Kicking off the Casual Connect conference, MumboJumbo CEO Mark Cottam introduced a number of key players in Microsoft's casual games initiatives both with Xbox Live Arcade, and its own dedicated Casual Games group.
Cottam greeted the some 1200 attendees of the conference by highlighting the broadening demographics and hard numbers of the casual audience, noting that at this point 74 percent of woman pay for the casual game experience, compared with 50 percent of men. "We need to keep broadening our content and get those men," he added.
"What started as web games and then downloadable games have become a mainstream market," he said. "We've grown to 2 billion dollars by 2008," adding that by 2011 that could be could be as much as $11 to $15 billion.
Cottam then introduced the general manager of the Games for Windows - Live initiative, Chris Early. Early said that the group started as the 'online games group' and made a priority to first get its name straight. We made a footprint in the industry, said Early, but the group still wanted to do more.
Microsoft is split into three areas of gaming - Xbox, Games for Windows, and the Casual group, with the latter, said Early, becoming ever more a part of our lives.
Early pointed to a number of other Microsoft employees as leaders in the casual game space, including Bryan Trussel, who was promoted to product unit manager
for Xbox Live Arcade following Early's own move to Windows Live manager,
Casual strategic planner, Scott Hartley, Game Technology Group director Scott Henson, Microsoft Casual's Shawn McMichael, and
Carbonated Games' Dave Albert (UNO, Hexic
Next, Microsoft Casual general manager Marc Whitten was introduced. "I have been with the Xbox since it was a small team," said Whitten who was general manager of the accessories unit. In our first year," he said, "We made more money in our accessories than any other part.
"We learned a lot from our first Xbox," he admitted. "We learned that we couldn't get the same level of enjoyment for all people who played the Xbox... We learned that we couldn't evolve the Xbox system the way we wanted to."
That, he said was a large part of what drove the company "to have a continuous consistent service for the Xbox 360."
Whitten said that as the entire industry grows, the casual game market is showing the biggest growth with an influx of capital, more mergers, more acquisitions, and more new IP.
He added that things are rapidly changing in both the core and casual gaming markets, and that even the gamers themselves are starting to look at games different and beginning to merge.
On the business side, core games have the usual boxed retail and subscription models, which can lead to narrowing of genres and high price risks. This isn't seen in the casual market, he said. Time, money, and developer team sizes can all be smaller and allow for more risk.
These new risks are starting to attract core gamers to a larger degree, citing Guitar Hero
and Wii Sports
as perfect examples of games that are simultaneously appreciated by both casual and core gamers. "We think that there will be more of that in the future," said Whitten.
But, he said, "in the same way we need to get away to the 30 million dollar games, we need to change the casual game market," adding that Microsoft believes it "can build connections with these groups."
Live Arcade is one of those connections, he explained, calling it the "birth of the casual in next generation consoles." With 45 million downloads, 65 million hours played on the service, Xbox Live Arcade is bridging that gap.
Whitten noted that Gastronaut's Small Arms
was played "more than any other game" in the first week of its release -- more than Madden
, he added. He pointed to the success of Blitz's Burger King games as well, with some 3.1 million games sold, and to Microsoft's XNA initiative, which he said is lowering the boundaries of game making.
Though, he said, Microsoft believes "the gamer who plays Peggle
and Gears of War
are different," he closed with a slide showing a mobile phone, PC, Xbox 360, Microsoft TV, Windows Messenger, and a Zune surrounding a game of UNO
as a guidepost to where Microsoft sees the industry moving.
"This is the growth area in the gaming industry," said Whitten, "PERIOD.