Ultra Casual Games

I’ve been really interested in what has come to be known as the “casual games” industry.
I guess the games industry as a whole breaks down into professional games and casual games.
Professional games are those things you see on the XBox, Playstation, or PC/Mac that are created by big companies with huge teams, take literally years to produce with budgets in the multi-millions, and will cost you $40-50 or more. Halo, Gears of War, WoW, etc. People who play these obviously invest a lot of time in them, and most have an on-line component, which allows communities to build up around them.
Then there are “casual games”. This is a bit more vague. Casual games still have schedules of up to a year, decent size teams and budgets of 6-7 figures. They can still cost up to $20-30. While usually a lot simpler than professional games, they are becoming more and more involved. I think many of the games on the Nintendo DS for example, would be categorized as casual games, as well as the iPod games, most cellphone games, and the XBox Live Arcade games. Casual games are often released on a download, try-buy basis. Popcap games is a notable publisher (think Zuma). The funny thing is that casual game players can be just as committed to their games as other so-called professional games, at least in terms of hours spent playing.
I think there is a whole other category below casual games though. I think of it as “Ultra Casual Games”. This is Desktop Tower Defense (and any number of clones), Line Rider, those penguin / yeti games, and of course Gravity Pods. 🙂
Ultra Casual Games are often done in Adobe Flash, embedded in a web page. You navigate to a page and start playing. They are almost always free and often ad supported. Generally no multi-user support. They are often produced by a lone developer/designer, on a budget of whatever it costs for monthly hosting fees, and a schedule of anywhere from a week to a month or two. Ultra Casual Game users may also spend just as much time playing their favorite web-based game as other casual games, but I think you’d find a lot of office workers popping open a browser to catch a few minutes of play here and there throughout the day, rather than a dedicated two hours after work, like they might do with their console game.
Obviously under these conditions, a lot of crap is going to be produced. And when I say a lot, I mean a LOT. And when I say crap, I mean CRAP! On the other hand, you are going to see some real gems, and they will rise to the top. Without all the overhead and red tape required to get a company to take a game seriously, some creative developer with a great idea can bang out his game and become famous over night. Take Line Rider for example. You think any company would have invested in that? “A game where you draw lines and a guy rides a sled on them? And there’s no goal? No concept of winning or losing? Hmm… yeah, we’ll get back to you.” But the guy who made it put it up on DeviantArt, it got a cult following and it got snatched up by inXile and will soon be on Nintendo Wii AND the DS. I only hope they don’t ruin it by enforcing some traditional game rules.
I’m not sure if I’d call ultra casual games and industry. But for those who are creating them, they are a great way to make some extra money and perhaps get noticed. And the “extra money” is not necessarily trivial. It can easily amount to thousands of dollars per month in ad revenue for a popular game. There are also portals such as NewGrounds and others, who will license Flash-based games for varying rates, generally in the hundreds of dollars. It’s going to be interesting to see where this goes in the coming years. It’s been said that the casual game industry is poised to become one of the most serious business sectors in 2008. I think ultra casual gaming will transform into something serious as well.