The casual games industry should struggle less with "micro-demographics that target 40-year-old cooking soccer moms with two children" and focus on creating more crossover games that play well in both the hardcore and casual space, said PopCap Games CEO David Roberts.
In his keynote address to kick off the second day of the Casual Connect conference in Seattle, Roberts, whose firm helped start the casual boom with Bejeweled
, and whose games Peggle
and Plants Vs. Zombies
have been notable hits of late, took the industry to task for not doing enough to court crossover gamers.
He commented: "If you think about it historically, games have always been played by broad audiences. Games were for men and women, young and old, played on tables in parlors and on laps in cars."
"It really wasn't until sometime in the '70s, when we saw the advent of video games like Pac-Man
and Space Invaders
, that games got hijacked by a new demographic: 14-24 year-old males that started to play in droves, and the whole industry grew around them and thrived."
Industry focus continued to narrow on this demographic, in spite of the fact that it makes up only about 13% of the population.
Roberts likened hardcore game companies to Hollywood studios, whose big budgets and aversion to risk lock them for the most part into blockbuster and sequel-based formulas.
"[The hardcore] industry is controlled by the 800-pound gorillas. They have continued to create larger and more expensive games for smaller audiences. As a necessity, they have to take smaller risks and have multi-million dollar budgets," said Roberts. "Game innovation, I would argue, has all but stopped in the hardcore space, or at least has come to a glacial crawl."
Casual game studios are more like indie film studios, Roberts said. With lower budgets they can take more risks and potentially build games that are more creative.
However, while there's plenty of room for the casual industry to reach the remaining 87% of the population that isn't 14-24 year-old males, Roberts said developers haven't been doing a great job of doing so.
Roberts chastised the casual industry for producing too much of what he called "panderware" - games about cooking and weddings and raising the kids. "Game-a-day portals are conditioning customers not to care about quality or innovation but just to care about getting a game every day. We need to break out of the 'games for Moms' box that we've built for ourselves."
According to Roberts, the casual games industry has also suffered from what he called the "bright shiny light" problem.
"Four years ago, everyone was talking about PC and Mac games on portals and soccer moms were the big new market. There was a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, and everyone could work for six months and make millions. Then mobile came on the scene... Then Flash games: those were going to democratize gaming; free online games were going to change everything - until of course they didn't."
"Somewhere along the way, Club Penguin
sold themselves to Disney and everyone was sure free MMOs aimed at 'tweens were going to make the industry totally change ... and of course this year, if you've been to any of the sessions, the big thing is social. So we've been pretty scattered as an industry going from one bright, shiny light to another, and it's one of the problems that we collectively have to deal with."
"We as an industry have short attention spans ... but also we yearn to try games that are more exciting. The economics allow us as an industry to take some risks that hardcore teams don't."
"About one fifth of the Internet population plays both hardcore and casual games. In our quest for the demographic of soccer moms we miss out on this potentially lucrative demographic," said Roberts.
The casual game executive concluded: "That crossover audience is PopCap's focus. The sheer size is such that we really can't ignore it. If you don't build something that appeals to the crossover audience, you're cutting the audience in half from the very start, and you don't have to be a marketing genius to figure out that this isn't a good idea."
[Gamasutra is presenting its Casual Connect 2009 coverage in association with Gamezebo (http://www.gamezebo.com), the leading editorial and community site for casual games across all platforms. The site features reviews, previews, news, and strategy guides for the latest and greatest in casual games.]