Authenticity and Casual Games

I like to think that I consciously chose a career in casual games, but of course things don’t work that way.

When trying to explain what I do, there are a lot of phases I drop. To relatives who don’t play computer games at all I might say:

“You may think of games that something teenage boys play in dark basements. But in casual games, our biggest audience segment is 30 to 50-year-old women!

To old pals:

“I love it because with casual games I impact the mass culture, not just a sub-culture. People around the country, of all ages and jobs and genders, have heard of the games I make. I hear people discussing my games on the bus and see them playing my games in airport lounges.”

Or to potential recruits coming from the core game space:

“The product life cycles are perfect. Small close-knit teams, six months with no burn-out, and games are almost never killed mid-development!”

And all of these things are true — and I say these things passionately, Casual games seems like a spot-on place to be. There’s clearly something deeply meaningful about casual games. I help make a worthwhile product that many people truly care about.

But the passion is fading.

My company, iWin, actually began as a skill-based multiplayer gaming site. To be honest, I wasn’t hugely passionate about the games I was making — most were utterly unoriginal standards such as solitaire, backgammon, or checkers. But I was passionate about building a thriving game community, and this seemed like a cool business model in which to do that. It was only after revenues of our first downloadable game, Jewel Quest, eclipsed the skill-based business that we realized being a developer/publisher/distributor of casual games was a smarter way to go.

This was great with me. It allowed me to justify spending more time and money on the sweet stuff I always cared about like whizbang graphics, deeper story, and polished gameplay.

So while I didn’t consciously start at iWin to create casual games, I was tremendously happy with how things evolved.

But as the market gets bigger and bigger, meaningful becomes mass-market. As with anything else aimed to the masses, from election campaigns to reality TV, lowest common denominator triumphs. Without fail, time and again, hidden object games, Diner Dash rethemes, match-three clones, and brand-name sequels dominate the charts. 

I recall a specific time when I was particularly proud to be associated with casual games. I was at a club one night, dancing drunkenly to some D.J. I met a young man, a friend of a friend, who told me, “One day I’m gonna be up there spinning and people will know my name.”

This was poignant to me. I’ve always been fond of hangers-on striving to greatness. Whether a wannabe movie star, wannabe rockstar, wannabe chef, or this wannabe DJ… You can tell that most of them will never ever make it just by their attitude. They go to the key events and wear the right styles and drop the big names and push and strive and yearn. But in the end wannabes care about the outer expression — being rich and famous. Not the inner expression — saying something new, killing themselves in obscurity to master the craft better than anyone else, taking big risks, earning an inner confidence nobody can shake.

Now I care deeply about a lot of art disciplines, but when it comes to electronica music, I’m pretty clueless. I’m ashamed to say I don’t even understand what D.J.s do, exactly. Play records? What’s hard about that? And in my ignorance, I appreciate almost nothing about those that excel at DJing — the disclipine is as meaningless to me as collecting Beanie Babies or curling. So here was a wannabe of meaninglessness.

Talking to this fellow made me appreciate my own work. As long as a wide swath of society cared about the games I made, I was doing something meaningful. And the games my company were producing were hits, among the top brands of all time. How wonderful a feeling.

But now, even though my company is still able to consistently manufacture hits, and even though the casual game market is exploding at breakneck pace, I fear by pandering to the base our industry is losing authenticity.

But what’s the alternative? Dozens if not hundreds of indie developers create gorgeous, insightful, deep, unquestionably authentic games that then languish and fail in the open market. Is it the nature of all pop art to be inauthentic? And if that’s the case, where does that leave my own aspirations? At times I strive to be Peter Molyneux or Will Wright — legends who, so it seems, can toil at great quixotic projects and take great ridiculous chances and still be given bottomless resources to work with. But who outside of our small clique of gamers cares about the products these guys produce? Compared to the 350 million downloads of Bejeweled, even these greats and their visions are meaningless.

Still, call me ungrateful… but these days I get the feeling it’s better to be an authentically striving wannabe of meaninglessness than an titan of meaning with nothing more original to say.

Luckily, I’m back where I started — focused on a casual game community again. Trying to craft something with meaning not just to me… but to the faceless masses who, I’d bet, while consuming these throwaway games, strive for a deeper connection.




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