Prior to 2006, video games were for the hardcore. Xboxes, PlayStations, and Gamecubes separated the boys from the men. If you didn’t invest in learning button control schemes and combos, you couldn’t rumble with the best players in Soul Calibur II, Halo, or even Mario.
When the Wii launched in fall 2006, Nintendo redefined the definition of video games, shifting it from being a dominantly hardcore subculture to one that is for the true masses. Games that weren’t “games” in the traditional sense such as Nintendogs and Brain Training proved that casual gaming was on the rise. Since last year, Nintendogs has sold 21.67 million copies worldwide and Brain Age has sold 17.41 million copies worldwide. Those aren’t small figures. It used to be that only Mario or Sonic could reach those numbers, but now casual games can, too – because there is demand.
Our lives are becoming increasingly connected to technology, and leisure time is spent almost entirely on the computer browsing the web for the next funny YouTube video. Who has time for video games anymore? Especially to invest 40+ hours in a JRPG? Not many. People today have short attention spans, no doubt thanks to the Internet. We get our information from Twitter in 140 characters or less, from our friends on Facebook, and from tabloid-style newspapers such as the Metro that are given out free but offer no more than a paragraph or two on any given news report. This is the world we live in, and that is the world for which what game engineers need to develop.
Take FarmVille, a farm simulation game created by Zynga, on Facebook. Launched in June 2009, FarmVille seems to be unstoppable, boasting a community of over 82.7 million active users since of last February, smashing through every available person’s free time. It’s impossible to be on Facebook and not know at least one person who isn’t harvesting some kind of crop, earning virtual coins, purchasing animals, and expanding their farm plot. Facebook users aren’t playing FarmVille for hours on end. Gaming is often broken down in chunks. Water this, plant that, then come and check on how it’s going in a few minutes or hours.
Will Wright, creator of Sim City, The Sims, and Spore is predicting that social games will rise and broaden the market by as much as 25%. It’s hard put to say that he would be completely wrong. Electronic Arts, one of the world’s largest third-party video game publishers, is apparently also banking on the growing social games sector, otherwise it wouldn’t have paid $300 million for developer Playfish last November. Like Zynga, Playfish has a slew of successful Facebook games similar to FarmVille such as Restaurant City, a game where you manage your own restaurant to earn money to decorate and expand it.
To finalize the significance that social/casual games will become in the future, just take a look at Sony’s newest announcement for their motion-controller interface called PlayStation Move. Using a PlayStation Eye and a Move controller along with a “sub-controller,” Sony is aiming for the slice of the pie from which Nintendo has been happily biting. Microsoft is projected to move into this market as well later this year with their Natal, a controller-less interface.
I remember in 2008, when I briefly interned at a social games lab, no one ever expected social/casual games to take off. Now, thanks to games like FarmVille, there is a sliver of hope for social games to not just be easy enough to pick-up, but hopefully start representing issues that would have otherwise been neglected because they aren’t friendly enough to be marketed.