Casual Games: Interview with Ed Allard (Popcap)

Ed Allard, Senior Producer for Popcap, was kind enough to answer some of my questions about casual games via email:

How have casual games evolved since the days of Tetris?

In a way, the games haven’t changed that much at all. The best casual games of today have a lot in common with Tetris – they have simple approachable mechanics, relatively low production cost, extremely wide appeal, and are insanely addictive.

Beyond that, there has certainly been some growth in the overall presentation of the core mechanics. Production values are increasing, which means better graphics and sound, longer game play, and on-line features such as high scores or user-contributed content. One key trend along these lines is the movement from abstract presentations of shapes and puzzles to strongly-themed presentations with real-world (or imaginary) characters, objects, and places. Many have simple stories that carry you through the game and provide a sense of progress and achievement.

Of course, one huge thing that has changed is the introduction of the Internet as a distribution vehicle for games. Tetris was revolutionary because it was a game that appealed to game players and non-players alike. That was a totally novel phenomenon. Now, there is an entirely new audience of “casual gamers” who don’t identify themselves with the core video game industry. They have their own portals to get games and their own communities to review and discuss them. Tetris was able to shine through the hardcore market and appeal to a broader audience, but casual games don’t have to do that anymore.

As you know, Xbox Live! is aggressively recruiting low-budget hardcore and casual game developers. What do you think of their efforts? How do you justify developing for Live! when the PC & cell phone market for casual games is so huge?

I’m totally excited by the opportunities presented by Xbox Live Arcade. First of all, if Microsoft is successful in broadening their demographic with all the extra media enhancements of the Xbox 360, this could represent yet another channel to connect with a casual customer base that we are all familiar with. That’s the easy answer.

What excites me more is the idea that Live Arcade may connect us with a new customer base that wouldn’t normally find themselves at a casual game portal. While the typical hardcore gamer is used to playing 40 hour, mature content games, there are plenty of times where he may not really be looking for a totally immersive experience. He could be waiting for his buddies to get online for the latest deathmatch in Halo, he may be between games looking to kill some time until the next RPG hits the shelves, or he may just have 20 minutes to kill before dinner is ready. Whatever the reason, I think hardcore gamers will recognize and appreciate the elegance of design that’s at the heart of a good casual game. For a hardcore gamer, buying a game on Live could be like buying a candy bar at the grocery store check-out.

Now, is it definitely going to work? No idea. This is certainly an experiment, but one worth making because casual games are about making games for everyone – not just soccer moms and 30-something professionals. The investment to port existing games over to Live is not that great. The real cost involved in developing casual games is the iterative development of the core idea itself.

What do you think of “casual MMPs” like Neopets? Flash-in-the-pan, or sustainable moneymaker?

I think there is a “casual MMP” of some sort that will take off and become a truly sustainable, money making experience. I don’t think we’ve seen it yet – at least not in this country. There are certainly plenty of successful community-based services on the internet that make me believe that a massively multiplayer game that fosters a large community feeling is not incompatible with our audience.

Hardcore game sales have traditionally been driven by technological advancements (better graphics, etc). You can’t quite say the same thing for casual games. What will drive users to purchase the next version of “Bejewelled” ten years from now?

Additional refinement and innovation in game design. Whether it’s building upon the core mechanics of Bejeweled, or an entirely new idea, the future of casual gaming will still rely on the core principles of simple approachable mechanics that present interesting (but not overly complex) choices to the user and provide an compelling reward structure. While the graphics, stories, and sizes of casual games will continue to evolve, the key innovations will have to be around the types of challenges presented to the player and the rewards provided for overcoming those challenges.

What do you think are the most exciting new market opportunities for casual games?

It’s hard to narrow it down to a few, because the market for casual games is everyone. There is really no limit to the market opportunities available, which in itself, is exciting. The fact that the casual games audience overlaps the broad, mass-appeal popular culture means there’s potential for games to show up in all the facets of our daily lives. There are tons of alternative business models floating around out there, and I think we’ll be seeing a lot of people experimenting with them in the near future.

How do you think the publishing model for casual games will evolve, both in the PC market and the mobile phone market?

The PC market for casual games is starting to follow in the footsteps of the hardcore game industry – a little too closely in my opinion. Publishers are starting to provide the same services as in the hardcore space, and the trend towards aggregation has already begun. Publishers are doing distribution and/or content creation, and content is increasingly going to be provided by large aggregate companies. I’ll admit I’m a little concerned for what that will mean for the quality of the content.

In the mobile space, I think everyone is trying to figure that out right now. There are as many different takes on that as there are companies in the space (or maybe even more).