Video games are more mainstream than ever, becoming a $25 billion industry that reaches into living rooms everywhere. But gaming's growth isn't just due to the Nintendo Wii's explosive popularity. Rather, it's due to the booming resurgence of casual games --games that don't require an eidetic memory for commands and a 36-hour-per-level time commitment in order to provide enjoyable experiences for audiences of any skill set.
"More people are playing games now than at any other time," says Joseph Olin, president of the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences, speaking at the E for All Expo here this weekend. And adults and kids both are pondering questions such as which two games they'll buy this holiday season?
The pacing of games has changed dramatically over the past decade--and Olin credits the social networking boom, the prevalence of micro-entertainment on everything from cell phones to YouTube, and the changing face of how an entire generation consumes entertainment with the shift that's more and more evident in today's games.
"Five years ago we didn't have Facebook, MySpace, YouTube. [Kids'] consumption of entertainment has changed--their tolerance is shorter and shorter and shorter. Their whole world is a screen," Olin says. "Game makers are trying to reflect the world around them, and as such, they're creating online play patterns that fit the short rhythm of today's world."
For example, not everyone is willing or able to commit 25 minutes to scale a virtual hill and reach another. So some game developers set up shorter tasks, or set a sequence of smaller actions that lead to the hill. "That reflects the immediacy of the real world; it also reflects how people want to consume their entertainment," Olin says. "Look at Grand Theft Auto 4; it's really a bunch of short missions and episodes."
The Wii, in particular, makes gaming accessible; that console is replete with games that offer a in-and-out experience, and many of these games are shipping for other platforms, too. And Microsoft's Xbox Live and Sony's PlayStation Network are both offering a slew of casual games online.
It's not just society that's changed, though. So too have the game designers. Those same designers who a decade ago were in their 20s and able to be immersed in the games they create, well, now they're in their 30s, and they, too, have different time constraints. Game designs are reflecting those new realities.
In many ways, that the appeal of so-called casual games--games that don't require hours-on-end of time to reach a satisfying conclusion.
"Casual games are pure, they're honest, they're short and to the point, and they're fun. You can always spare 10 minutes to do something. Some games are more expansive in their mechanics, but they're still casual [by comparison]," Olin says. "Call of Duty 4: Medal of Honor, the Academy's winner for game of the year, is a casual game--you can complete a level in 20 minutes. Electronic Arts' Burnout Paradise--that's a game you can play online for 3 or 4 hours at a crack, or play for 25 to 30 minutes of explosive slamin', banging action. Metal Gear Solid 4, I know I'm going to be there for two hours or more; I'm lost, albeit in a good way."
Exploring New Platforms
The shift back to casual games began about four years ago, with Microsoft's Xbox Live environment and the beginnings of online game portals. "A lot of code was being written for mobile entertainment, but it's hard to get that product into mobile phones," Olin says. And so, those games are finding audiences in other ways.
One problem facing game publishers today: In the casual online world, people are looking for free, easy diversions. How can companies create compelling content--while monetizing their investment in the game?
Another issue facing game makers: How to continue expanding the audience for video games? "For those who haven't played a game in five years, the question facing game makers is, 'what is it going to take for them to try a game again?" Olin adds. "Thirty-five to 40 percent of the world hasn't played a video game. Part of that is generational, but over a short period of time, there's no excuse for people not to try playing a game." Casual gaming is one effort to invite them.