GDC '08: Are casual games the future?

PlayFirst CEO John Welch thinks hard-core gamers will soon be in the minority as the masses embrace pick-up-and-play titles.

SAN FRANCISCO--In his keynote session for the Casual Games Summit 2008, PlayFirst CEO John Welch talked about "The Promise of Casual Games"--the "promise" being that the once scoffed-at genre will soon eclipse hard-core gaming as nongamers flock to it.

"Casual games are really, really big. You can tell just by the size of the room we're in this year," Welch told a packed room at the summit, taking place here as part of this year's Game Developers Conference. "The point here is we have the opportunity to elevate video games to become a first-tier form of entertainment, like TV. We will have succeeded when 'casual games' goes away as a category, and 'hard-core games' is the niche."

One of the big problems is that it's hard to define what a casual game actually is, Welch told the audience. "For a long time, what dominated our industry was 'Try before you buy' games. What was a casual game? It was a game with a Web version, and to download the full version you paid $20," he reminisced. These days, casual games can only be loosely defined as those titles that are friendly to new or occasional users, and are intuitive and accessible.

Although the mobile phone is the ideal platform for casual games, for some reason it just hasn't caught on, Welch said. "Everyone has one, everyone has one at all times. But--who is actually using that phone to download games? (The thing is) everyday folks don't download mobile games--yet."

Ultimately, he said, two things need to happen for casual gaming to continue to grow: There needs to be more innovation, and the $20 download model needs to be discontinued.

He concluded: "There's going to be a lot of dead bodies in the side of the road in casual gaming. If you're a developer, beware the glut, because there's a lot of content coming...We're about to emerge from this cocoon and there will be all different kinds of butterflies."

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