Modern casual games began when the Dot Com boom busted. Game portals like Yahoo! Games and Pogo built ad-supported sites with tens of millions of monthly uniques, playing classic coard and boardgames - but ad revenues suddenly fell off a cliff. The portals needed a new business model, and found one in games like Bejeweled. It turned out that Hearts and Checkers players would pay to play equally light and original games.
A VC feeding frenzy began; companies like Pop Cap, PlayFirst, Big Fish, and Oberon raised money. Developers plunged into the market. For a while, "casual game" meant a downloadable game costing $20 with a 60-minute limited demo, aimed at a primarily female, middle-aged demographic, and in almost all cases belonging to one of three genres: match-three (i.e., Bejweled clone), hidden object (i.e., Mystery Case Files clone), or time management (i.e., Diner Dash clone).
Then that market went pear-shaped. Making more games available just meant that there was less and less incentive for anyone to actually buy a game. The portals realized that they had the whip-hand. Developers did scant marketing on their own, and simply relied on the firehouse of users the portals could pump at them. In the early days, portals and developers had split the consumer dollar fifty-fifty; these days, the portals demand 80 percent.
Now, people are getting out of casual downloadables. GameLab, the company that developed Diner Dash and was known as the most creative developer in the field, is out of business. Yahoo started shopping Yahoo! Games around last summer to anyone who might buy it, with no luck so far. Many sites fired the people who managed their game side, and just signed with Oberon (a white-label game provider) to stock their inventory.
The Rise of Social Games
But never fear: the meme that casual games are new, different, and powerful was not allowed to die. It just got rebranded. Today, the feeding frenzy is for social network games - free-to-play games played on Facebook and MySpace. The business model is based on premium upsell; you can advance more quickly in the game, and gain access to special items and additional features, by paying.
Hundreds of millions of dollars of venture capital are spewing into social games; EA has fired thousands of people developing conventional games in order to spend hundreds of millions of dollars buying Playfish, a social network game developer. Analysts tell us that social network games will generate beellions and beellions any year now, and it's demonstrable and known that they are, in fact, generating hundreds of millions now. And everyone agrees that is the new channel for "casual games," games for the masses, not for game geeks.
But actually, these "casual games" are simply lighter versions of hardcore games.
The most successful social network games today are of two types: social network RPGs like the many Mafia and vampire games; and social network business sims, like Farmville.
Yes, social RPGs are lighter than Dungeons & Dragons or Knights of the Old Republic, but they're still RPGs - and the RPG is about the geekiest genre imaginable. And sure, Farmville is lighter than Railroad Tycoon, and Social City is lighter than Sim City - but these games are still based on play patterns established in the market for so-called hardcore games.