The Casualties of Casual Games

This was in part a rebuttal to another editorialist's article:

First things first, Peggle is fantastic. There are no two ways about it, the puzzle game is alive and well. This article is not a criticism of Peggle per se, but is more of a knee-jerk reaction to the notion proposed by Brad that we are completely wrong about casual games.

Brad is careful to address games that are purely cash-in casual titles, as a long list of pathetic Wii copycat games will support the notion that some attempts at "appealing to new audiences" are nothing more than shoddy waggle-fests. Nevertheless, perhaps he is mistaken in his labeling of Peggle as a casual game, as this term has almost become a term exclusively for this type of cheap "party" game. Peggle is of a similar quality to old classics like Tetris, Columns and Bust-a-Move, games that were never branded as casual when they were released. This type of well-designed puzzle game is more of a compliment to heavyweight titles for most gamers, as Brad's Xbox gamertag will testify, with Peggle nested in between sessions of Skate 2 and Fallout 3.

Peggle itself is of course nothing to be derided, and I personally am yet to hear anyone proclaiming Peggle as the cause of the ills of modern video game development. I do, however, have a problem with casual gaming as a whole, and not just the cheapo titles.

Rather than delving into the semantics of the term casual, I would like to explore some of the negative aspects that have arisen since the label "casual gaming" has been branded about.

Most of the complaints about casual gaming are in relation to its almost universally poor quality and the perceived sacrifice of higher quality games as a result. However much I loved Civilization Revolution and Prince of Persia, I would have much preferred more complex and less accessible versions. Both games suffered from being too easy and over-simplified, clearly a consequence of the shift to a broader target audience demographic. Older Civilization games had much more micro-management and diplomacy options and Sands of Time had more complex controls and you could actually die. This is my primary complaint with casual gaming, as the hardcore market suffers as a result of the widening of the range of gamers.

This is of course, linked to the so-called gateway drug games, the Wii Sports, the Rayman Raving Rabbids. As much as I have always banged on about the undervalued nature of our industry and have often grumbled at the lack of acceptance and validity given to our favored medium, I must admit I don't really want it.
I would like people like Jack Thompson to get screwed and I would like video games to be viewed as an artistic and valuable industry, matching film and television in terms of acceptance and merit.

Nevertheless, I actually quite like being part of a niche (ish) industry. It's fun to be the underdog. It is nice that almost everyone who plays games also reads up on the latest releases, checks reviews, waits patiently for release dates, discusses industry issues and reads Kombo's unbelievably amazing blogs. Most current gamers are true gamers and traditionally there is a satisfying correlation between critical reviews of games and their sales figure, apart from a few tragedies that escape the net.

I disagree with the idea that casual gaming does not lead newbie gamers into bigger and more complex things, as ever-increasing sales figures of consoles and triple-A titles would connote. Indeed, an excellent Kombo article last year described how casual games (in particular Nintendo's releases) are a "gateway drug" to more hardcore titles and genres.

With the advent of the Wii and casual games, or rather the casualization of games, more and more people are experimenting with games, even if they do not always ultimately go on to play The Orange Box. Recent sales figures have favored weak titles like Wii Fit in a negative correlation with critical scores as the video game industry looks increasingly likely to transform into Hollywood.

This is bad news. Hollywood box office receipts tend to be massive for films that are derided as formulaic and rather small for arthouse and other acclaimed films. Academy Awards are rarely given out to Blockbuster hits, and as a result much of Hollywood is regularly unwilling to experiment or innovate due to the risks involved, therefore we see hundreds of "safe" bankable films hit our cinemas, and have to do a bit of reading and search a bit harder for the gems. In gaming terms, we would see less innovation as publishers would look to the widest possible target audience in order to boost sales and an influx of cheap marketing gimmicks.

I do not wish to see the games industry transform into its older brother. It is a blessing that games we consider to be run-of-the-mill bankable hits in our industry also happen to be stellar games as well, such as Call of Duty, Halo and Metal Gear Solid. If gaming became truly mainstream, due to the forthcoming lack of a general hardcorism amongst players as is evident in today's film-watchers, we would likely see the downfall of this current golden era of games. Sure, we, the gaming elite, would still be here, but we would be relegated to the fringe of the industry: the Aranofsky buffs, the Ebert adorers, the Cannes visitors. Most people do not bother reading up on films, just as most of the mainstream casual crowd do not read up on games.

Most gamers today are savvy consumers and we are known for being ultra-critical and hard to trick into buying sub-par products.
It is not to say we should reject anything other than huge complex games; there is of course room for great titles such as Peggle, as there has always been. They are the starter or appetizer for the main meal of Zelda and friends. Yes, I classify myself as a core gamer, but it doesn't mean I do not enjoy a round of UNO now and then, but it does mean I expect better titles than what Nintendo and others are currently offering.

We must be wary of opening the metaphorical gaming doors to "just anyone" (read women, children, old people, mums – yes, a generalization), as the ignorant non-gaming public are already beginning to make some pretty bad retail choices. There should be a rule: if you want to join our lovely medium, you have to really mean it, and unfortunately I believe casual gaming is an open invitation.

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