Dungeons & Dollars

Dungeons & Dollars
Casual Fortunes

Allen Varney | 30 Aug 2005 08:00
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A hardcore designer who deigns to look into casual games may feel sharply disoriented. Hundreds of dinky try-before-you-buy games, created by one or two or three people, with file sizes under ten megs, targeting low-end Win98 platforms, selling one copy for every 50 or 100 free downloads, for years upon years, even decades. For a console designer on a 30-person team (plus outside contractors) with a $500K monthly burn rate, struggling to hit the six-week sales window before Christmas, knowing his game is 90% certain to miss the top 20 and vanish into the La Brea tar pit of next year's bargain bin, this realm appears utterly alien.

Still, there are a few guides. The stalwart Game Tunnel has covered the casual scene for years. Others in the industry are just starting to pay attention. The annual Game Developers Conference has had a Casual Games track the last couple of years, and this June the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) began a Casual Games SIG (special interest group). The 125-page IGDA 2005 Casual Games White Paper pegs the American casual market at $600 million in 2004 and projects growth to $2 billion by 2008. (Source: "US Online PC Gaming Forecast & Analysis, 2004-2008: Growth Continues," December 2004, by business think-tank IDC.)

Kings of Casual
"Selling shareware games has been very, very good to me. And I'm certainly not the only one," Thomas Warfield wrote in a March post on his blog. "There are lots of other people who have been quite successful selling shareware games. Steve Pavlina at Dexterity is well known in the indie game world. DreamQuest Software and Silver Creek do quite well (both of them) in the niche of multiplayer card games. Kyodai Mahjongg clearly sells very well."

How well? It's hard to tell. Successful shareware game designers are a cagy lot. The Kyodai site claims "9,590,367 visitors here since April 2, 1997." Warfield's own game Pretty Good Solitaire has been the top-selling solitaire game for ten years (the current version offers 611 variants) and sells more strongly each year. Warfield is certainly well into his second million bucks - not that he'll say so: "[S]hareware is a funny business. That is, since people can try your product before they buy it, it's generally not a wise policy to act like some kind of Donald Trump. Shareware authors, as a rule, don't generally toot their own horns. (There is one guy I know who put up a picture of his Mercedes on his web site - not really a great way to get sales, in my opinion. But his company does make millions every year)."

There are other successes. In 2000, Seattle programmers John Vechey, Brian Fiete, and Jason Kapalka, formerly employees at online gaming sites Flipside and Pogo.com, started a new company to provide web games for portals like Microsoft's Zone, Yahoo! Games, and RealOne Arcade. When they started selling downloadable "deluxe" versions of their games, sales took off. Today PopCap Games employs nearly 20 people, sells 20 titles on its site, gets six million visitors a month, and claims a total of ten million downloads. PopCap's best-known title, Bejeweled Deluxe, has sold nearly half a million copies. The typical PopCap player is a 35-year-old woman. A 2003 Wired News story quoted Kapalka: "It's not just hardcore, early adopter nerds who have computers, but moms, too, and they're an audience that's much bigger than hardcore gamers."

In 1997 David Dobson, now an assistant professor of geology in Greensboro, North Carolina, created Snood, a modest knockoff of Bust-a-Move/Puzzle Bobble. Somehow Snood caught on, and by 2001 a survey by Jupiter Media Metrix web researchers found Snood to be the world's ninth most-played computer game. Inexplicably, it has enjoyed over seven million downloads, and eight years on, it's still going strong - and is still off the radar of most gaming metrics. Greg Costikyan observed, "Game developers almost can't take Snood seriously. Its success calls into question their very lives - the long hours spent laboriously building these huge, expensive 3D worlds, these involved software engines with amazing visual effects and complicated AI. If it's all really as simple as Snood, why are they working 60 to 80 hours a week for years at a time?"

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