Striving for Fetters

A discussion in the casual game community misses the point somewhat.

Last July, the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) formed a new Special Interest Group, the Casual Games SIG. The group produced a useful 125-page white paper on casual games, as well as a Casual Games Quarterly (though it has missed the window for second issue to actually be a quarterly). Additionally, the SIG started the Casual Games Mailing List, which has proven to be quite active, with “name” players in the space contributing to the discussion.

One recent (ongoing) thread deals with the prospects of an accurate/viable listing of top casual games, based on figures from the major game portals. The discussion started with an interesting listing created by one person compiling “Top 10” ranking information published by the portals. It then veered into the accuracy and bias of this data, into a call for actual sales figures like the movie industry, and then onto the technological and political (for lack of a better word) issues for creating such a list. One can view the January 2006 Archives to read the whole thread, Top Download List.

Numbers and rankings are great, and they are easy to understand, the data equivalent of a sound bite (soundbyte?). I love ranking things based on numbers and quasi-arbitrary formulas; I used to create NFL team rankings by hand back when I was a kid, before people used computers for this (and when the season was only 12 games long). For this reason, I think that the original scored list was wonderful, and I even downloaded Mystery Case Files to check it out based on its top position.

The problem with the ensuing discussion, however, is that everybody is so fascinated with rankings, scores, and numbers that they miss the fundamental question:

Why?

There was discussion about the fact that anyone can easily get box office numbers for the movie industry. That is definitely true. The argument was made that the game portals could be convinced to provide confidential numbers for a compiled report because it would ultimately benefit them. It would. Still, pray tell, what would such a listing, especially with sales figures, do for the independent casual game developer?

Box office figures help make the movie industry a hit-driven business, just like retail video games. The reporting generally serves to remind or entice people to go spend money at their local megaplex, likely owned by one of the handful of theatre chains across the country. Do these lists do anything to promote independent films or art house cinemas? (Hint: A movie had to have at least $6.78 Million dollars in box office over last weekend to make the Top 10 in the USA.)

As I see it, a list of top selling casual games is just a bit of mathematical masturbation. It strokes ones ego (and perhaps wallet) to have a game on a hit list, but the overall impact for developers is, at best, nothing. At worst, it will consolidate control of the industry in the hands of the successful portals (even more than now) and genres will become restricted to “what sells”. (Remember, back in 1995-96, the retail industry was abuzz with ‘RPGs are dead.’)

Sales figures complicate the matter more, as the figures would inevitably be compared to retail figures and even movie box office numbers. If the casual numbers are smaller, then the retail game industry will become even more entrenched in the “core gamer” approach. If the numbers are larger, then they only serve to encourage more knockoffs and attract developers of lesser quality, whether by design or lack of talent, and flood the channels with garbage.

I was in the retail game industry in 1993 when a event that I consider a watershed moment occurred. The media reported that the game industry made more money than the movie industry (counting only domestic box office, of course). All of a sudden, basically every movie studio started up game divisions and/or began recklessly throwing money into the industry, and there was a huge influx of self-important wannabes who knew nothing about game design or development. It was a chaotic mess for a while, and a lot of junk was created (or cancelled). LucasArts was, basically, the only one that was already there and the only one that still exists today. To my mind, they were a company that intended to make games, and thereby make money, as opposed to the other studios who were simply out for the money, using games as a seemingly easily conduit.

My point is that I am an independent developer and I make casual games because I like casual games. I relish the freedom that online publishing gives to small game developers. I am concerned that there are efforts to apply some of the restrictive aspects of the retail game industry to our community. There is no reason, in my mind, for developers to assist these efforts, especially when they omit and ignore huge portions of the industry who do not participate in the scheme (i.e., remain independent).

Take an example close to my heart and livelihood. I know no figures to back this up (at least not that I am going to reveal here), but I am willing to bet that Pretty Good Solitaire outsells many of the games on the portal list. However, Pretty Good Solitaire will not make any of these lists because it is not published through portals and sales figures are never revealed. On the other hand, versions of that game have been selling for more than 10 years, and there is no new hit game that tops a list and defined the end of its reign.

Now I know rough sales figures on my own game, Pretty Good MahJongg, and I know that it does not sell as much as its cousin. On the other hand, the income is certainly more than respectable, in my opinion, and I suspect that many developers would be envious of the numbers that it sells each day. More importantly, I enjoy playing the game(s) and know that many other people do as well. Now, if I had a Top 10 List that showed Pretty Good MahJongg at #8, I would… well, I would do nothing different. Knowing that my product outsold all but a few other games on the market would probably give me warm fuzzies, but I certainly would not create a word game just because they filled slots #2-7 that week.

Before people get wrapped up into working out the logistics of doing something like this, I think that it would be a good idea to take a look at the bigger picture. (No, I do not mean motion picture.)

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