’t understand what all the complaints were about because Microsoft also had bugs. The comment should have been “We understand there are problems and we are working hard to resolve them and compensate users for the time they are not able to properly play the game.”

    The people who created the game and who were in control of business decisions had gotten so friendly with the users that the users forgot that it was a business. When changes had to be made and users weren’t listened to, users took it as a personal insult and left the game – often taking other users with them.

    There was A LOT right about the game, but there was a lot wrong, too. I really hope Erik learns from his mistakes and brings a similar game out in the future because I will be very happy to invest my time in it again and give him another shot.

    Reply
    1. Ryan Henson Creighton

      i really wonder how much of that is player drama. i worked on an online kids’ game, and there were people there all the time saying “i’m quitting!” on the boards, because they wanted to gauge how loved they were by the community. They’d often return within the month.

      It’s hard to say whether getting close to your fanbase is a good thing or a bad thing. Gene Endrody tells some interesting stories about his game, Sherwood Dungeon, and the very close relationship he enjoys (?) with his players.

      i agree, though, that when mods appear to be ignoring valid customer feedback, there’s a problem. Sounds like GoPets had their mods focusing on spin to buy time while they nervously fought to fix the problem in the background.

      Reply
      1. Bonnie

        I’m not speaking of the usual player drama. =) There was oodles of that, which follows every game with a community. (There weren’t as many kids playing GP as there should have been – the game for those under 18 was strictly buy things directly from the GP’s store and interact with only your pet. They couldn’t buy user-made items and they couldn’t be sent anything from other accounts. As a result, most kids who tried the game left without doing the usual – lie about their age – and most of the userbase was college kids and the older folks into casual gaming.)

        I’m specifically remembering a time when players would complain about the game and the chief programmer’s wife (who was a mod), would come along and tell those players that their complaints were a personal attack and if they weren’t careful, they’d be banned from the forum and the game (and no, none of the complaints were “x is stupid”.) Paying users became afraid to post their opinions because the board became divided into to factions – the players who thought the staff could do no wrong vs. the players who enjoyed the game, but knew they were also paying customers and deserved a working product.

        I’m sure being close to your userbase works well if you have the personality for it – and the thick-skin to handle complaints as just that – complaints – and not personal insults. GP was very much lacking people with good customer service skills. People were placed in jobs that they were definitely not qualified for and when those jobs involve interacting with your customers who you want to be happy – happy enough to part with their money on a regular basis – you get problems.

        Reply

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