Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Business of Casual Games

I recently received mail from a game publisher offering me free access to one of their PC games. The invitation was very nice; they were offering it to me since I talk about video games, obviously looking for a review but not insisting. I was, actually, pleased that they asked.

Yes, of course it is a marketing ploy. They would like me to write a review. But they managed to walk a very delicate balance between gifting and requiring reciprocation. It was an offer, and nothing more. And I appreciated that.

However, I was still left in a bit of a quandary. I am not a professional reviewer. I talk about games I am playing when I think I have something interesting to say about them (either good or bad). I don't review everything I play and I certainly don't have time to review lots of games sent to me out of the blue. (I do have another career, etc.)

But even that wasn't what bothered me. And then it struck me: my problem is that I don't play PC games. It is kind of funny because I work with computers all day (and frequently at night) so have plenty of opportunity. And it is not like I've never played games on computers. (I was very fond of Tetris and various Breakout clones years ago. I even wrote a few games -- toys really -- as programming practice while with one of my previous employers.)

But with a few exceptions (Myst, Riven, The Journeyman Project, and Microsoft Flight Simulator) once we got into game consoles -- and especially handhelds starting with the Gameboy SP -- I have not done any PC gaming.

Why not? Well, there are several reasons:

  • Usability: Quite frankly, the keyboard and mouse are seriously under par as a control set for real-time games. They are OK for strategy/board games with a lot of pointing or typing, but otherwise the controls are awkward. Game systems on the other hand are designed specifically for that purpose. (I'll save my comments about bad game console design for another time.)
  • Compatibility: why do I need a $3,000 computer to play a $50 game? Or why does a $20 game insist on resetting the color scheme and resolution of my monitor (and not setting it back)? Or why can I play games on one version of an OS and not on another?
  • Lack of time for "real" PC games: Quite frankly, I no longer have hours to devote to the larger PC games like Myst, Age of Empires, etc.
  • Lack of patience with "casual" PC games: I just can't get involved in the multitude of what might be called "semi-professional" downloadable games that litter the casual games market for the PC.

It is this last item that got me thinking. I know I don't have time for longer games - whether on the PC or a game console. But casual games would seem to fit right into my vector of needs, interests, and limitations. Quick, fun, no heavy investments...

But they don't attract me. Why? Because I've been burnt before. As, I suspect, have many of you.

Its very simple: there are lots of amateur and semi-pro casual games out there (most with free downloadable demos) and the majority of them stink.

Now, I am not saying there aren't console games that are deplorable (and I've been unfortunate enough to play several). I also don't feel quite comfortable with my previous remark about "the majority" of semi-pro PC games. Despite the high cost of entry for publishing console games, if I were being frank it is unclear whether the ratio of gold to dross is any higher for consoles than for PC games.

However, when you encounter a loser on a console, you simply remove the cartridge and throw it away with no side effects. No uninstall, no danger of virus contamination. No leftover hidden bits and pieces you might not know about. With PC games, there is always the lingering doubt (and plenty of quirky behavior on the part of PC's from whatever source) about its long-term impact.

So, as kind as the offer was, I declined. It is unfortunate, because I would like to give independent artists and developers their due. But ultimately, time and the technology is not on their side. This may be why the market for independent games on smart phones (such as the iPhone) is taking off. It provides both the marketplace -- and a relatively secure hardware platform -- that gives users the confidence to try out less familiar or well-financed options.

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