Wanna Be My Friendster?

Wanna Be My Friendster?
Attack of the Parasites

Allen Varney | 28 Feb 2006 07:00
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The BFG website's tagline is "A New Game Every Day"; they must not have liked "Quantity Over Quality." The FunPause acquisition helps sate this ravenous and indiscriminate appetite. In a Gamecloud interview after the purchase, Big Fish Marketing VP Ken Wells was asked, "How hard is it to create and publish casual games that are different than what has been previously released?" He answered without a trace of irony:

This is a difficult task because our audience loves established formats such as match-three games. So, the goal is to look at all sorts of games that have been released on all platforms, not just PC and consoles, and come up with ways to make game mechanics that are innovative in the space while still being accessible to the audience. We always try to create a new and unique experience, even if the development is initially costly. So far, the risk has paid off.

I enjoy these portal marketing guys. They're charmingly brazen, like Baghdad Bob during the Iraqi invasion. Gamecloud just interviewed Kenny Dinkin, VP of PlayFirst, a new casual publisher. Dinkin praised PlayFirst's successful game Diner Dash, developed by gameLab:

What I love about Diner Dash is its innovation - it's the platonic ideal of what we were shooting for - a game that had none of the presumed necessary trappings of a gamer's game: It has an everyday metaphor, a female hero who's a regular gal, 2-D graphics, humor and even a job where you work a shift!

"Innovation"! That's so cute! Diner Dash is, in all these respects, a straightforward imitation of Betty's Beer Bar by Mystery Studio. (Mystery is a two-man team based in, believe it or not, Uruguay.)

Later in the same interview, Baghdad Kenny continues:

It's tempting to be conservative and copy stuff. But trying new things is what drives us. We're really enjoying incubating the unique vision of each of our developers. And for me personally, it's exhilarating to oversee a growing portfolio of new ideas.

Once More Round the Track
History is repeating itself in casual games. In the 1990s, in the wake of Magic: The Gathering, dozens of imitators rushed out trading card games. In the '80s, the boom was in black-and-white comic books; in the '70s, roleplaying games. Obscure creator achieves novel success; hordes of opportunists glut the market; the bubble bursts; four or five survivors dominate the field; lots of naive latecomers lose their shirts.

This time, the cycle is interesting for the debate it provokes in developer circles. Many casual games are made by solo entrepreneurs or small teams, who are a diverse bunch. Some are in it for love of the games, others are indies (independents) in pursuit of freedom from company restrictions, still others seek the quick hit and speedy exit. It's your basic cross-section of humanity. The obvious success of FunPause and other cloners has highlighted a lack of total overlap between "casual" and "indie," and the disjuncture has prompted sharp argument on the Indie Gamer forums.

Chuzzle creator John Raptis wrote of Fairies, "Look, we all clone. The issue here is that you clone because you play a game, and you say, 'Man, this is fun, but it's missing giant tarantulas that shoot laser beams, and that changes the gameplay.' Then you write that new version." And in a later post: "I don't really feel that miffed - my attitude was more along the lines of, 'There's all this stuff I didn't put in Chuzzle, why didn't you put some of it in?'"

Jason Kapalka, Creative Director of PopCap Games, saw more dire ramifications: "There is a big difference between a game that adds vital, new, interesting elements to a base idea - such as JewelQuest or Big Kahuna Reef did with Bejeweled - and games where the only changes are cosmetic tweaks to dodge legal ramifications. [...] For the 'indie' game community, supposedly united by a desire to make the kinds of games the big mainstream developers aren't willing or able to do, it's kind of depressing to see such blatant unoriginality; more depressing still to see it being lauded as a good thing.

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