By Carlo Longino
Mobile games are already big business, with 16 million US cellphone users downloading them in August alone, up from 12 million in January. The vast majority of those are action or sports games, often times repurposed console games or based on movie franchises. But there's a growing movement of simpler, smaller, much less flashy games that don't require long periods of deep gameplay, called casual games, that promise to be even bigger.
Casual games have a few general principles, but the most important is simplicity. They're games that are easy to learn, easy to play, and are well-suited to short bursts of gameplay rather than long sessions. They're also suited to the physical characteristics of mobile handsets. Analyst firm NPD Group, which referred to mobile gaming recently as a "digital snack," says the limited screen size and navigation options of phones make casual games a good fit. Navigation is something that mobile game developers have struggled with in creating action games and console retreads, but for casual games, it's not a problem. Being able to quickly move around the screen isn't as much of a concern in, say, a crossword, as in a first-person shooter.
The key for video game developers and mobile operators is casual games' wide appeal across demographics; these are games that appeal to pretty much everybody. According to M:Metrics, which tracks consumer consumption of mobile content and applications, says in August, about a third of US phone users played a game on their device. Their data shows that 60% more people had casual games like puzzles, quizzes or word games installed on their phones than other more involved types of games, while 20% more people downloaded casual games during the month.
"It's safe to say that my mother has never been a fan of Quake, but she and I both enjoy crosswords," says Tom Hume, director of British mobile development company Future Platforms, which is working with the UK's Puzzler Media to create mobile versions of its puzzle catalog.
Hume says casual games' appeal is down to peoples' typical interactions with their mobile phones. He says most of our interactions with our phone are casual: the device is constantly available, and we interact with it in quick bursts—looking to see if anybody's called, typing out a text message, and so on rather than for extended periods of time. "Good casual games don't require lengthy focus of attention: you can dip into and out of them easily," he says.
One of Future Platforms' first results of its work with Puzzler was a mobile version of the Japanese number puzzle game Sudoku. Hume says it's a great example of the genre, because while it can be learned quickly, the game has a lot of depth, and as players become more experienced, they learn more nuances of the game and get more involved. It's like some of the solitaire games that come with Windows—they're pretty simple to learn, but can quickly become addictive as you better learn how to play.
Business models, or how companies charge, is changing for casual games as well. Instead of paying a big upfront fee, for instance, Mobile Sudoku just charges users 25p (about 45 cents) per puzzle. The idea is to keep everything—including the purchasing easy and casual: "Purchasing shouldn't be a difficult decision, the buying of a puzzle should be as casual as the playing of it," Hume says. "We're trying to encourage people to play regularly and make it a part of their lives, not squeeze them for as much as they are willing to spend today."
Other companies are getting into the frame as well. Digital Chocolate is one. It was started by Trip Hawkins, who also formed Electronic Arts, so you'd expect it to be creating flashy, involved games pushing the boundaries of what mobile phones can do with graphics and sound. That couldn't be further from the truth, really, as the company's mobile games are, for the most part, simple affairs built on casual gameplay.
Digital Chocolate's released a few new games that take the idea of casual gaming one step further, built upon Hawkins' belief that games are little more than an excuse to be social. At the recent CTIA trade show, he talked about how when Trivial Pursuit came out, it spawned game-playing parties across the country. The game was simple enough that anybody could play, and provided a reason for people to get together with their friends. The company's new games, which include things like a sports prediction league people can set up with their friends, or a virtual dating game (Hawkins says one other surefire way to succeed with a game is to give people the potential to hook up), are more about interaction than strictly about gameplay—another common thread that runs through all of us, not just video gamers.
We all like to play games to some degree, but generally the idea of a "video game" conjures up the PlayStation 2 rather than a crossword puzzle. And while a word game might not be the most exciting example of mobile gaming, it's one with a far bigger potential market than a tiny version of Grand Theft Auto. And the mass market is what casual games are about, finding the gamer in everybody.
"The other thing to consider is that play is a very natural thing for any mammal," Hume says. "We all play, where it's hopscotch, bingo, scratchcards or CounterStrike. My cats are casual gamers."
Read more Airtime. The column appears every Tuesday on Gizmodo.