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.
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.
You really need to get back to this.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.