Oculus Rift has already won the hearts and minds of geeks everywhere, without a finished product on shelves. At trade shows like CES and E3, the chance to get even a brief demo of the virtual reality headset has spawned endless, snaking lines of near-Disneyland proportions. There’s no doubt that the Rift has the potential to change entertainment as we know it, but it’s a step in the wrong direction that will further divide gamers from the mainstream.
Tag: casual games
The recent rise of mobile as a key platform in the gaming space is accompanied by meteoric growth in asynchronous gameplay. Not what you typically envision when hearing of the latest “multi-player videogame,” asynchronous games do not require the two or more participants to be playing simultaneously; rather, players make turns at their convenience. Chart toppers such as Words With Friends, Hero Academy and Draw Something have millions of people around the world playing asynchronous games daily.
The appeal of this detached gameplay mode on the mobile platform is obvious: by not having to participate “in-sync,” players are free to go about their day, logging in to make a move only when it’s convenient. Growing up, getting a quick game of StarCraft going with my friends required planning in advance to ensure everybody was free (or hoping they were signed into Ventrilo). Now the rich, social experience of multiplayer gaming is available anywhere, anytime, and with any of your hundreds of Facebook friends.
Without a doubt, asynchronous gameplay is bringing millions of new gamers online. Everybody from busy professionals to even busier moms can find time throughout the day to glance at their phones and lay down a quick 20-point word or crudely sketch a sunflower for their friends. These types of people that could never carve out a two-hour block of time to delve into the latest RTS or explore the world of a new MMO are exactly the target audience for asynchronous games.
Recently, I became completely addicted to Zynga’s Words With Friends. My phone buzzed constantly with updates – after all, with 10 or 15 games happening simultaneously, there’s always somebody free to play. I am, and imagine I always will be, a huge Scrabble fan, and my initial enthusiasm motivated the first few weeks of play. However, after a few months of playing WWF, I found myself oddly numb to the experience. Sliding my finger across each subsequent “New Move” notification pop-up seemed more and more of a chore and less about enjoying the game. I was no longer playing because I was immersed in the game, but rather because felt beholden to making the next move so my friends would not be left hanging.
A few months back, I finally snapped out of my daze and started reflecting on the experience, ultimately concluding that I expected too much of asynchronous gameplay. Like most of my daily electronic information flow, the game simply became another source for that short, addicting burst of serotonin so many of us crave in the Digital Age, with little to gain that could not be found in a casual glance at Twitter.
I may think that I’m a busy person and at times certainly am, but I’m no mom rushing kids to soccer practice and dance recitals. In retrospect, I probably spent close to two hours a day keeping up with WWF – not exactly a “non-disruptive” amount of time. Keep in mind, this was not two hours I scheduled specifically for play, but like with most players, time taken in small increments throughout the day that quickly added up to the point of distraction. This most convenient form of gaming was not only sucking an hour or two out of each day, but also doing so when I should have been focusing on work or enjoying the company of friends.
A few months free of Zynga’s iron grip and I’m making a point to schedule time for the sort of immersive gaming that I used to know and love, inviting friends over for a game of Super Smash Bros. or investing the time to set up a game of Risk or Settlers of Catan. I still play the occasional game of Draw Something or Scramble With Friends, but my notifications have all been turned off, and the icons are gone from my home screen. Now, I play only when I’m truly not busy or have made a point to invest some time.
Asynchronous games are part of a wider push in the tech space to make everything as convenient, connected and on-demand as possible. “No time to sit down and play? Just have these bite-sized snippets instead!” That’s great for people on the go, but for those of us accustomed to the deep immersion that comes with truly investing yourself in a game, with setting up your StarCraft hotkeys and arguing over which dictionary to use for Scrabble, there is more than a bit of magic missing so far, in asynchronous gameplay.
While I may sound like the exception to the rule in the face of so much overwhelming success, evidence suggests many others experience the same burnout and disappointment after the initial rush to play. However, I’m confident that the next generation of asynchronous game developers will mitigate these issues with innovative new features that not only keep us hooked, but also tear us away when things start to get out of hand and our entertainment threatens to become a chore.
Last week, while chatting around my kitchen table with a friend, she pulled out her phone and proceeded to play a round of Temple Run while we continued our conversation. Taking a cue from her, I whipped out my phone and began playing as well. And there we sat, talking as we individually played our games; eyes on our phones, concentration focused on not running into a tree or getting attacked by demon monkeys. As a non-gamer (I am reluctant to identify myself even as a casual gamer), this was an extremely unusual situation for me to be in. I have never connected with friends over Xbox LIVE or hung in on a Friday night playing Mario, but I am increasingly finding myself in situations where I am bonding and interacting with my friends over an iOS game.
I have never, ever, been a “gamer.” I may have dabbled with some Sims or Guitar Hero, but prior to installing Temple Run I had gone years without repeatedly playing any videogames. While a love of videogames was something I could conceptualize, comparing it to my love of books, it was never something that I personally experienced. I blame that on my horrible hand-eye coordination.
There are roughly 100,000 games currently available in the App Store. The mobile gaming market has grown exponentially in recent years, garnering attention from people who have never owned a console or handheld gaming device, but who own a smartphone. The smartphone has quickly captured a previously untapped market of gamers, getting Dad — who hasn’t played a video game since Centipede at the arcade — to spend spare moments slinging birds at pigs. Recently, the success of mobile gaming has even sparked discussion on the end of handheld devices.
As an iPhone owner for years, I still was never attracted to the games that entertained my friends, using my phone primarily for email and, well, phone calls. There was a gaming revolution occurring around me, but I was primarily immune to the draw of the game. What about Temple Run changed it all for me? As a self-proclaimed non-gamer, I base my addiction on its quick and consistent gameplay. I can pick it up on my two-minute subway ride or do back-to-back runs for an hour and it’s the same enjoyable game. Graphics are irrelevant to me. As someone who has never consistently experienced the almost life-like animation of certain console games, the visual gaming components are not high on my list of importance. Instead, it is the extremely simple, repetitive, yet exciting gameplay that keeps me starting up the only game I have on my iPhone. And small allusions to my childhood fictional idol — Indiana Jones — didn’t hurt at all.
Temple Run breaks taken while writing this blog post: 5
*Imangi, the studio behind Temple Run is a TriplePoint client.
When gaming is your hobby, it will naturally be your default choice for occupying life’s little patches of boredom. The advent of casual games has provided us all with a wealth of diversions for everyday lulls, whether it’s Bejeweled Blitz with your morning coffee, Desktop Tower Defense while the bank has you on hold, or maybe a few rounds of Angry Birds during that incredibly engaging PowerPoint presentation. Continue reading En Route to Victory: Commuter Gaming
Last night, over one hundred video game players, journalists and scholars braved freezing temperatures to convene in downtown Manhattan and discuss their hobby of choice. December’s NY Gaming Meetup hosted the NY Videogame Critics Circle, a group of journalists committed to establishing an East Coast presence on the global gaming map. Moderated by industry veteran (and group leader) Harold Goldberg, the critics waxed philosophical on the highs, lows, and gooey centers of the 2010 year in gaming. Rising above the ranks of petty fanboyism, the critics touched on a wide range of topics:
- While 2010 was a good year for gaming, it may not have qualified as a “great” one. With an abundance of sequels, many developers played it safe. Blame the struggling economy for the dearth of new IP’s.
- The battle between indies and majors rages on. AAA titles like Call of Duty are reliable earners, but rarely grab the attention of this particular crowd, who often favor smaller games with shoestring budgets, games that have not been “developed by a focus group.” One glowing exception was Mass Effect 2, a blockbuster which is sure to get a lot of attention in the annual Game of the Year debates.
- Some independent games like Super Meat Boy and TriplePoint client LIMBO got love from the critics, illustrating the fact that the burden of proof differs greatly between indie games and titles from major studios. This also scraped the surface of the “rigidity in video game pricing” debate, a complex topic that deserves its own post.
- Red Dead Redemption was a great game, no contest. It was also responsible for Alan Wake’s disappointing sales. Chock this up to a marketing failure; for future reference, literally no other games should be pitted against a release from Rockstar Games.
- Red Dead was also a sterling example of the ways that DLC can not only bolster a game’s staying power, but also explore an entirely unique timeline or reality. Undead Nightmare was far more than just a bandwagon-inspired cash-in. Mass Effect 2 was similarly praised for giving players a complete disk-based experience, with DLC that provided a unique spin on familiar characters and settings. If nothing else, 2010 was the year that cemented downloadable content as an unavoidable part of a game’s development and marketing lifecycle.
- Borrowing the microtransaction model wasn’t the only way that 2010’s console releases were inspired by their social brethren. Players are becoming just as accustomed to in-game payments as they are to maintaining and upgrading virtual real estate. Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood offered gamers a chance to rebuild Rome, just as they’d expand an online farm or browser-based pet shop. Expect to see even more cross-promotional games like Gunslingers, the free (hype-generating) Facebook game that lead up to Red Dead’s proper release.
- Minecraft was considered the year’s Cinderella story. The baffling title came out of left field to build a userbase over 2 million strong. More importantly, over a quarter of those gamers actually paid $13 to play a game that’s still in its alpha stage infancy.
That was the year in games, summed up (and hotly debated) in 90 minutes. Let’s hope that 2011 delivers even more unique gaming experiences and spreads them out across the entire twelve month calendar.
To keep up with the motley crew of Gaming Critics, follow them on Twitter.
A recent keynote at the Develop conference by Hello Games’ Sean Murray cast a harsh light on the realities of publishing downloadable games on home consoles like Microsoft’s Xbox Live Arcade, Sony’s PlayStation Network and Nintendo’s WiiWare Channel. He purports that self-published games like his recently-released critical darling Joe Danger (which sold 50,000 units week one on PSN) are both more successful and more profitable than those of major studios.
Arguably the most popular digital download channel, Apple’s App Store offers an extremely low barrier to entry – just $99 for a dev-kit and a revamped review process that sees new apps approved or denied in as little as three days. While a few iPhone gaming giants have emerged, there’s still plenty of room for a basement programmer to strike it rich (or at least make the “What’s Hot” list). In contrast, console gaming depends on the distribution models established decades ago by the book publishing industry. In order to get a disk-based game into players’ living rooms, developers must partner with a publisher who sets up the distribution (including dubious deeds like retailer exclusives). Self-publishing a game with a box and a manual is borderline impossible. But even when it comes to the zeroes and ones that comprise downloadable games, Murray perceives major developers as more of a burden than an asset to young development studios. According to his research, casual card, puzzle and word games make up 31% of the offerings on console download services but less than 5% percent of the sales. This flies in the face of the notion that casual players fuel the download market. In fact, it’s the long-time, hardcore gamers that are driving downloadable game sales, as evidenced by the top three selling XBLA games of 2009 (multiplayer-only FPS Battlefield 1943, oldschool-inspired beat-‘em-up Castle Crashers, and controller-crushingly difficult dirt bike platformer Trials HD). While the EA-published Battlefield may owe part of its success to the series’ long history, the other two titles were created (and published) by tiny development teams.
Murray argues that big publishers offer very little to developers in the downloadable games market, and this stems from both lack of experience and lack of effort or interest. As he puts it, the person in charge of the digital download services at most publishers “is not necessarily the biggest deal for the overall structure of the publisher.” For the time being, Joe Danger is exclusive to PSN – Sony makes their development tools readily accessible, unlike Microsoft and Nintendo. As a passive rebuttal to the PSN Store, Microsoft created the Xbox Live Indie Games channel (née Xbox Live Community Games), and while it’s relatively easy to get a title published there, the games are incredibly difficult to locate, let alone market and promote to fans.
So what’s a developer to do? For PlayStation games like Murray’s Joe Danger, the money saved through self-publishing could be spent on a high-caliber PR agency (ahem) to spread the word and boost downloads. For a game destined for XBLA or WiiWare, write your local congressperson! And be patient. As consumers become more and more comfortable keeping their entertainment in the cloud, the move toward online stores will pressure companies like Microsoft and Nintendo to revise their strategy.
There’s one other major stumbling block – NPD sales data for downloadable games is between difficult and impossible to obtain. As a result, publishers can’t use existing titles as a reference point to gauge the risk and potential profit of developing a new game. If the console giants would relinquish this information and break down other barriers to entry, publishers both great and small could bring more creatively adventurous titles to market. With this capitalistic system, gamers would enjoy all types of new options, from big-screen versions of the $.99 bite-size games that dominate the App Store to $30 small entrées that don’t fit the current pricing/distribution mold. With vibrant, fun-focused games like Joe Danger, the reign of the murky brown über -macho FPS may be coming to a close. It’s simply up to us, as the nerdy masses, to e-vote with our digital wallets.
[UPDATE – IGN’s editors weigh in on the PlayStation Move.]
Advances in hardware technology are encouraging gamers to get off the couch, but do the games actually warrant the price of admission (and broken lamps)? New gesture-based controls for Microsoft and Sony are novel, but in order to be truly innovative they have to benefit the gameplay. Otherwise these features will quickly be written off as tacky add-ons designed by marketing experts to keep consumers jonesing for the “next big thing.”
A few days ago at GDC I observed/tested a variety of new high-tech gaming devices, but wasn’t bowled over by any of them. Sony’s wand controller, now officially titled Move and set to launch this fall, does not seem to offer much beyond Nintendo’s Wii remote, which debuted three-plus years ago. It’s more responsive and nice-looking, but as with any of these new peripherals, there’s no way to judge the hardware in a vacuum. Rather, the software will determine the Move’s fate, and even if it’s compelling, to me this feels like a “day late, buck short” response from the historically-conservative Sony. Even if EyePet: Move is an amazing experience, the PlayStation does not stand much chance of moving in on the Wii’s immensely diverse userbase. Just because grandma can hold her own in Wii Tennis doesn’t mean that Little Susie is going to take an interest in dad’s Blu-ray playing, manticore-slaying PS Triple.
Generally speaking, hopes are higher for Microsoft’s camera-based Project Natal, but without substantial software demos, skeptics are outnumbering believers five-to-one. With that in mind, E3 2010 aught to be pretty exciting this year. With all three console giants committed to increasing console lifecycles, these unique add-ons allow developers to experiment with new game designs without starting from scratch on a brand new SDK.
While I can’t fault either company for wanting a piece of the motion-control pie, it seems that an entirely new kind of peripheral would garner a great deal more excitement and attention. As Dan Ackerman points out on the CNET Crave blog, the Wii owes a great deal of its success to its affordability and Nintendo’s reliable, family friendly reputation. The Wii-mote/Natal/Move debate will push gaming even further into the mainstream, but isn’t necessarily the be-all-end-all of gaming’s future. The dual analog-stick controller has gone largely unchanged in the last eight years. As opposed to the waggle revolution, I’d much rather see a design overhaul for “normal” controllers wherein each button, stick, d-pad and trigger is put under the microscope and thoroughly tested and refined. Tomorrow’s best console games will be played via a truly innovative controller that will take cues from the most unique and high-end PC gaming peripherals. Its weight and sensitivity will be user-customizable like today’s gaming mice, it’ll have a variety of force-feedback options and triggers will alter their “give” according to the on-screen action. Yes, this technological marvel might cost a hundred bucks a pop, but it’ll be the official controller in the inevitable two-console future – the gamepad of choice for the decidedly hardcore console.
In terms of wide-sweeping brand recognition, Popcap is to casual gaming what Nintendo is to gaming in general. Your Grandma knows about Nintendo, but your Mom might know a PopCap game or two. Founded a decade ago, the company does a spectacular job of keeping their games in the public eye and maintaining a friendly, unassuming aesthetic. It’s as if making boatloads of money is the pleasant side-effect of cranking out highly addictive puzzlers, and to be clear, casual games are doing big business. Most of their games are available on multiple platforms, with free versions hosted at PopCap.com. Because the games are both robust and replayable, it’s no surprise that their perennial favorite Bejeweled 2 hasn’t left the Top 10 Highest Grossing list on the App Store since that category was unveiled six months ago . Continue reading Social, Casual or Both? PopCap Sells Cows, Gives Away Free Milk
As the iPhone and other smartphones accompany their owners everywhere, so does the chance to have fulltime access to games. Gamers and journalists alike are asking for more immersive iPhone games, but it’s unlikely they’ll flood the App Store anytime soon. Sure, it would be fantastic to have a lengthy, engaging iPhone game with depth, character development and a solid narrative, but it’s highly unlikely.
With the current benchmark for a “premium” app being anything over $5.00, developers can’t afford a fully-fledged staff. Great games like Mass Effect use cinematics and professionally-delivered dialogue to draw in the player, but both budget and hardware constraints prevent this sort of experience on Apple’s ‘slippery brick,’ as evidenced by Mass Effect Galaxy.
However, there are other inherent flaws in iPhone gaming. Even with your earbuds in place and zen-like concentration, gaming time can be interrupted at just about any moment. This isn’t even kept to the external problems of your average day – even the device insists on bothering you with incoming calls or text messages. While one could set the device to airplane mode, this effectively turns it into an iPod touch – a quandary. By the very nature of being connected on the go, one makes the gaming experience tough to establish.
I find that I have the most fun playing puzzlers on my phone, and the reviewers agree. Over half of the top 15 games on Pocket Gamer are puzzle games, and as developer Tale of Tales founder Michaël Samyn points out, small screens are better suited for shorter, more abstract titles. The device’s limitations are not likely to hinder your play in a puzzle game, whereas shooters and RPGs can be a real headache.
Between the hand cramps and screen glare, I, like most gamers, prefer my iPhone sessions to be short and sweet, relegating my larger-than life gaming experiences to the sofa.
The iTunes App Store is a booming marketplace, full of opportunity for independent developers. At an Apple press conference earlier this month, Steve Jobs said that over 30 million iPhones and 20 million iPod Touch devices have been sold to date. There are over 100 million customers on iTunes, and they’ve been busy – downloading over 1.8 billion apps since the App Store launched in July 2008. But with over 75,000 apps and counting (more than 21,000 in the game category alone), it’s a sink or swim space. The unique iPhone platform is luring talented designers from top names in the traditional video game development industry – ambitious artists, code-monkeys and entrepreneurs of all shapes and sizes looking to try their hand at a new medium, and take on whatever responsibility necessary – including new shoes they’ll learn to fill along the way.
There are already more than 100,000 third-parties in the iPhone Developer Program, and the App Store marketplace has created a community mindset among many of these smaller independent companies, who are willing to share some of their “secrets” and learn from their competitors to further their cause and to coexist symbiotically, if you will. One such indie developer is Rock Ridge Games. I had a chance to pick the brains of Rock Ridge’s president and VP, Mike Mann and P.J. Snavely, on what it takes to make the transition from licensed, big-budget console game development to the DIY world of iPhone app development – here’s what they had to say…
Can you give us a little background on Rock Ridge Games and your experience in game development?
Rock Ridge Games was started in April of this year with the goal of developing interesting and fun original games for the incredible new smartphones hitting the market. There are only two of us (Mike Mann and PJ Snavely) but we’ve got almost 30 years of combined experience in game development, having come from the console side of development. We’ve worked on everything from multi-million dollar licensed sports games to small independent titles for XBLA. The iPhone is our new frontier.
Yesterday, I had the pleasure of presenting at the monthly Social Media Expedition Memphis breakfast meetup. It was a great chance to take a look at “social gaming” from a different perspective, as many attendees knew little about the video games industry, but they were all social media enthusiasts.
The result? An exploration of the connection between video games, technology and social media, and what it all means for marketers. For brevity, I’ll just say that the relationship between gaming and social media is, by all means, symbiotic. For a more thorough explanation, check out the full presentation on SlideShare below.
In such an emerging space, one can never have all the right answers. Let me know what you think – insight, opinions, questions… All feedback is more than welcome!
June NPD data showed the game industry’s sharpest decline since 2000, with overall sales dropping 31% from this same time in 2008. The sales decline contrasts sharply with the fact that 4 million new gamers have entered the industry in the past year. The rise in audience size alongside a sharp drop in sales signals an emerging trend that players are increasingly turning to affordable digital content, free-to-play online game portals and casual games for interactive entertainment.
With Gamestop openly stating that their margins are being buffered by used game sales, protecting them from the sharp decline, one has to wonder if the sales slump is a temporary trend, or a permanent change. GameStop’s stranglehold on the used game market has caused many publishers and developers to explore alternative distribution outlets via online distribution platforms and console based marketplaces, and thus the quality of digital content has increased monumentally over the past year. Continue reading Slow Sales and a Larger Audience Spells Change for the Games Industry
The Retronyms released their new iPhone app Seek ‘n Spell on Earth Day! Seek ‘n Spell transforms iPhone gaming from a solo, sedentary experience to an active and social outdoor contest! Combining real outdoor spaces with virtual letters, Seek ‘n Spell is a word game where you and your friends compete to gather letter tiles and create words to score the most points.
Seek ‘n Spell makes full use of the iPhone’s GPS capabilities, using your actual physical location on Earth to drive the gameplay. Gathering in a park or other large outdoor space, players then race one another around the field to capture up to 10 letter tiles at a time, which they use to create words. Coveted gold tiles will appear randomly on the field, earning players a doubled score when used in words. Points are earned based on the length of the words players spell, and the player with the most points when time runs out wins.
The Seek ‘n Spell is available for download from the iTunes App Store at a retail price of $2.99 by visiting http://itunes.apple.com/WebObjects/MZStore.woa/wa/viewSoftware?id=307726640&mt=8
To see Seek ‘n Spell in action, view the live-action trailer here:
The game’s creators host local Seek ‘n Spell competitions in San Francisco and Cleveland. To join in, visit the Meetup.com pages:
San Francisco: http://www.meetup.com/sf-seeknspell/
NPD Group released its report Online Gaming 2009, which shows significant growth in online gaming. According to the report:
- Online activites for consoles and portables increase from 19% in 2008 to 25% in 2009. PCs showed a slight decline, but is still the dominant online gaming platform.
- Xbox 360 is the leader with 50%, with Nintendo Wii increasing from 18% in 2008 to 29% in 2009.
- Xbox 360 and PS3 owners download more content than owners of other systems, although downloading has slowed compared to 2009.