How FarmVille Can Save Us All

written by Rachel Burger on March 8, 2011 in Classic Posts and Special Feature

FarmVille by Zynga

“Casual gamers are going to save the video game industry.”

I first suggested this idea to a hardcore gamer friend a few weeks ago. After snorting into his Coke, he quipped, “Right, Rachel. Your mom is going to save the industry.”

My mother actually doesn’t qualify as a “casual gamer,” despite her love for Angry Birds, World of Goo, and Solitaire. Casual gamers typically:

  • Play games to pass the time
  • Enjoy simple gameplay controls
  • Do not invest time in increasing gaming skills
  • Do not tend to define themselves as “gamers”

Mom enjoys her World of Warcraft raids and beating me at Civilization V far too much to be a “casual gamer.” However, my friend’s assumption was not entirely ungrounded: the average casual gamer is a woman in her 50’s. By 2013, casual gaming revenue will likely top $1 billion.

Does the video game industry need saving?

In short: yes. Just like almost every other industry, game companies are suffering in the recession. In fact, ex-Sony executive Chris Deering claims that 70% of all games lose money even though the gaming industry is growing at seven times the rate of the economy as a whole. Essentially, the production of “hardcore” or “core” games is not turning enough profit for the gaming industry. That’s where casual gaming comes in.

For better or for worse, casual games, like Bejeweled and Cake Mania, are cost-effective ways to boost revenue. They don’t call for cutting edge graphics, extensive QA, or mass marketing schemes. In fact, many new age casual games can be made by one person. Zynga, the casual gaming company that makes FarmVille, Mafia Wars, and Treasure Isle, may be the most profitable company ever. Clearly, there is some major money to be made in casual games.

What does this mean for the rest of the industry?

I consider casual games a great way to get into the gaming industry. The genre widely appeals to aging and disabled gamers, anyone with a smart phone, and women, which is a nice expansion to current video game demographics. Not only that, but casual games can act as a gateway to more immersive games; Mom didn’t go from playing Minesweeper to WoW without a little push.

An emphasis on casual games may also lead developers and producers to be more selective about the core games that they release. Though it sounds like a disaster waiting to happen, remember most games already don’t make it out of pre-production. Core games may begin to be developed for a wider demographic (like women), and high-quality gaming can flourish as a funded art form from casual games’ revenue. I don’t believe that a new focus on casual games will ruin the video game industry; instead, I argue that these games can attract a more diverse gaming audience and expand the gaming industry as a whole. The growing existence of casual games should not be feared.

Finally, separating casual games from core games will only hurt the industry as a whole. If the casual gaming industry is doing well, core games should jump on for the ride. Though I don’t think they will be forgotten, I would hate to see core games suddenly become a minor facet in American entertainment.

What can we learn from casual games?

Firstly, casual games tend to use an easily accessible micropayment system. Applications like Mob Wars have gathered as much as $1 million per month from micropayments. We’ve already seen micropayment systems in core games like Heroes of Newerth, Dragon Age: Origins, and Call of Duty that do not disrupt the game flow. It is a system that should be widely considered to boost revenue in an unobtrusive, content-enhancing manner.

Secondly, casual gamers have different interests than core gamers. Most core gamers choose to forego cell phone games, whereas many casual gamers do not own a console system. These differences in game preference should be considered: core gamers do not necessarily feel underserved in the mobile industry. That said, there is no reason to discontinue producing awesome games like Borderlands, NeverWinter Nights 2, and Knights of the Old Republic; not all games are, or should be, casual.

Finally, people who play casual games should be respected as gamers. Many of them may convert to core gamers (many are already on their way), and their contributions to the gaming industry can make video games great for everyone.

What is your favorite casual game? How do you feel about casual games and gamers? Can casual gaming save the video game industry? Are you a core or casual gamer? Let us know in the comments below!