Casual's Wild Ride

New platforms and new ways of driving revenues are challenging developers and publishers to innovate in gaming

Casual is also a world of emerging development strategies as companies like PopCap figure out how to make new games that appeal to a very broad based of gamers. Take Bejeweled, the popular PopCap puzzle game. It’s one of the most simple and addictive games ever produced. There can hardly be a person reading this feature who has not spent some time twisting those diamonds into pleasing patterns and whooshing away the shapes.

It’s available online in a try-before-you-buy model, as well as via subscriptions and free with advertising. It’s available on mobiles via EA Jamdat. It’s available on Xbox Live Arcade where, surprisingly, PopCap is the number one publisher by revenues. You can also buy it at retail in a box. Casual games will try anything to raise a buck. PopCap’s core model online is try-before-you-buy – a free demo followed by purchase. But it also follows pay-per-play models, subscription and even advertising.

You’ve gotta feel for the guy who works those Excel sheets. I ask director of business development James Gwertzman, which lines return the best results? “It’s not like there’s any one row that really stands out,” he says. “Customers have their own preferred way of playing our games.”

Games can be bought from the firm’s own site, but are generally consumed through partner portals like Yahoo and MSN. “In some cases a partner comes to us saying ‘here’s our set of business models, please support these’. But they’re principally all driven by a realization that customers online have very different desires. The explosion of business models has been a response to the different ways customers want to pay for these games.”

He explains, “Some customers want to own a game. They want to pay their money, own the game, know it’s theirs forever, put it on their laptop, take it away and travel with it. Generally those customers are very loyal to one or two games.

“Then there are customers who don’t really care about owning a game but want to have the ability to play any game, so they go for subscription models. There are other customers who buy a lot of games and enjoy volume discount programs. Other people are only interested in cash-prize tournament play programs. There’s customers who don’t really want to pay any money but are happy to see ads every so often.”

Partner Preferences

Different models suit different portals. Yahoo prefers ads, having a large but unfocussed audience. Real Networks sells games because its audience is there, looking to buy. PopCap says it’s happy to try just about any innovative new model, but that it’s looking to limit the number of partners it works with to just lager entities. The company has grown from its core emphasis on product development to business development.

“We have a much bigger business team now, and better customer support team. As a result we’ve been able to explore a lot of these areas like retail and mobile.” But the firm says it won’t focus on its own website as a destination. “We really don’t want to compete with our partners. We’re not completely ignoring our traffic and our website has grown based on the strength of our brand and but you’re not going to see us taking out big ads or trying to drive traffic.”

The company’s development culture is one that might seem chaotic to many creators. Perhaps it’s the smallness of the games that allows this laissez faire attitude. Gwertzman  explains, “We have literally no schedules, no milestones, no design documents. No one has a clipboard saying, ‘well how are these games doing?’  When a game is built the producer and the game designer kind of know where it is in the process but our games really and truly aren’t released until they’re ready to ship. Sometimes it can take two and a half years.”

Two and a half years for a casual game? That seems to be the outside limit. “Sometimes it can take nine months.

But  every person in our studio can come to work in the morning knowing that if they do something that day that isn’t that great they can throw it out and come back and start over the next day.”

Unlike regular game development, the casual game comes together like an experimental dish. “We start a lot of products and we throw out because we know they’re not going to be fun enough to ship,” he says.

Most games do not come up to the standards of Bejeweled, which has helped define the new era of casual games. But PopCap is always looking for new titles. “Bejeweled is an amazing game. It’s canonical for the space. But I think our most recent game Peggle as a lot of potential.”

Copyright Conundrum

Like Bejeweled it seems sorta familiar and yet fresh at the same time. The game is a bit like Breakout but it goes a lot further than that game. The look and sound of these games is also extremely important, as much as the gameplay.

Gwertzman says, “Certainly a lot of our games have been inspired by traditional existing mechanics but we really try so hard to add significant innovation in everything that we do; to really have our games stand out, especially in the last couple of years.”

He adds, “There have been so many companies that have been inspired too closely by what has come before. There are games that are pretty similar and that’s one of the sources of a lot of debate in the industry right now. If companies want to do that then good luck to them, but we’re not interested.”

Creating a clone is easy, and, of course copy protection is an area of weakness for originators.“There’s not a lot of legal protection,” says Gwertzman. “Copyright law says if someone steals your music or your art or your sound effects, then you have a case but traditional gameplay cannot be copy protected. Just because a game has the same mechanics or plays the same doesn’t mean you have a case.

“You can change the art and change the music and change the sounds and you’re good to go. Right now that raises the issue of people patenting game mechanics, and that’s the only way to actually protect yourself. But that’s a really complicated process and historically in the game industry there’s been a lot of reluctance to do that because there is this realization that games do stand on the shoulders of each other. You know, Half Life was inspired by Quake and yet I would argue it’s a fabulous kind of step. Our own game Zuma was inspired by a game called Puzzle Loop and there’s been a lot of debate about this. I would say you play them side by side, you’ll see that we spent a lot of time significantly innovating and built a game that’s very different and,  I think, a much better game than Puzzle Loop.

“We were inspired by that mechanic and so I can’t stand up and say that being inspired by another game is bad, we’ve done it ourselves. What I can say is, when you take a game and all you’re doing is literally just replacing the art, replacing the files and saying now we’re releasing it, that I do think crosses the line.”

Obvious, badly marketed clones are not attractive to partner companies like EA, Micrtosoft, Yahoo or Mumbo Jumbo, which sells Popcap’s games at retail. “They’re all looking for fresh content that will drive audiences and purchases,” says Gwertzman.”

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