Latest Casual Game Hit Breeds Hype
Last week Forbes published an article declaiming that video game publishers are shifting their attention to the casual game market, stating that the bulk of growth is coming in the casual sector -- a major reversal from just two months ago, when the mag declared a "Casual Gold Bust," saying that the casual games market was so flooded, developers were having difficulty carving out a niche there.
The article's thesis revolves around "Spore," the recently released god game that allows you to shepherd an alien race from single-celldom to galactic empire. Despite critical reviews from hard-core gamers saying that the game isn't deep enough, "Spore" sold a million copies in the first three weeks of its run -- fairly respectable, though nowhere near the levels of "GTAIV" or "Halo 3." Forbes quotes Will Wright, the game's mastermind, as saying that "Spore" was never targeted at the hardcore demo, and they fully expected the backlash.
Whether or not that's true, it certainly wasn't the marketing tack that EA was taking during the promotion period for "Spore" -- on Sept. 7, just a week before the game came out, Wright told Stuff Magazine that they were hoping to attract the hardcore audience in a way that Wright's previous hits (like "The Sims 2") hadn't -- "We didn't want to lose 'The Sims' players, but we wanted to attract a lot more hardcore players too," Wright said. "So 'Spore' is much more goals and mission oriented than 'The Sims' ever was."
The reason "Spore" is selling so well isn't because it's captured the imagination of the casual market -- or at least, it's not only because of that. It's simple, old-fashioned hype. Electronic Arts has been promising a seminal game in "Spore" for years. Newsweek described "Spore" in glowing terms back in 2005: "Non-gamers often ask when videogames are finally going to get their 'Citizen Kane.' But when Spore ships sometime next year, this infant medium might receive its Torah, its 'Origin of Species' and its '2001: A Space Odyssey' all rolled into one." With hype like that going back more than three years, is it any wonder the game is selling well?
Also quoted in the article is Warren Spector, the respected developer of hardcore PC titles such as "Thief: The Dark Project" and "Deus Ex," whose next project is apparently a casual one. "I don't believe I'm compromising on my gameplay ideals at all," he told Forbes. "[But] any artist who doesn't want his or her work in front of the largest audience possible is nuts."
But Spector's argument is only half the story -- in addition to being accessible in terms of gameplay, a casual game has to be accessible in terms of its hardware requirements, and therefore its graphics, sound, and other gameplay elements. While an artist no doubt wants his creation to be seen by the greatest number of people, he also wants to have the broadest palette available, which isn't always possible when designing for a casual audience.
Rumors of the demise of hardcore games are greatly exaggerated. While the casual market may be growing, hardcore games are where developers can push the envelope in terms of game mechanics, graphics, themes, and content. And as long as gamers keep buying games like "Grand Theft Auto" or "Call of Duty" in the millions, hardcore games will remain the critical sector of the video game industry.