Casual Connect kicked off in Europe today, a gathering of the designers and money-power behind mobile gaming's peddlers of color-matching, fruit-slicing, endless-running, top-down conquest-a-thons.
And the show got off to a pretty contentious start.
Binary Family owner Thorsten Rauser presented a talk in which he slammed the casual industry's drive to the bottom as a strategy that is bound to end in disaster. His company makes brain-training games and, according to its website, prides itself on "intelligent entertainment."
"If we look at our industry today, there's reason to believe that we are fucked," he said, as reported by GamesIndustry. "If we look at casual games in 2015, what's out there is mostly crap. It's three or four game principles. We use different characters, we use different sounds, we use different setups, but it's all the same thing."
If we look at casual games in 2015, what's out there is mostly crap
None of this is news to more seasoned games players. Good games emerge in the casual space, only to be submerged in a torrent of clones, often advertised and monetized in the most ghastly and cynical fashion.
There was a time when even dividing "casual" and "hardcore" seemed like a betrayal of the notion of "game," but the rampant free-to-play model of casual has made the distinction unavoidable. For all hardcore gaming's faults, and there are many, it is nowhere near as sordid as casual.
This was not always the case. Rauser harked back to a time, six or seven years ago, when innovation drove success. Now, success is bought with marketing and paid for with free-to-play's notoriously aggressive model.
Rauser believes the casual sector has been taken over by tactics, and by people, from the gambling industry. "We sell [children] $100 packages of fake currency and make their parents pay because we can easily manipulate them. This is the thinking of the gambling industry, and if you look at the people that have come into the show over the last few years, a lot of those people have backgrounds in the gambling industry. And yes, this is how we make our money these days."
I went to a casual gaming conference last year and, I kid you not, every single talk was about analytics, data, marketing and customer retention. Some speakers tipped their hat towards "product quality," and "transparency," but these are not the winning tactics in the brutal world of casual games.
People in the casual sector are starting to get seriously worried. Just take a look at the comments underneath the GamesIndustry story from executives and creators in the casual business, and you'll see that a lot of people are annoyed.
"Our industry has just been overtaken with the strip mining short term profit taking mindset that many, many other industries of the world have," wrote Todd Weidner, founder of Big Daddy Game Studios. "It's all about money extraction, long term consequences be damned."
The casual industry isn't just about hucksters. There are plenty of people trying to make a living with honest tactics and good games. The trouble is, they are losing out. No one wants to pay for casual games, and yet, they must be paid for somehow. As consumer fatigue sets in, trouble is likely to follow.
Casual games are central to entertainment today. The sort of visibility that comes with mocking skits on South Park, jokes on insurance commercials and Super Bowl ads, also comes with increasingly aware consumers, who are surely catching up with casual's worst excesses. As we have found in the past, when the game industry takes consumers for fools, the result is ugly.
"Yes, we make money," said Rauser. "But we make money with a very, very small percentage, and at some point people will get sick of what we're delivering. We have lost a lot of them, and over the next few years we'll lose an even bigger part of them. People are not stupid."
Of course, for those of us who mostly play non-casual games, this might seem like a squabble among people about whom we know or care little. And yet, the low price of casual games has an effect on hardcore games.
A few years ago, then-EA boss John Riccitiello slammed the casual sector for its lack of originality. "I find this terribly hilarious," he said. "These game companies who are going to create the next generation of new ideas, they're all about fun etc. And they're working on a Puzzle and Dragons rip-off, except they're going to change one of the colors to blue. I mean, wait a minute. Are you in this because you want to create something or does it look like the easiest way to make money is to take one of the top-ten games and tweak it?"
Only last week, Take Two announced a free match-3 mobile game using its Evolve brand, based heavily on the design and mechanics of Puzzle and Dragons and its imitators.
At some point people will get sick of what we're delivering
These days, companies like EA and Activision are using their brands to create free-to-play models in Asia, and are keen to try something similar in the United States. In a recent investor presentation, EA boss Andrew Wilson said that the company is moving towards a free-to-start model.
"As we look to the future, we believe a very big part of that player base will expect a free-to-start experience," he said. "When we look at film, television, music, books very often there is this free trial notion that actually on boards new players, new listeners, new readers or new viewers into a service.
"We're actively looking at how we could offer that type of experience to our players, console and across other platforms. From there, it really comes down to, do they make their next step in terms of a premium download, a micro-transaction in a free-to-play type environment or a broader relationship through a subscription?"
Although "free-to-start" is a slightly different phrase from that which dominates casual gaming, it all comes down to the same thing.
There's a reason why many veteran gamers dislike "free-to-play." It tends towards attrition and erosion of the core game experience. It forces game designers to borrow against themselves, to mortgage their art in an attempt to be marketed. As we have seen in the casual sector, this can have all manner of unhappy consequences.