Inside the Casual Game Revolution
Imagine a world where board games are a hot topic of conversation. The chatter at the office is about what good games have been played recently and the conference rooms at lunch time are packed with people surrounding the tables, playing games. Instead of constantly texting, surfing the web, or gathering around the TV, friends and families get together regularly for face-to-face game time. Wouldn’t it be amazing?
Well, forget about it. It’s never going to happen. Ever. That is, unless we make some changes in the board game industry.
I believe casual gamers are the key to unlocking the true potential of our industry, both now and in the future, yet this market is being vastly underserved. Unless we figure out how to reach this audience properly and cater to their needs directly, board gaming will forever remain in the eyes of the general public as either an activity for children or a fringe activity that is inaccessible, confusing, or unpopular to most people.
A casual gamer is someone of any age who is interested in board games to some extent, but is not interested in committing to a new hobby or learning difficult and time consuming games and traditions. A rapidly-growing group of casual gamers are becoming aware of modern board games via mobile apps, celebrity recommendation (read: TableTop), and consumer trade shows such as PAX. For most of these people, board gaming is simply a fun form of entertainment that offers an effective way of communicating and bonding with friends and family on a personal level. Some of them go on to embrace the gaming hobby to its full extent, but the vast majority of them remain only casually interested in gaming.
I confess with pride that I am a casual gamer. I am passionate about relatively light, quick games that I can play occasionally as a social pastime. I seek nothing more — not organized play, deeper strategy, nor commitment to the hobby. In 2009, my wife, Melanie, and I were in a position where we were interested in business and investment, and we wanted projects to work on together. We saw the need for games targeted at people just like us. We wanted to make a positive impact on the industry by designing, publishing, and marketing a line of games that were accessible to a general audience but offered a fresh and interesting alternative to the types of games most people were familiar with.
So that’s what we did. In September of 2009, Stratus Games was born and one year later our first two games, Gold Mine and Launch Pad, hit the market. Since that time, I have immersed myself full time in developing, testing, publishing, and marketing several more games, as well as observing the goings-on of the industry. In doing so, I have gained unique insight on the board game industry from the perspective of a casual gamer. In my experience, I have observed six fundamental problems in the industry that must be fixed before board gaming can become a mainstream form of entertainment.
#1: Board games are marketed in either the toy industry or the hobby game industry, and there is a chasm between the two.
The interests of the toy and hobby game industries are vastly different. Generally, a game must fall squarely in one of these two industries in order to see success among the established audiences — that is, it must be intended for children or for more hardcore gamers. Games that fall in between, which are intended for a casual gamer audience, are often seen as too difficult for the toy industry, yet too simple for the hobby industry. However, a few games in the “in between” category have figured out how to reach the chasm of casual gamers and have absolutely exploded.
Established publishers on both sides are seeing the untapped potential and are trending towards the middle ground. However, it is not uncommon for smaller publishers who focus on the middle ground to be required to shift one way or the other to stay afloat due to an underdeveloped market in this area.
#2: Casual gamers are very difficult to reach directly.
The toy industry pays very close attention to the games that are great for children because of their educational value. Scores of toy industry awards abound that focus on child development and play. The hobby game industry, on the other hand, pays very close attention to the games that scratch a specific gamer itch, such as the latest trends in game design or theme. Therefore, a product that meets the needs of either group perfectly has a very captive audience.
But who is paying attention to lighter games for casual gamers and highlighting them so they can be found by those who are seeking them? There is some passing interest for these games in the hobby, but mainly for their effectiveness at converting family or friends to heavier games (“gateway” games) or filling the gaps between heavier gaming sessions (“filler” games). This interest is only secondary for the majority of board game reviewers and media members.
What’s missing is a central place for casual gamers to learn about the latest offerings intended for them and where retailers and publishers can interact with them directly. The fact that such an audience has not been previously gathered is at least partially due to a lack of commitment to gaming as a serious hobby, though many casual gamers are very ready to go out and buy a great new game when it finally reaches their radar. But has there been a real attempt to gather an audience of casual gamers on a large scale? Have we as an industry created an environment in which casual gamers feel welcome? Does our message resonate with casual gamers?
#3: Content about board games makes assumptions about the readers.
The content, reviews, and buzz around board games that can be found online and in other media can typically be categorized into one of the following groups:
- Gamer-oriented. You know everything about the gaming hobby. News, reviews, and even rule books assume that you’re familiar with all mechanics, designers, and companies of note. “This is a pick-up and deliver game similar to X but with elements of Y.” “A Knizia-style Eurogame with area control and hand management.” Reviews of lighter games come with disclaimers that they’re not really what you should want to play but they’re okay for your kids and non-gamer friends.
- Geek-oriented. You’re also interested in comic books, science fiction, role playing, and cosplay.
- Family-oriented. You want to buy board games for your children. Content in this category may have some interesting aspects for adults, though the focus is on playing with children.
- Video gamer-oriented. You’re a hardcore video gamer with a passing interest in tabletop games that scratch a hardcore gamer itch. There is usually an emphasis on board games with a licensed theme from a popular video game.
Where is the content for casual gamers that makes no assumptions about previous knowledge, experience, or culture? What about the groups of teenagers or adults who don’t fit into the above categories but like to play light games socially?
#4: Getting into board gaming requires too much commitment.
Jumping into board gaming is a huge commitment. It’s one thing to learn how to play a game, but there are tools like video tutorials to assist with that. For a casual gamer who has discovered a “gateway” game, the task of finding more games that share similar qualities is a huge undertaking. The hobby market and culture of board gaming is just not intended for casual gamers. The message everywhere is conversion into a new way of life, almost a commitment as it were into a new religion. The true path into board gaming is by invitation only — a gamer must teach you your new lifestyle and guide and coach you into the games you must enjoy in order to be a true gamer. Does it really have to be this way?
As a casual gamer myself, I know of this challenge first hand. I learned about board games years ago through a friend who happened to have a common “gateway” game, which I enjoyed and immediately bought. I thought I could really get into this fun, social, face-to-face form of entertainment on a regular basis. But I was met with disappointment in my search for more games I would enjoy. I had no idea how to describe what I liked or why. I didn’t have a “gamer” friend to teach me the ropes. I didn’t have the desire to convert to heavier games. I simply wanted simple and fun games to play. I didn’t feel like my local game store was welcoming to me. I didn’t know what to search for online and anything I did find was too overwhelming. The highest rated board games on the most relevant websites I could find were consistently far beyond my level of interest or commitment.
Even as a full-time professional with years of experience in the industry, I am still learning new terminology and concepts surrounding the hobby gaming culture, a culture that I don’t exactly share yet am immersed in. But what I have always been interested in, and what I continually keep my eye on, is the casual gaming scene. There are companies out there producing great games for a casual audience, but it requires time and commitment to learn what games to look for, where to look, and how to weed through all of the noise — far too much work for most casual gamers.
#5: The wrong audience is the gatekeeper.
Hobby gamers are usually the gatekeepers of games for casual gamers. The lighter games that find a way into the hands of casual gamers can be extremely successful. But to do this, a game must be continually marketed to the wrong audience in hopes that they will share these games with their friends and families, generating enough sales to earn greater exposure.
The most effective way currently to accomplish this is to publish a game in Germany that wins the Spiel des Jahres award so that the gaming community at large will consider it to be a worthwhile conversion tool and therefore evangelize it to their friends. I, for one, am perplexed why a game published in the U.S., by a U.S. publisher, and for a U.S. audience should have to follow this roundabout path through Germany in order to effectively reach the intended audience and be a smash hit in the U.S.
Consider the video game industry. Are casual titles like Angry Birds first marketed to Call of Duty addicts? Or perhaps FarmVille to Mass Effect fans? And if they aren’t embraced by those groups, are they deemed failures and discarded, never to be presented to their true intended audience? Obviously not. It doesn’t make any sense to do so. These games may have never surfaced if they hadn’t gone directly to the intended audience; but because they did, the target market had the opportunity to decide on their own if they would embrace these games, and they have become smash hits. Why should it be any different for board games?
#6: The hobby industry is more concerned with making people for the games than games for the people.
I believe that the most elite hobby gamers hold gaming as a treasured part of their culture that must not be corrupted by a more mainstream crowd of casual gamers. Perhaps the difficult initiation process into gaming, whether intentional or unintentional, has been perpetuated by this perspective.
The question that seems to be on most people’s mind in the industry is how to convert more people to hobby gaming. Instead, the question should be how to create accessible games that more people will enjoy, and a means to market these games directly to their intended audience.
Now, the question becomes: what can be done? Enter the Casual Game Revolution.
After identifying these problems in the industry, we began in late 2011 to piece together the details of Casual Game Revolution. It started as a marketing campaign to classify the types of games we wished to promote. Then it grew into an idea to assist retailers in creating a shelf in their stores to provide a destination for casual gamers. As we pitched the concept to retailers, distributors, and publishers, it grew into a more comprehensive program. And as we have continued to receive support and an overwhelming amount of interest, it has become a movement.
This program is so much bigger than what we can accomplish alone. We need to define our cause; we need to band together to promote our cause and bring change to the industry; we need to reduce the barriers that prevent people from joining the cause.
Defining the Cause
We have chosen the term “casual game” to describe a category of games that are most likely to be appreciated by casual gamers based on certain characteristics. This term makes no assumptions about the intent or prior knowledge of the players, where terms such as “family game”, “gateway game”, and “filler game” do. It also echoes the casual game movement that has occurred in the video game industry, which has turned nearly everyone with an internet connection or mobile device into a player of digital games. The term makes sense to people and implies lightness and accessibility when compared to the full spectrum of game complexity.
To form our definition, we recruited the help of a panel of industry experts, including publishers, distributors, retailers, members of the media, and others. The definition is intended to be a general guideline to consider whether or not a game is appropriate for a casual game shelf in a store. The hope is that by defining casual games, they can be recognized in their own light and separated from the games that are intended for hobby gamers, making them easier for casual gamers to identify.
Promoting the Cause
We intend to focus our efforts on promoting casual games directly to the intended audience. We cannot do it alone, but we hope to get the ball rolling so retailers, distributors, and publishers will follow. There are several phases to our approach that will need to be refined over time.
In the first phase, we want to begin by creating a sense of belonging, if it doesn’t already exist, among the retail stores that casual gamers walk into. A casual game shelf with the games they will love, that is labeled and spoken of as such, will serve as a destination to which they can return. This will encourage them to become loyal customers, rather than getting overwhelmed and running away.
As part of the first phase, we have created Casual Game Insider magazine. Why a physical magazine? We want to use the magazine to get useful information and tips for selling casual games into the hands of retailers, who are the most important sales force for casual games. Also, at the center of the magazine are posters, shelf labels, and other tools that can be detached and used for display in stores. These tools will emphasize to customers our industry’s new focus on casual games and commitment to the casual gamer. They will also give publishers the means to promote their games directly to casual gamers through the retailers who choose to make use of these tools to increase their sales.
The second phase of the program will include an attempt to gather a following of casual gamers from far and wide who are as passionate about casual games as we are. We intend to create a central online hub that will serve as the primary gathering place for casual gamers, with content just for them. If successful, this will provide a marketing platform in which those who are interested in casual games can easily learn about the products that were intended for them. This online presence will supplement the efforts of retailers to promote a destination in their stores for casual gamers.
Additional phases of the program will depend on the success of the initial phases, but may include a consumer magazine (in addition to the industry magazine), an award program, a trade show for casual games, a collaborative industry group, or other initiatives as we see fit.
Reducing the Barriers
As an industry, we need to start focusing more on the needs of casual gamers. We need content, reviews, and messages that are clear and direct and that make no assumptions about previous experience with gaming. We need to consider the accessibility of the casual games we produce and sell. Do our rule books assume previous knowledge? Do we have video tutorials to assist newcomers to learn our games? Are we carefully considering the copy used to describe our games? Are we creating an environment in stores and trade shows that is welcoming to casual gamers of all different backgrounds?
In the end, gamers can still enjoy their hobby and their preferences. There is nothing wrong with hobby gaming for the audience it is intended for. But we want to create a stepping stone — a safe haven where new and casual gamers can enjoy a wealth of great games that are accessible to them and that assume nothing about their background, without the need for a gamer to train them. Those who then want to step to heavier games and deeper involvement can go on from there, but they need not feel that they have to do so in order to be embraced by the industry.
This program is largely an experiment based on an idea and a vision. The results are yet to be seen or verified. The program can and probably will morph as we learn and understand more about the direction we are headed and the response of casual gamers and the industry. But we hope to gather the combined efforts of those involved in every aspect of board gaming, from designers and publishers, to retailers, distributors, and reviewers, to help us obtain a change.
We hope that there will be a positive impact and that more people will be able to discover the joy of board gaming along with us. Let’s make board gaming a mainstream activity.
Here’s to us: the casual game industry.