On the casual game front, last week's Game Developers Conference thankfully showed the first recent hints of innovation in both business model and in gameplay. The downloadable game growth rate has been slowing recently, primarily due to lack of innovation which is keeping the sector from attracting new purchasers. It doesn't appear to be as severe a problem as in mobile games (Mitch Lasky's keynote speech could be roughly summarized as "I sold Jamdat, and you're all screwed"), but everyone is still seeing flat results combined with higher game costs and more competition.
So what was interesting? WIld Tangent's introduction of a token-based payment system combined with the production of an in-game advertising SDK - it's too early to tell if it will work, and some critics will point to this effort as merely the latest business model of the ever-changing Wild Tangent, but I have to give them a lot of credit for thinking about how to attract new users into the sector - by providing a way for users to pay for casual game play in $.25 increments, and more importantly, by making it easier for large advertisers to provide these tokens to new users, it could really expand the market beyond the $20 try before you buy Wal-mart Mom crowd. Plus the creation of the advertising SDK should make it easier for casual game publishers to monetize their free games (99% of downloads), and although I've said earlier (post) that the in-game advertising provider market is saturated, I think the casual game market is a much better target for ads.
On the gameplay side, we finally are seeing games that break out of the Match 3 ghetto, but which are still mainstream enough to sell in large numbers - there is nothing wrong with Match 3 games, and they will continue to sell to the same audience, but we need to see new gameplay options to expand the marketplace. From my side, the hottest new innovative but popular games are:
- Mystery Case Files: Huntsville: the first compelling casual mystery game, a key literature sector for the demographic - download here, and my review here.
- Fish Tycoon - Bigfish - an aquarium sim game with a lot of interactive elements as you try to discover the Mystery Fish
- Plantasia - Playfirst - a surprisingly fun gardening game - have to play it to see why it's cool.
I'm sure there are more cool games in addition to those 3, and it's true they don't break new demographic barriers, but it's great to see new gameplay mechanics that have a decent chances of expanding the numbers of casual game players. Combine this with the new advertising and token-based commerce systems, and I think the 2nd half of 2006 may see a return to higher growth rates in casual games.