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MGF 2008: Focus on casual games

Is it really the fastest growing mobile game genre?

MGF 2008: Focus on casual games
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The last panel session of the first day of Mobile Games Forum focuses on casual games.

Vodafone's Suresh Sudera, says in 2007, the company saw a 9 per cent increase in casual game downloads.

Or, specifically: "In January 2007, Vodafone Group saw casual being 46 per cent of downloads that month compared to branded games, but in December, casual was 55 per cent of downloads."
Stats! We like stats. Especially from operators.

Player X boss Tony Pearce is the first on the panel to ask what exactly a casual game is.

"Is FIFA casual? Is Resident Evil casual? Is Tetris casual? Some people find Tetris really difficult to play," he questions.
It's a live issue, and goes back to the comment earlier today about the difference between casual games, and casual 'experiences' in games that might not be that casual.

RealNetworks' Gunnar Larsen says how you interact with the games is key – if it's simple rules, instant rewards, and short gaming sessions - "although over a period of time, you play for longer on a casual game than you do from a hardcore title". Stephane Labrunie from I-play has a good soundbite: "Casual is a mindset". Moving away from it being this or that genre. I-play has an interesting perspective, since it's now part of a larger casual games firm, Oberon Media.

So what's next for casual games, beyond Tetris and match-three puzzlers? Vodafone's Sudera:

"What I'd like to see is more innovation with the touchscreen devices. There's going to be ample amount of touchscreen devices coming, yet our first feedback from developers is 'this is going to be really difficult to develop for'."
PopCap's Mark Cochrane says his firm uses the online space to test its products, and then take the most successful games to other platforms, including mobile. So he cites new games like Peggle as examples of innovative new gameplay.

RealNetworks' Larsen points out that for many casual gamers, improvement is about iterative tweaks to gameplay.

"They don't necessarily want something new or super innovative. They're looking for a break. So a radical change in the games might not be the thing these guys are looking for. Iterative innovation is the key to success."
Larsen also agrees with Sudera on the touchscreen idea, and says online casual games developers are really keen, as it'll suit their original mouse-based interfaces much better. Sudera chips in again.
"I think anyone who buys a touchscreen phone, will at some point see some games with a touchscreen mentality, which are about using your fingers to play with. If you're not on board now and investing in that development, you're going to fall behind. iPhone has kicked off that touchscreen ecosystem," he says.
Pearce asks why publishers should throw their weight behind touchscreen games, when two years ago they did the same thing for 3D games, which he says "aren't selling that well". Sudera responds that touchscreen may be a better bet than 3D, partly because a lot of developers are already creating mouse-driven online games that will transfer across well.

What about areas like social networks and Web 2.0? Is this going to be a big factor in mobile, along with connectivity?

"Obviously you cannot ignore social networks and all the power they harness," says Larsen. "To me, it's still a bit tricky to see how I can create revenue from Facebook. I can see how it's a marketing channel where I give something for free and upsell people to something premium. But the social networking sites that are popular today, do they appeal to the consumers we're keen to reach. And thirdly, social networks are about sharing things. If I'm taking a break by playing a game, do I want to share that on a social network? You can't ignore them, but you have to be careful how you use them."
Larsen says companies like RealNetworks are focusing on convergence between platforms, so releasing the same games online and on mobile. However, he's not quite so keen on the idea of connected casual games, saying simplicity is more important than connectivity right now, for mobile casual games.

Sudera says Vodafone is also into this converged gaming lark, with Vodafone Germany doing some trials with PC-based casual games, and how they crossover with mobile.

Someone asks Cochrane about PopCap's decision to launch a version of Bejeweled playable via the iPhone's web browser. Is that going to be a big area?

"It was a great PR stunt, there was no real business model around it unfortunately. Can you evolve that? Yeah, you can probably wrap ads around it, like we do online," he comments.
What about Flash and browser-based games for mobile phones? Cochrane says it's all about scale.
"You need the scale and opportunity to make it worthwhile investing. There's a barrier of bill-shock and data charging too."
Larsen says mobile Flash is on the company's radar, but "not a top priority".

What about if I was a small developer with a cool casual game idea, should I not bother with mobile, but instead launch it as a casual online game or Facebook application, and THEN hope to bring it to mobile once it's got an audience?

The panel say yes. "That's a great approach," says Sudera. "It's getting your game in front of people."

Cochrane and Labrunie agree, not least because it's technically less complex (and thus expensive) to develop an online game.

I wonder if this means a possible brain drain of developers with cool ideas from mobile to online – although in the above scenario, their games would still come to mobile eventually, so us gamers aren't losing out.

Orange's Neil Holroyd shouts out from the audience, suggesting that in 2008 and 2009, the operators will be heavily focused on mobile internet – with social networks some of the key destinations for users.

"It's going to be important, if we want to grow casual gaming on the phone, to have a way for people to play within Facebook Mobile and the like, whether that's Flash Lite or some other technology," he says.
Last question: what are their predictions for 2008? One per person:

Labrunie (I-play): "I truly think that 2008 and probably 2009 will be the transition period to migrate to the new business. But this year we'll see good growth."

Larsen (RealNetworks): "It's the year of cross-promotion, so you'll see much more of that. There will be a bunch of hidden-object games hitting the mobile market. You will see shedloads of those."

Pearce (Player X): "2007 was a tricky year, but this time next year people will be a lot happier. I think there will be a mobile phone game brand that might be successful too."

Cochrane (PopCap): "We've got an exciting roadmap of titles coming to mobile, and will try to bring customers from other platforms to mobile. Cross promotion for us will be a very big thing – we'll be in retail in Europe for the first time this year. And there'll be some announcements around social networking as well, but I can't talk about those."

Sudera (Vodafone): "We will see more publishers using the Web to raise awareness of their mobile games, so things like Facebook. And touchscreen is something we're going to be influencing from a Vodafone perspective, to see more touchscreen games in the marketplace."