Co-founder of famed casual developer says the sector must evolve its relationship with consumers for true ubiquity

CASUAL CONNECT: ‘Casual games need to evolve’ – PopCap

John Vechey, the co-founder of PopCap Games, yesterday delivered a searing criticism of the industry his company helped define, saying the casual games sector was not doing enough to grow its potential audience.

In his keynote address as the Casual Connect Europe West conference yesterday, he said that after the introduction of computer and arcade games in the late ’70s – many of which are these days deemed as casual in style – the rise of hardcore games immediately alienated 80 per cent of the games audience.

"The biggest problem we have as an industry is the people that don’t play games," he said, pointing out that many non-gamers’ reaction to games is ‘Oh, I can’t play this’, as modern games have demanded skill from players, making them hugely discriminating.

"It’s easy for our industry to forget that people think they cannot play games," he said, pointing out that PopCap research shows that only 10 per cent of ‘casual gamers’ actually refer to themselves as gamers. That’s despite the fact many of them spend an hour a day playing Bejewelled.

The reasons for this barrier between the casual games sector and its potential audience, and the problems it creates, Vechey said, were were numerous, pointing out that bad marketing, portal apathy and the Americanisation of casual games as pitfalls.

Although his company has seen 70 per cent year on year growth from 2001 to 2007, Vechey said the industry over all was "not really reaching out to the people. We’re not going to where the customers are."

He said bigger portals such as Yahoo, probably don’t care about the issue, because "I doubt they think about the games business so much", despite their massive audiences. "The industry simply isn’t doing a good job of finding new customers and talking to them.

"There is no effective marketing," he added. "Right now as an industry it is really hard to market a game." Search engines, Vechey said, don’t really aid audience growth either, simply shuffling the same customer base from site to site: "It’s not increasing the size of the audience."

Globally, the Americanisation of casual games (he said 50 per cent of the games in the market were US-made, the other half from around the world), creates an exclusivity of audience.

Plus, the trial and buy business model was only creating a one way street from customer to developer, he said. "We’re letting them figure out on their own what to buy – we’re not thinking ‘hey we’ve got a great product, let’s sell this’." Instead, he said developers were too quick to just put their title up on a portal and hope it sells or generates revenue.

In fact, Vechey added, the casual games sector could fall into the "pitfalls of the hardcore gaming industry" by ultimately only focusing "on our target market": "But we forget we’re just as appealing to soccer moms as we are to college students. There are few industries out there that do appeal to everyone, yet casual games are very lucky because we do have that.

"Currently we [in the casual games industry] see casual games as a separate channel in games – but we’re not just a downloadable biz. We’re also a console biz, and a mobile biz."

Ultimately casual games firms should exploit the fact, he said, in order to achieve true massmarket status and ubiquity: "We need to figure out as an industry how a portal partner can support our titles. We need to think as an industry as a whole about putting all his stuff together. We need to evolve the casual games space – developers and business people should work together to make it happen."

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