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What happened to the middle class of gaming?

As time was short this week just a small post but one thing in the last days really intrigued me: Just recently at GDC, Epic‘s own (in)famous Cliff Bleszinski stated: “The Middle class game is dead!“. Now, “Cliffy B.” is known for some polemic statements but if you have a look at the current games in the Top10, being released or being covered in magazines and online portals unfortunately he has a good point. But as I do not agree with Mr. Bleszinski I thought I have to do a little rant on it.

State of the “Art”

To quote what was said:

It needs to either be either an event movie – day one, company field trip, [Battle: Los Angles], we’re there. Avatar – we’re there. The Other Guys starring Will Ferrell and Marky Mark? Nah, I’ll f****** rent that, I don’t really care, right?
Or it has to be an indie firm. Black Swan – I’ll go and see that. I’ll go to The Rialto or I’ll go to the triple-A Imax movie. The middle one is just gone, and I think the same thing has happened to games.

What he does is making a very logical comparison to the movie industry and the people watching movies. And I think we all had that kind of thinking when going to the cinema, at least once.
In general, the movie and the gaming industry underwent a big change over the last years through the advent of fast internet connections, a wider offer of “different” games delivering the same and of course piracy. The movie industry had many problems related to the “new media audience” and was trying to force a new way of thinking onto an old structure… and in most cases failed (not counting things like the iTunes Movie Store, Netflix, … as these are 3rd parties)!

Gaming did so, too! With building restrictive copy protections, enforcing keys for online playing etc. the industry of course tries to protect their property and investment but has also to deal with a not so new audience but its only audience, the media-audience that knows the possibilities and knows how to spread or deal with what they do not intend to deal with (again some “kind of” 3rd parties succeeded such as Steam, providing other games more successful).
But from there, two new branches (re-)opened for gaming: 1) Widen the audience with titles like Just Dance and the NDS or Wii and 2) work with the “independent idea”, doing something special, even odd (being “Sundance“). These also broadened the art of games and the art of developers. But if only Triple-A and Indie developments are really the only thing succeeding the whole Wii line-up probably has to be canned.

If we just take a look at sales, Top10s and media coverage right now everything pretty much underlines what Bleszinski stated:

  • The Top10 is ruled by Killzones, Call of Duties, Fight Night Champions, Bulletstorms, …
  • Call of Duty: Black Ops sold over 20mio units (vgchartz.com)
  • Arkham City, Bioshock: Infinite, Guild Wars 2, Prey 2, … on gaming news sites

Not much variance in what is the main source for information and “opinion” making for 90% of all gamers. I may be a developer but foremost a Gamer! And growing up in a time where every game was Indie or middle class and could get the attention it wanted, this somehow makes me sad. So why is it that there is no middle class in gaming any more?

Today’s Ratings…

You could think that gaming and game reviews follow the rules of the Highlander: There can be only one! Games seem to need a 90+ rating to be sold and they have to be the “definite” thing. Every game has to duel against the genre highlight and nothing is accepted besides. Every MMO has to compete against World of Warcraft, every Action-RPG against Mass Effect.
Now, with this attitude in reviewing games, always coming back to: This was a good game, but Call of Duty has more players online!, how can middle class games even get the attention they deserve? How can a middle class FPS compete against billions of dollars in revenue? Only “Indie Games” seem to have that little bonus given so that even e.g. a game as Magicka (great game) often just got a 7 out of 10 but is a success (a death sentence to other games). But wait? Magicka was known and well sold already before reviews with great ratings!?

…and the perception?

Reviewers and PR often argument that they have to force the 90+ and advertise the hell out of it just to provide a “deceiving perception” that it is the next great game and needs to be bought. Now, if you just read the comments below reviews and the comments to In-Game Videos that may show a little lag you could think those arguments are correct. And if sales such as Call of Duty: Black Ops pop up everything is signed that “their way” is right.
Now, everyone wants to do that “one bullet”, wants to be the next Call of Duty or WoW (not even Blizzard can do another WoW!). But really besides those what sells are a Pokemon, a Mario, a Just Dance, are Kinect and their Adventures, and the many other (not only Wii) titles that everyone watches but somehow nobody really sees. These are not necessarily games that are labelled triple-A or are covered throughout the gaming sites all day long (up to the release I didn’t even know about a new Pokemon, but I like Black&White ^^), but nevertheless they are sold, are in Top10 charts and are even fun to play. I will skip that in some purely economically driven stock corporations these numbers seem to not count.

Media Coverage

How games are covered in magazines and on online sites is very important nowadays. 100 Action-Adventures against 100 First-Person-Shooters against 100 whatever games compete for the money of the gamer. It is not enough any more to release some footage near release. You have to be in the gamers mind for months before the release. You need to be watched to be recognized, you need to waited for to be a “seller”. But did people really waited for the Top10 game Just Dance 2?

The recognition long before the release is produced with “unreal” information. Costly Render trailers provide a visual media entertainment over the real gaming. Produced parallel to games, sometimes from external studios they try to establish a name in the gamers mind. Games like Deus Ex: Human Revolution were noted for nearly a whole year just because of an impressive render trailer. It is just now that some people start to report from real playing sessions. If these would be anywhere near mediocre the game would be criticized prior release because of faked expectations. In this particular case even two expectations: Because of its predecessor and really incredible trailer. If I think about the Video Game Awards last year and the trailers I could start thinking that gaming is not important any more as I haven’t seen much gameplay… the important part in the end!
A different game and according media coverage is Limbo. Videos, Previews, Screenshots etc. always showed gameplay and people got intrigued by the game, by the art, by the style and not a “produced emotion” but what they felt themselves watching the real game. Now, I am always thinking: If they only show a render trailer the game probably isn’t that intriguing being watched… or is it?

…and the perception?

Basically you could say: WYSIWYG! We can only go out and buy what we know of, what we see. Therefore, PR and Marketing, the coverage in the media and the outcome as a rating is so important to be recognized and a possible subtract for the buyers money. That is limited and more and more players try to get a share out of it. Once the music industry complained that piracy is destroying the revenues. No question, piracy is bad but an important point is missing: The every growing entertainment battles for the same share! New technologies, more games, more movies, … broaden what has to be consumed and therefore fight for the right to be noticed.
I remember a time where I would pick up a gaming magazine at my local store (yes, a printed one!) and would have an overview about every single game to be released in that particular month and nearly everything in development. The market was growing but manageable and you would be able to keep an overview of everything interesting. Nevertheless, we still remember the time and those “glory days” of gaming. Games such as Outcast or Might and Magic VII keep me on my machine still today (just bought them at GOG).
Nowadays, such games would hardly been noticed if not covered exclusively or they would not stand comparisons against “that one” genre defining game.

The hidden Middle Class

A problem as always is the definition of “middle class” and especially “indie”. Middle class is not necessarily A- or AA-Games and Indie does not mean: One guy sitting in its room developing the next extraordinary gaming evolution.
Of course, games such as Braid or World of Goo with it’s extremely small teams are top-notch productions and extremely great games. These are also often used as a definition of Indie games. Besides providing an interesting game design and gaming twist both games are extremely polished, with sometimes incredible graphics and beautiful music. So, besides an interesting game design these games also provided incredible art and music, often only related to so-called Triple-A games.
But besides these two examples what about others? For example the developer of the fantastic ‘Splosion Man Twisted Pixel is no “Two and a half Men” team but a team of about ten doing a high production value, extraordinary game with good design and a special twist. The new developer Adhesive Games just showed of their premier title Hawken which was so impressive that Kotaku labelled it as the most beautiful indie game. But a giant city, mech action game with an impressive graphics style and city view, an indie game? Introversion coming from Indie “heritage” being middle class nowadays. This is also a good example of what indie development becomes after that “one hit”: Middle class! You cannot stay “indie” if you are noticed and people follow what you are doing and especially starting building up expectations.

All these and even more such as contract developers (e.g. Shin’en) are the middle class no one notices. This “hidden” middle class is what provides the foundation for our gaming, for our everyday entertainment. As well as a movie such as Avatar gaming cannot and will not consist of only triple-A high budget productions. Many try to achieve just that: A triple-A 90+ international seller every year! But from a real economic viewpoint this is nonsense. You neither plan with just one horse nor do you found on one pillar. Sometimes productions have to level each other because success cannot be planned, especially in entertainment. If you have bad luck and your extremely awesome military shooter comes out right the week after a catastrophe, your game is doomed. The movie industry knows this for years and paid for it. These errors should not be repeated.
And from my own experience, another player, the browser games are not developed by some “PHP script kids” any more but productions with larger teams trying to increase the production value to a level with standalone games. Right now probably the widest middle class games everyone plays, but nobody knows.

No question, I love the so-called AAA-Titles such as Uncharted, Gears of War or Killzone. But to me the middle class definitely is not dead. It again depends on how we look at it, how we rate it (without prejudices) and how we classify “The Other Guys” in gaming such as downloadable games, “indies” and online games (as well as my infamous Casual Games). Because we have to remember even a company such as Epic started of as a middle class developer with Indie developers. “Cliffy B.” may be right for the games he intends to create, but The middle class game is not dead in general! Or would you label EVE Online as middle class? Just based on money or CUO you would have to if you think like Cliff!

PS: A polemic assumption by me: If the general gamer has 100$ each month, he would buy more games if the costs are lower and therefore a wider production would be more effective and risk-less!

Written for #AltDevBlogADay

There are no Casual Games…

…but Casual Gaming (and Casual Gamers)! Wait, wait… Before you stop reading and ask yourself why I would make such an offensive proposition, please hear me out.

My Origin
I have a very tense relation to the terms Casual and Core Games that found on three things: 1) I am getting older and my best “Gamer” times are over ^^’, 2) I develop Browser Games and 3) I develop in Java! A very bad combination to go into a Game Developer discussion… trust me!
I am a Gamer for over two decades now, started with Pong and played a high percentage of every mentionable game ever made. Studying Computer Science and developing Games was a reasonable step and I like what I am doing now, I am good in what I do (yes, I am ^^), developing Games and I am proud of what I achieved until today. But nowadays if I mention that I develop Games, I get asked:

  • “Oh, very cool. What Games?”
  • “Browser MMOs”
  • “Ahhh…*pause*… Casual Games!”

Even with swallowing the bitter taste of that sentence I somehow feel unvalued for being part of one of the largest Browser Games around, over four years old, still growing and established way before Facebook. A massive simultaneous multiplayer game, relying heavy on PvP, time intensive and based on a very technical Story. All features that are normally related to so called “Core Games”. But if a Browser Game features such elements why is it that the term “Browser Game” is instantly related to “Casual Game”? And why in general is “Casual Game” leading to the idea of “not a real game”?
In my specific case Browser and Casual is not the only evil term. The dialog above often continues as follows:

  • “Why do you think I develop a Casual Game?”
  • “It’s in the Browser… probably Flash.”
  • “I am Java Developer.”
  • “I think you said you develop Games. How can you develop Games in Java?”

But that is another story I will cover in another post ^^’.

My Problem
Another thing that leads me to my “new” thinking was the evolution of my own gaming habits. As mentioned, I am a Gamer, a Core Gamer you would say, played Games from Wolfenstein 3D to Call of Duty: Black Ops, from Half-Life over CS to TS2, from Zork to The Whispered World. I owned and own Handhelds, Consoles and PCs. I spent ages playing through games each day after school, alone or with friends. But over time my gaming habits changed through studies and now a whole lot of work. I am still a Gamer, just tested the newest Crysis 2 and Bulletstorm Demos… but the actual gaming sessions changed!

I am part of the working community now. Most of the day I am sitting at my work desk and if I get home I have some commitments to do or just want to get some peace. Nevertheless, my Civilization is teasing me to conquer the world, while Snake is asking me to finally complete the Mission, besides Kane & Lynch still arguing. Everything becomes a Quest that Puzzles me and I get Angry like the Birds outside my Windows (couldn’t find a transition to my iPad here ^^).
So, every evening I really have to decide what I do and IF I play. And even if I play, the time a playing session takes reduced a lot nowadays. For example, I played Plants vs. Zombies as well as Dead Space. I played Mirror’s Edge as well as Angry Birds. All four games would be categorized into Casual and Core Games, but the way I played them somehow did not fit the definition. I played Plants vs. Zombies for hours straight but Dead Space actually in 15-20 minutes chunks until the end (not only because it was scary). Mirror’s Edge I played through in one session but Angry Birds just 15 minutes some evenings.
Now, with the advent of all this classification that somehow does not fit my overall love for games of every type that “entertains” me, I questioned myself: Am I doing something wrong? Or is the classification not practicable?

The Definition
With that many inconsistencies in my general understanding of Browser and further more Casual Games I tried to find a conclusive definition. During the search of a definition I had to notice that I never read so many different ways of defining something, especially as most definitions come down to attitudes of the writer. Because of that, let’s start with a “not so ideal” example from the Urban Dictionary:

Casual games are any kind of game that is over hyped and over rated or just the exactly same thing as a previous version that was over hyped and over rated, these games are known by gamers as “crap” because even with all the perfect scores the games still have mediocre graphics and shitty plots that casual gamers think are good. Usually the only thing that makes a casual game not-total shit is the multiplayer; otherwise these games would get ratings lower than dirt.
With shitty graphics and a generally horrible campaign mode, the halo series is the indisputable king of casual games.

But all jokes aside, for a more serious definition from the IGDA Casual Games SIG from 2005/2006:

The term “casual games” is used to describe games that are easy to learn, utilize simple controls and aspire to forgiving gameplay. Without a doubt, the term “casual games” is sometimes an awkward and ill-fitting term ““ perhaps best described as games for everyone. Additionally, the term “casual” doesn’t accurately depict that these games can be quite addictive, often delivering hours of entertainment similar to that provided by more traditional console games. To be sure, there is nothing “casual” about the level of loyalty, commitment and enjoyment displayed by many avid casual game players ““ just as there is nothing “casual” about the market opportunity and market demand for these games.

That is an interesting definition. Let’s have a look at some more. Wikipedia describes:

Most casual games have similar basic features:

  • Extremely simple gameplay, like a puzzle game that can be played entirely using a one-button mouse or cellphone keypad
  • Allowing gameplay in short bursts, during work breaks or, in the case of portable and cell phone games, on public transportation
  • The ability to quickly reach a final stage, or continuous play with no need to save the game
  • Some variant on a “try before you buy” business model or an advertising-based model

The CasualGameWiki as well as About.com extend the definition with specifics about the price point and the platforms:

  • Style Of Play: Casual Games are now considered “games for everyone” – with a special emphasis on whether your mom can play it.
  • Distribution: Casual Games are frequently distributed with a “Try Before You Buy” model. Where a person can play for an hour for free and then decide whether to purchase or not. This model of play grew out of the Shareware distribution model.
  • Casual Games are usually sold for $19.95.
  • Platforms: Casual Games can now be found on Cell Phones and Consoles such as XBox 360 via the Xbox Live system.


Casual games are most often played via a Flash or Java based platform on a PC, but are now appearing in larger quantities on video game consoles and mobile phones.

The definitions often come with a timeframe of around the millennium or 2001.

An Interlude
Let’s move away a little from the term “Casual Games” and the definitions given and have a look at the last sentence: The Year! If we take a look on what happened and was released around that time that is somehow “defined” as the origin of the term we will find things like the Playstation 2 (2000) and the Xbox (2001). While the Playstation 1 was still a child of the “old” console generation especially the Playstation 2 as well as the Xbox introduced the “new” generation of consoles, away from old Entertainment Systems we adored. More important is that with the new generation the games from the “old world”, the Personal Computer, and the consoles were starting to congregate. Complexity from the PC moved to consoles and simplicity of the Consoles moved to the PC.
On the PC Flash was released in version 4.0 in 99 and one year later in version 5.0. These introduced and extended Flash’s own programming language ActionScript. From here on Flash was not only a way of playing frames off a timeline but introducing conditional actions onto these. More and more Flash Games started popping up. Around the same time Java 1.3 was released introducing the HotSpot VM and building the foundation for JavaME (J2ME at that time) that brought gaming very heavily to normal phones.
This interlude is important to understand how Games opened up to a larger community (yes, long before the Wii) away from the nerdy PC hardware geeks that “pimped” their autoexec.bat to play games as of today these build a large majority of the people defining and mostly complaining about “Casual Games” (no offense).

The Ambiguity
If we sum up the definitions the following list could be seen as a general understanding of Casual Games:

  • Easy to learn/simple gameplay
  • Simple controls
  • Forgiving Gameplay/quickly reach a final stage
  • Gameplay in Short Bursts
  • Games for Everyone
  • Up to 20$
  • Try before you Buy
  • Flash and Java Games on the PC side/DLGames on XBoxLive, PSN, etc.
  • Since 2000/2001

This list looks pretty decent doesn’t it? As you can guess from the headline the list is not as decent as I hoped it to be. I often refer to these hand full of games that somehow should fit these rules, are named casual but do not really allow a distinct identification of what a casual game should be.

Let’s start off with Plants vs. Zombies (one of my favourites over the last years). This modified Tower Defense game is a success on every platform. First released in 2009 it sold and sold and people rated it effusively. It’s a great game that just brings a ton of fun. If we look at our list we can see that it looks pretty good: It costs under 20$, the controls are simple and it is downloadable on PC, iOS and XBoxLive. Regarding the gameplay, it is simple and easy to learn… because of the many tutorials, and can be hard to master. This makes this game attractive to be played for just some minutes or for hours fiddling on the new strategies and therefore attracting Casual Gamers and Core Games as well as hybrids like me. It provides Casual Gaming and more, for Casual and Core Gamers. So, is this a Casual Game?
My second example would be Super Meat Boy (and N/N+ in parallel). This 2010 hit platform game has gone through different stages of the list. It was a Flash Game first, ported, tuned and extended for the PC and Consoles. Over 300 mostly short levels (short bursts) with a very gory portion of simple gameplay. It is also cheaper then 20$ and has some very simple controls. But it is extremely hard to master forbidding the slightest error ending in a pure gore fest. And actually (as PETA already noticed ^^’) this is no “game for everyone” anymore because of its scenario and its quickly increasing difficulty level. Hardly a Casual Game, isn’t it?
My third example is Prince of Persia (the one before the crappy Movie Game). Not a typical Casual Game and was more expensive then 20$. But if we look at some definitions it fits as much as the previous two examples: It has forgiving gameplay (yes, I mean you Elika), had a Demo, was easy to learn but had not the easiest controls. The save points were pretty frequent and it had a scenario that even my casual sister was able to relate to. Still Core or did it become Casual?
My fourth example is Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light. A franchise that may have brought many women to gaming, featuring intense 3D platform gaming and 3rd Person Shooting Gameplay. With GoL it became a DLG with a strict isometric perspective. It’s on PC and Consoles, downloadable, costs under 20$ and has (in my opinion) simple controls to master the fine placed action and puzzles. Now, are Tomb Raider and Lara Croft becoming casual? Is it just that game? Or does Lara Croft not count?
My fifth example (to use the full hand) would be every Wii Game. Nearly every gaming site and every “Core Gamer” defines a Wii Game as a Casual Game. Why? Because your Family got into “your hemisphere”?

In general if we just take some of the bullet points, some of the definitions describe things that nearly every game, no matter if Casual or Core, wants to achieve nowadays or is a general gaming tradition:

  • Try before you Buy

Demos, Shareware, … Nothing new to the experienced Gamer and Games in general.

  • Gameplay in Short Bursts

Actually, this is something popping up more and more since the advent of consoles. PC users are used to saving games, being able to use up space on their hard disc. For console gamers this was no natural thing to use so developers very often used stages with manual and automatic save points that were not separated too far away from each other to not enrage the player if he dies. I mentioned Dead Space and my very tight gaming sessions playing through it. This was only possible because of the very “controlled” stages and their save points that I could reach in the given time frame.

  • Forgiving Gameplay/quickly reach a final stage

This as well is something that especially First-Person-Shooters nowadays provide to the user. “Old” Gamers remember a time when it was a necessity to know where the next HealthPack is. Today, we rely on a regenerative system, often presented with the argument to be more accessible to more gamers (“games for everyone”). Becoming casual? And regarding the second part, I could get heretical now but games such as Modern Warfare do not really provide that much gaming time to the user anymore. 5-6 hours are some times normal.
The problem is that gaming following the definitions given is way older. This is why gameplay elements can hardly be used to define the games themselves. What is left are technical definitions, prices as well as hardware to describe the so called “Casual Games” and these obliterate more and more.
So, with all this ambiguity coming from the point of defining the Game, wouldn’t it be better to define the interaction?

Classic Classification
We tend to define things based on their surroundings and the “object” using the “subject” (“People Playing a Game” in our case) because that is what we visually perceive. And as it is easy for us to define unknown things from what we know, we derive the Browser into our experience of Casual Games as the Browser was never a dedicated environment for games but so many things that so many people do, not only gamer. Therefore, it is very easy for “Core Gamers” to define games such as Plants vs. Zombies as Casual Games as their Moms or Dads are playing them.
The problem with the classification and the according definitions of Casual Games is that they try to really define constraints where these games may fit in. In a time where it becomes harder and harder to “just” define the Genre of a game (e.g. Puzzle-Survival-Horror Adventure-Games) it is even harder to define an umbrella term of games in general. But my personal strongest point regarding the definition of “Casual Games” is that most of the people that play “Casual Games” do not even know that these are “Casual Games” (or did your Mother or Sister ever talked about Casual Games when playing Wii or DS?).
The classification normally is given by “Core Gamers”, Developers or Game Editors that want to separate themselves from these “unappreciated” games (in many cases). But what we were able to see from the definitions normally used to describe Casual Games is that these do not fit the real world anymore. Especially as they evolved over the last years, away from most simplistic Flash Games to the best gaming experiences of the last decade (e.g. Darwinia, Braid, Limbo and more)
What is required is to divide not only Games but the interaction, the gaming. For gameplay we have genres. Now, we need a new graduation for Facebook, Flash, Indie and everything else that evolved our gaming experience (and will in the future). To what this New Classification could be, I can give you no answer. This needs a long discussion and a broad overview of everything gaming has to offer nowadays.
But what all Gamers need to do is to be open minded to new possibilities and not argue with the term “Casual Game” anymore, especially those that call themselves Core Gamer. I think we all do not want to hear another: “Epic Mickey is a Casual Game. It’s on the Wii!“

My Conclusion
My intention was to make a polemic assertion, presented with my experience, many questions and concluded with my own ways of thinking. If you were looking for THE definition of Casual Gaming, this post does not deliver. It just brings up some things that do not work out in our current scheme of games classification and with the ever growing amount of releases that qualify to our current definition of Casual Games we should quickly start thinking about a new way of filtering, fitting all modern characteristics such as Facebook, iOS and Android, Unity/Shiva/…, Steam and all the other new ways of developing, presenting and distributing games, challenging the “old way” of games development.
I started off with arguing that there are no “Casual Games” but “Casual Gaming” and I tend to support this even if I give away no new definition because such a broad definition of games cannot be made, if the gamers that count are so broad and different themselves. I agree that I only presented arguments for my theory but as long as it is possible to oppugn the current definition that easily it is in our hands to discuss and define better definitions for our most beloved games… that are changing pretty quickly right now!

Written for #AltDevBlogADay