As happens from time to time, I ended up sparking an interesting conversation the other day that got me thinking about the current state of where gaming is and where it’s going. It started out innocently enough, with a link to a study commissioned by a mobile gaming advertising company that “proved” that consumers like in game ads and will spend more when presented with them.
Before going any further, a note on WildTangent, which is the company commissioning said study. They are a historically scummy company. In fact, if you ran Windows in the first half of the last decade, you probably had their software on your computer and didn’t even know it. Their software got silently installed along with AIM, among other things, until Spybot identified them as spyware, which they of course denied, because they were providing a useful service that you didn’t even know you wanted until you had it (at which point you probably still didn’t want it). Of course, much like the mighty cockroach, these companies never truly die; they just find different victims to feed off of until the next exterminator comes along. So the discussion really isn’t about the validity of this particular study, which I’m pretty inclined to believe is flawed.
What really got me thinking, however, was this post that came out of the ensuing conversation around the study. And this is a really important point that needs some further examination, because whenever anyone puts out statistics around the demographics of gamers, it looks like an extremely large number, and it is. The underlying truth, though, is that the gamer population is split into two fairly distinct camps of casual and core gamers, and there doesn’t seem to be very much overlap between the two groups. One of the reasons behind that seems to be that there’s a fairly deep resentment of core gamers toward casual gamers, which is understandable given the circumstances but which ultimately can prove counterproductive in the long term.
I think what’s important to understand is that core gamers are experiencing a kind of existential crisis brought on by the sudden rush of casual games, particularly on iOS. When a casual gamer looks at something like Candy Crush or Flappy Bird, they see a fun way to kill a few minutes while waiting in line or relaxing before bed. A core gamer, on the other hand, looks at these games and sees glorified slot machines and poorly designed shovelware, respectively. On their own, this isn’t an issue; there’s an element of elitism there, sure, but the real problem is that these games are making an obscene amount of money. Gaming, like any entertainment industry today, is a primarily hit-driven business. When The Avengers makes it big at the box office, for instance, suddenly every other movie has superheroes in it. So the fear is that the big publishers see that they really only have to put in a bare minimum amount of actual gameplay into a game to make lots of money, so there will be no motivation to spend the kinds of resources on the big-budget games that core gamers want to play.
This has already come to pass to a great extent on the App Store, where the top grossing charts in the games category are full of free to play games that are essentially variations on two or three themes. You have to scroll down to #14 (as of this writing) to get to Minecraft, the first paid game on the list, which maintains its place there because Minecraft is less a game than it is a force of nature; the next paid game on the list is Pixel Gun 3D at #63. As a result, the overall quantity of non-freemium games has decreased dramatically over the past twelve months. A report was released this week stating that 92% of game revenue in the App Store comes from in app purchases, which is an astounding number.
So, for all intents and purposes, the wonderland that the App Store was supposed to represent has gone away, and what you end up with is Flappy Bird, which by itself isn’t a bad thing, but it represents lost opportunity. On the one hand, you could look at Flappy Bird as a prime example of the opportunity that the App Store offers; this guy just put out a simple game and became a global phenomenon, after all. But to core gamers, Flappy Bird represents mediocrity winning out over good game design; there are probably a hundred games with similar mechanics in the App Store that are better designed and more fun, but since they cost 99 cents, they’re banished to the tip of the long tail. Or worse is Candy Crush Saga, because it’s specifically engineered to extract as much money from the player as possible, with what one could describe as extremely cynical design. It’s one thing to create a game with a high level of challenge, after all, but it’s quite another to create what’s the digital equivalent of the arcade claw game, where there are prizes just out of reach, and the game will spit them out (in the form of allowing the player to advance in levels) just enough to get the player to keep putting money in for one more try.
It may not be fair, but it’s very easy for that frustration to be taken out on the people consuming those games, rather than at the people who are profiting off the environment that allows these games to flourish while “better” games languish. After all, if these people would just wake up and stop supporting these games, then maybe the developers would stop chasing the quick money and go back to spending time making quality games. After all, don’t they know or care that their money is effectively being stolen from them, 99 cents at a time? How stupid can you be?
The answer, of course, is that they’re not stupid at all. And a lot of them know what they’re getting into, but gaming isn’t as important to them as it is to core gamers who are looking for different experiences. Most core gamers have easily spent more money during the course of one Steam sale than the average casual gamer will spend across all the games installed on their phones. The fact of the matter is, these gamers aren’t necessarily seeking out games as entertainment; they’re just trying to kill some time here and there, and maybe it’s worth a dollar or two at a time in one of those games to continue the experience.
The solution isn’t directing anger at the casual gamers, but offering them alternatives that appeal more to what they’re looking for. That means that just putting an easy difficulty mode into a game designed exclusively for core gamers isn’t going to cut it. Even though the tasks presented in those games might technically be easier to complete (which usually just means that the enemies are worse at aiming and/or take fewer shots to kill, if we’re honest), most core games have a learning curve that represents a time investment that is more than those gamers are willing to commit. It’s not much different than the reason that most people who view their cars as simply a means for getting from point A to point B don’t take the time to learn how to drive a manual transmission; if an automatic works fine, there’s little perceived upside in learning how to deal with a stick shift, which feels like more work to get to the same result.
Even if we ultimately get games with simple mechanics that are still well designed and not predatory, though, core gamers need to stop looking down on casual gamers and start helping them find better experiences. It’s not just that the popular casual games are free to get into; it’s also that these games are known quantities. After all, if everyone on Facebook is playing Candy Crush, it must be a good game, right? Just as it’s a monetary investment to buy games up front which can add up, it takes time to find the games worth playing, and that time expenditure adds up too. Why waste time looking for something better than Candy Crush when Candy Crush is perfectly fine at killing a couple of minutes here and there?
Really, what needs to happen is core gamers need to be ambassadors for gaming, as opposed to acting as additional barriers to entry. Your co-worker loves Flappy Bird? Introduce them to Ridiculous Fishing. Your relatives are obsessed with Candy Crush Saga? Try introducing them to Threes.
In other words, treating casual gamers as the enemy won’t make the situation better, and will likely end up making it much worse. But if core gamers can stop treating casual gamers as the unwashed masses and start treating them as Today’s Lucky 10,000, then maybe everyone can end up with better games to play five years from now.