The Casualisation of Video Games

Article  by  Vincent SARRAZIN  •  Published 07.10.2011  •  Updated 07.10.2011
Capture écran du jeu The Sims
From a form of entertainment previously reserved for a small portion of the population, video games are today considered as a mass entertainment. How have they evolved, and how has the industry adapted in order to target potential new consumers?

Summary

While we can only admire the growth of the so-called casual games markets, the definition of what a casual game is subject to certain difficulties. How can we group together such heterogeneous products as Angry Birds, Imagine Fashion Designer or FarmVille? The former is a smartphone-based puzzle game, the second one a fashion designer simulator and the latter a social game on Facebook. Trying to understand what casual games are is trying to understand a major evolution in video games industry since early 2000s, the casualisation of video games.
 
The Sims 3, Wii Sports, FarmVille: an illustration of 3 different approaches to casual gaming.
 
Casualisation is a process leading to the opening of video game production to every demographic category. The production, previously almost exclusively aimed at young males between 12 and 25 years old, has since broadened to attract new kinds of potential consumers (women, elderly people, children, families). Games aimed towards these new market segments are called casual games, although this term groups together rather heterogeneous products. The video games industry tends to categorize productions by genre (action game, adventure game, etc.) but it is impossible to associate casual games to any genre in particular: a casual game is defined above all as a game accessible to anybody. This definition includes accessible gameplay[+] NoteGameplay is the way of playing and interacting, the specific handling of each game.X [1], low difficulty and small time investment. The casualisation of video games was built on this gaming simplification, but also on the renewal of the contents offered and on gameplay innovations.
 
Thus the new contents provided were able to interest new consumers that did not identify with the theme of of “militarized masculinity”[+] NoteMilitarized masculinity is an expression attributed to the Canadian researcher Stephen Kline to refer to a set of representations in video games that bring out war-related themes.X [2], which represented a major portion of traditional video games production[+] NoteTony Fortin, Laurent Tremel, Mythologie des jeux vidéo, Cavalier bleu, 2009.X [3]. Therefore games like The Sims (a day-to-day life simulator) or Nintendogs (where you get to play with virtual dogs) were able to win over an audience of female teenagers or kids.
 
In addition to the contents renewal, casualisation relies on important gameplay innovations, offering new ways of playing and interacting. Japanese constructor Nintendo, with its consoles DS and Wii, opened the way to a new gameplay, more intuitive (DS’s touchscreen, Wii’s motion sensor). The priority that is given to the game’s ease of access is fundamental to the success of social games and mobile games markets.

Content Renewal: Video Games Geared For New Population Categories

Analyzing video games production through the early 2000s shows a clear recurrence of certain themes typically attributed to the male gender: war games, sports games, car racing games, etc. Teenagers and young men were the almost exclusive users of video games through the 1990s, but the augmentation of personal computer users gradually made possible the broadening of the market to new categories of population[+] NoteYet it is important to keep in mind that games reserved for male and teenager audiences still represent a significant part of the market, although this type of games (called hardcore games in contrast with casual games) constitutes a much smaller part of the production than it did in the 1990s.X [4].
 
The Sims, in 2000, was the first game that succeeded in reaching a massive feminine audience. In that Electronic Arts game, nothing was about war or physical performance, but about day-to-day life. Players have to raise a family, create and decorate their house, etc. The emergence of these “female” themes in a game permitted to conquer an audience previously excluded by the products, and The Sims became the best-selling game of all times on personal computer with 16 million units sold (100 million for all the game’s episodes). A market for games specifically designed for women expanded then, with nowadays a great variety of products with specific designs and topics (playing with a virtual pet, dressing a character or doing her hair, etc.). From a statistical point a view, women today represent the majority of players in recent months (see the graphic below). Their gaming time per week is, however, much smaller than for men: therefore, they are more casual gamers than men, in the sense that they play less frequently.
 
The content of the games is adapted to the gender of the audience, but to the age as well. Since the release in 2006 of Brain Age: Train your Brain in Minutes a Day, the topic of health is associated to certain kinds of games. Here, the player takes memory and logic tests in a short daily training session. Games are not only associated with mental health, but also with physical health with the game Wii Fit, which offers daily training with the fitness equipment included. These products are able to reach a massive audience: this entertaining way staying healthy attracts middle-aged women as well as retirement homes. We cannot, however, separate the search for new content from innovations regarding the equipment’s ease of access. To win over new audiences unused to video games (not to mention, new technologies in general), it is necessary to create simple, easy-to-use devices.
 
Profil of French players - who played in the past months - in 2006 and 2010.
In 4 years, the Wii, the DS and Facebook has greatly changed the profil of the average player.
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The Nintendo Case: Casualisation Through Simplified Gameplay

 Shortly after the Wii’s release, people [...] started recognizing it as a casual machine, and thought of consoles by Microsoft and Sony [as] machines aimed exclusively at video game fanatics.
It seems impossible to understand the success of games like Wii Fit or Brain Age without taking into account the equipment they rely on. Nintendo, which had always been well-known for the priority it gives to the ease of access of its games and machines, was undoubtedly a great pioneer of casualisation, offering more user-friendly equipment than its competitors. The handheld game console DS, released in 2004 in America and Japan and in 2005 in Europe, offered a new way of playing with its touch screen and its stylus, a technology previously reserved for smartphones and reproducing the daily movement of handling a pen. The simplicity of this handling, in association with the wealth of games produced for all audiences (Mario Karts, Cooking Mama, Nintendogs) granted the console substantial success, and confirmed Nintendo as a force to be reckoned with in the democratization of video games. The DSi XL, a new version of the console released in 2009, confirmed the casual orientation Nintendo had chosen on the market: bundled with Brain Age and equipped with a larger and brighter screen than the original DS, the idea was clearly to target a middle-aged audience.


Graphic: The 20 best-selling games of all times as reported by www.vgchartz.com. We can note the predominance of Nintendo, both as console maker and game seller. This list shows, in spite of a few exceptions (like the presence of Gran Theft Auto, a typical hardcore game for young adults and teenage males), the dominance of family-friendly and convivial games like Wii Sports, Wii Play, Mario Kart, etc. Other games, like Nintendogs or Brain Age, are emblematic of the success of Nintendo’s casual gaming approach.
 
The success of the Wii, produced starting in 2006, followed this strategy and divided the game consoles market: on the one hand, Microsoft  and Sony, and on the other hand, Nintendo.
 
Xbox 360 and PS3, released in 2005 and 2006/2007 respectively, followed the traditional strategy of the game consoles market: a better computing power to display more advanced graphics, more multimedia possibilities, etc.


 

On the other hand, the controls, like the type of games produced, were the same as they had been in the previous generations of consoles. With its Wii, Nintendo took a very different path: rather than attempting to match its competitors technically, the constructor decided to produce a machine with lower performance, but that was cheaper[+] NoteWhen they were released in Europe, the Nintendo Wii was sold for 249€, compared with 299€ for the Xbox 360 and 499€ for the PS3.X [5], and entirely based on the gameplay innovation of motion detection.

With the simplification of its console handling, Nintendo turned away from a portion of the traditional video games audience but opened up a market where one did not previously exist. With the Wii, Nintendo’s strategy was not about targeting a particular audience, but about widening the market and attracting potential consumers. The simple and intuitive controls permitted by motion detection, combined with convivial games like Wii Sports or Rayman Raving Rabbits, allowed for the winning-over of family and intergenerational audiences looking for quick and easy games. With its nearly 50% market share, Nintendo clearly proved the success of its new strategy. With the release in 2010 of motion sensors for their consoles, Microsoft (with Kinect) and Sony (with Move) demonstrated their interest in the casual market controlled by Nintendo.
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Social Games And Mobile Phone Games: The Importance Of Equipment Availability For The Casual Gaming Market

With the DS and the Wii, Nintendo did to the console market what Electronic Arts had previously done on computer with The Sims: include new audiences among the ranks of video games consumers. Though the casualisation of the 2000s is not a completed process, it has fundamentally overhauled the market. The accession of new audiences to gaming via targeted content allowed for the possibility of games for not geared for one specific population, but designed for the mass market. Social and mobile phones games reach this massive audience today, benefiting from the widespread availability of equipment.
 
 
Equipment rates of the American population; study conducted by Pew Research Center in June of 2011. Source : http://pewinternet.org/Reports/2011/E-readers-and-tablets/Report.aspx
 
While the console casual games market is based on selling both machines and games, the casual market on smartphones and Facebook relies on a different approach: offering products to an audience that already possesses the necessary equipment, whose primary use is not gaming. Thus the game Solitaire, bundled with Microsoft Windows since the early 1990s, can be considered as the first casual game. Available on the majority of the office desktop computers, providing simple game sessions that didn’t require more than a few minutes, this game permitted to attract traditionally non-playing audiences by the means of professional or domestic computer use. Today, Facebook and smartphone games follow the same strategy.
 
Zynga's chief game designer, Brian Reynolds:
 We're after a lot of demographic [...] Twenty or maybe even thirty percent of my friends might have an Xbox 360, but effectively 100% of them have Facebook and effectively 100% of them have a mobile phone.
Thus, the growth of the Facebook casual games market since 2009 is largely due to the immensity of the potential market, with millions of Facebook users. Studies about user habits reveal that nearly half of the Facebook users play games on the social network. Moreover, Facebook players’ social composition is interesting: with a majority of woman and strong representation amongst the people over 35, social gaming is clearly a market born from the casualisation of video games. With their short playing sessions, renewable every day, playable anywhere (at the office, on mobile phone), companies like Zynga and it bestselling game FarmVille have been able to offer a highly profitable business model. Playing social games is usually free, but the games are made to constantly frustrate players, restricting available actions, promoting competition with players’ Facebook friends to sell virtual goods. These goods may be optional, but they multiply player options and chances for success; and even though only a small portion of Facebook players (around 20%) are willing to pay for virtual goods, the operation remains highly lucrative for companies like Zynga, thanks to the market’s size. Mobile phone games, although they rely on a different sales model (with low-priced applications), also offer games that promote this type of simple, quick game sessions.
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Conclusion

The growth of the casual games market is fairly important today, thanks to the huge audience and low development costs: the production of a casual game can be executed in a few months by dozens of employees, while the production of an hardcore game can last for years and require up to 200 people[+] NoteFor example, the game Angry Birds on iPhone cost $150,000 for an estimated revenue of $70,000,000 in March 2011.X [6].
 
The high dependence on distributing structures (Facebook, Apple Store, etc.) might constitute a threat in the years to come, however[+] NoteThe obligation to use Facebook Credits for Facebook application developers is a revelatory both of economic interests on this sector and desire of the distributors to profit from it.X [7]. For example, the $0.99 application policy on iPhone is beginning to place entry barriers to editors, who have to align themselves with this price whatever their development costs may be.
 
The intensification of the competition on the Facebook games market could also threaten the companies. Playdom’s buyout by Disney[+] NoteFor a price of $763.2 million, the second-biggest video games producer on Facebook represents for Disney the possibility of imposing itself in this market. After the buyout of the mobile phone game developer Tapulous and children’s social network Togetherville, Disney Interactive Media Group is multiplying its acquisitions to grow quickly on 2.0 markets.X [8] and the will of Electronic Arts to take part in this market may very well forecast the end of the gold mine that Facebook represented for Zynga.
 

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Photo Credit: screen shot of The Sims, Origami Potato /Flickr.
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References

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  • 1. Gameplay is the way of playing and interacting, the specific handling of each game.
  • 2. Militarized masculinity is an expression attributed to the Canadian researcher Stephen Kline to refer to a set of representations in video games that bring out war-related themes.
  • 3. Tony Fortin, Laurent Tremel, Mythologie des jeux vidéo, Cavalier bleu, 2009.
  • 4. Yet it is important to keep in mind that games reserved for male and teenager audiences still represent a significant part of the market, although this type of games (called hardcore games in contrast with casual games) constitutes a much smaller part of the production than it did in the 1990s.
  • 5. When they were released in Europe, the Nintendo Wii was sold for 249€, compared with 299€ for the Xbox 360 and 499€ for the PS3.
  • 6. For example, the game Angry Birds on iPhone cost $150,000 for an estimated revenue of $70,000,000 in March 2011.
  • 7. The obligation to use Facebook Credits for Facebook application developers is a revelatory both of economic interests on this sector and desire of the distributors to profit from it.
  • 8. For a price of $763.2 million, the second-biggest video games producer on Facebook represents for Disney the possibility of imposing itself in this market. After the buyout of the mobile phone game developer Tapulous and children’s social network Togetherville, Disney Interactive Media Group is multiplying its acquisitions to grow quickly on 2.0 markets.
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