Mobile games taking casual inspiration (part 1)

We investigate the increasing convergence between web games and mobile

Mobile games taking casual inspiration (part 1)

You might not have played a casual web game, but you may well have played its mobile conversion. Games like Bejeweled, Jewel Quest, Cake Mania, Chuzzle, Diner Dash, Luxor and Zuma all started life as web or PC casual games, before making the leap to mobile.

Indeed, they often sell more phone downloads than big console brands, indicating that there's more crossover between casual web games and mobile. We thought we'd investigate the area by talking to three companies involved in both markets: PopCap Games, RealArcade, and I-play (which was recently bought by casual game giant, Oberon Media).

"Successful casual games have almost always easily understood game mechanics and extremely intuitive controls," says Andrew Stein, director of mobile business development at PopCap.

"These can often translate well to the smaller screen and different input mechanisms of the mobile phone. A hit game on the web has a great advantage when coming to mobile in that the name will be recognisable and stand out from the clutter of other games in the carrier storefronts."

Stein also points out that since many casual web games have adverts in and around them, publishers are able to use some of these ad spots to promote the mobile version, solving one of the key problems in the mobile games world: how to tell people about cool new games.

It's also true that the demographics of web and mobile gamers are far more similar than, say, those of mobile and console gamers. In both cases, gamers are far less skewed towards young blokes, with more women and older people playing. I-play recently conducted a survey that revealed that 38 per cent of casual online gamers already play games on their mobiles, while 45 per cent would play their favourite online games on their mobiles if they were available.

The same research claimed that people who play casual web games are twice as likely to play mobile games as the average mobile user. "There's a much closer demographic," says I-play CEO David Gosen. "A much closer entertainment desire for dip-in, dip-out gameplay. Having an online game is a fantastic start point, because you've got a community of gamers. If you can take that brand and translate it to mobile with quality gameplay experience, you stand every chance of success."

Is it inevitable that popular web games come to mobile nowadays, given that firms like PopCap, RealArcade and Oberon have their own mobile games divisions, while other web publishers have relationships with mobile firms? Stein points out that the games that translate best are the ones that have been popular online over a sustained time, rather than just hot for a week or two.

Big in 2008

So what can we expect next year? Before talking genres, RealArcade's Jeremy Wells has some thoughts on technological convergence.

"We're starting to see more and more touchscreen phones coming to market now, so it's fair to assume that many of the more mouse-driven casual games on PC will appeal to a wider audience on mobile as a result of them taking advantage of a more intuitive control system. Similarly, bigger screens, faster processors and networks mean better graphics and shorter loading times, so the overall customer experience is better."

We're well used to two specific web casual game genres: 'match three' puzzles and 'click management' (the former is epitomised by Bejeweled, Chuzzle and Jewel Quest, while the latter covers Diner Dash, Cake Mania and similar games). Wells believes both of these will continue to be popular on mobile, but could be made more accessible via touchscreen interfaces.

However, there's one genre that hasn't yet come to mobile, but surely will in 2008.

"The biggest trend in terms of innovation on PC/casual in 2007 has been 'hidden object' games such as Little Shop of Treasures and Mortimer Beckett, which both topped the 2007 download charts with millions of downloads worldwide," says Wells.

"Basically, you have a very detailed scene, crammed full of objects, and you have to find them by moving your mouse over the object and clicking it when prompted. It sounds very basic, but it's actually very, very addictive."

The International Game Developers Association (IGDA) has helpfully drawn up a list of Top 10 charts for online game services in the last two quarters, splitting out sales by genre. On RealArcade's website, for example, 30 per cent of the sales in Q3 were hidden object games, while the figure was equally high on Big Fish (43 per cent), Reflexive (33 per cent) and MSN (18 per cent, but this was the largest category).

Both Stein and Gosen agree that the genre is ripe for translation to mobile. "Hidden object games have been huge hits online in 2007, and there are companies that are trying to figure out how to bring those to mobile," says Stein.

Meanwhile, Gosen cites Oberon titles like Dream Day Wedding, and says "you will see these games come to mobile", although he warns that making this genre work on mobile is "a challenge". This is an important point, which Stein elaborates further:

"The game design is one that creates a very complex problem as the play depends on big, complicated art images, but big complex art images are hard to see on the small phone screen," he says. "Also, file size becomes an issue as well – most carriers frown on anything over a megabyte for over-the-air deliver, with most games usually under 400kb."

Come back tomorrow, same time, same place, for the second part of our feature, when we look at the reverse of this trend that sees mobile games become PC or web casual titles, as well as the other issues involved in this growing mobile/web convergence.