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Sick of crunch? Try a career in casual

Casual games used to be where game developers went to die.  That’s not because the games aren’t fun to play. But most “core” developers  view casual games the way a film student views “Shrek the Third:” Entertainment for the unwashed masses.
'Cake Mania,' a time-management game from Sandlot, was a monster hit for the company. In it, you play a young woman trying to buy back her grandparents' bakery — one cake order at a time.
'Cake Mania,' a time-management game from Sandlot, was a monster hit for the company. In it, you play a young woman trying to buy back her grandparents' bakery — one cake order at a time. Sandlot Games

Casual games used to be where game developers went to die.

That’s not because the games aren’t fun to play. Most gamers — even the hardest of the hardcore — will admit to liking “Tetris” or “Bejeweled.” But most “core” developers — the ones making the first-person shooters or the sports games or the massively multiplayer titles —  view casual games the way a film student views “Shrek the Third:” Entertainment for the unwashed masses.

These game-makers would do well to rethink their stereotypes. The casual sector is the fastest-growing of the overall industry. Revenues are expected to top $1 billion in 2007. And unlike the core space, where titles take three years and many millions to produce, the average casual game is a smaller affair, with shorter timelines, modest budgets and easygoing schedules.

“There’s not as much at stake compared to a triple-A retail title,” says Ellen Beeman, who worked in the core industry for many years before joining Microsoft’s casual games unit. “But I’m still creating games that can be enjoyed by millions of people. That’s truly a joy.”

Casual games have been around since video games were invented. Think “Centipede." Think “Pac-Man.” These old-timers have much in common with today’s games — they had basic graphics, basic gameplay and were designed to be fun in short, quarter-fed bursts at the arcade.

Casual games faded into the background as game technology started moving toward 3-D and greater realism. But as the Internet started to emerge, so too did online casual games. These first offerings were supported by advertising, as most Internet content was back in those days. When the dotcom implosion happened, the few folks that were developing and distributing casual games had to try a different tactic to make money.

Today, gamers can sample titles like “Slingo” and “Cake Mania” for free before plunking down $20 to buy. This try-before-you-buy model is the mainstay of the industry, although some still use the ad-supported approach. Game portal sites abound on the Internet; Yahoo Games, Real Arcade and MSN Games are some of the biggest. The genres in casual games are as varied as in the core space, although puzzles, card games and word games are among the most popular.

Initially, the majority of casual game buyers were women over 35. These were the soccer moms who were comfortable using their Visa card on Amazon and eBay. Not hardcore gamers, but rather the gals who stumbled across a promo for “Bookworm Adventures” on MSN and got hooked on the friendly, approachable gameplay.

That demographic may be one reason that core developers have been slow to migrate to the white-hot casual space. Let’s face it: Most game developers are guys. They grew up on titles like “Doom” and “Legend of Zelda.”They don’t want to make “Diner Dash” sequels that their mom might play.

But times are changing in the video game industry. The success of Xbox Live Arcade, which boasts 45 million games downloaded as of July, proves that the hardcore gamers like to play casual games, too. In fact, one of the Xbox 360’s first breakout hits was “Geometry Wars,” a pick-up-and-play game that’s still one of the system’s bestsellers.

(MSNBC is a joint Microsoft - NBC Universal venture.)

The larger game industry is taking notice. According to data from DFC Intelligence and the Casual Games Association, 200 million people worldwide are playing casual games. Add in the success of Nintendo’s Wii and DS systems and you’ve got a market that’s difficult to ignore.

In June, a reorganization at Electronic Arts saw the creation of four separate units, including a new casual division that will focus on the company’s mobile and mass-market efforts. At July’s E3, Microsoft touted the PC version of “Gears of War” as well as “Halo 3’ — but also “softer” games like “Viva Pinata: Party Animals,” “Scene It!” and “Rock Band.” Capcom, best known for its zombie slaying “Resident Evil” series and the butt-kicking “Street Fighter” franchise, was keen to show off “Zack and Wiki,” a kid’s adventure game for the Wii.

But casual game developers — the ones who’ve been on this bandwagon since the beginning — believe it takes something special to make it in this industry.

“The economy gives you a certain set of constraints that are required to think of games as bite-sized entertainment,” says Daniel Bernstein, founder of Sandlot Games. “The creation of a game for the casual market is very different than creating a game for the hardcore market.”

For Chris Mahnken, who came to Sandlot after eight years in the hardcore industry, scaling down was a welcome change.

“In hardcore games, your entire life is wrapped up in one thing for a couple of years, and if it doesn’t do well you almost feel as if you’ve wasted two years of your life,” he says. “In casual games, you’re typically doing more than one game at a time.”

It’s also easier to take on different roles at a casual game company. In the core space, developers have gotten more compartmentalized as the budgets and projects have gotten bigger. An animator animates. A programmer programs. A modeler models.

But on the smaller teams that characterize much of the casual games industry, Joe Generalist is more valuable than Mr. One Trick Pony. Some people love the opportunity to mix it up and flex different muscles. Other developers, used to spending a year creating a physics system for one game, have trouble adjusting to the bite-sized chunks that are casual games.

“It’s like hiring the president of McDonald’s to run your small front-porch organic café,” says Jessica Tams, managing director of the Casual Games Association. “Casual games have a completely different production cycle, so the developers need to have a different skill set.”

Not to mention a willingness to work differently. The average time-to-market for a core video game is two years — characterized by a “crunch” time at the very end as teams push to make retail deadlines. Sometimes, the crunches are a couple of months. Other times, these death marches can stretch to a year — or more.

“In casual games, the technical barrier is so much lower, so there are a lot fewer unknowns and a lot less crunching,” says Dan Chao, a designer at PlayFirst. “In core games, a lot of crunching happens because developers have to always be on the cutting edge.”

Although gem-matching games like “Bejeweled” are still wildly popular, other genres are emerging. “Virtual Villager,” a life simulation game by developers Last Day of Work, is a top ten game on RealArcade. Chao believes that casual game players have been saturated by puzzle games — and are getting more sophisticated.

“People are becoming more and more immersed,” he says. “And they’re becoming more and more used to playing games.”