Casual Connect’s Main Theme in 2010: The Intersection of Casual and Social Gaming is a Game Changer

7/23/10

Two years ago our very own tech editor, Greg Huang, found himself questioning what exactly “casual” gaming was. That was before he attended his first Casual Connect, a three-day conference that draws over 3,000 casual gaming professionals to Seattle very year.

Back then the big news was casual gaming’s breakout from “core” gaming, the bigger of the two genres that attracted primarily boys and young men to action-heavy console-based systems. At the conference in July 2008, industry leaders began to see signs of change in the casual gaming sector. The lines between core and casual players began to blur. A whole new market sprang up for “omni” gamers, of people who wouldn’t buy a console but would play readily available games on, say, Facebook, or at a friends’ house. That was also the year the general gaming audience widened to include far more women and consumers of all ages.

At the 2009 conference, game developers and investors applauded casual gaming as the sector that “will save us all.”FarmVille, the simulated farming game that now attracts an estimated 80 million players on Facebook, the iPhone, and other technology platforms. The rising popularity of location-based “check in” applications like Foursquare and Whirl, is another example of an emerging sector born out of the intersection of casual gaming and social networking. Why? Because of the growing popularity of “metagaming.” This is the notion that when gaming concepts are applied to real life experiences, casual games can reach more gamers over a larger variety of platforms. One leader in this segment is

As if all that weren’t enough to keep you gasping for breath in your attempt to keep up with an industry that seems to be moving at warp speed—perhaps casual gaming isn’t so casual after all?—this year a new trend has emerged: social gaming. And this one, according to many casual game developers I listened to at the conference, may cause a sea change.

Although this was my first time attending Casual Connect, and I am by no means an expert, talk of social gaming seemed to seep into most of the panels and sessions throughout the week. “The Future of Social Gaming.” “How to Monetize Social Games Globally.” “Engaging the World through Social Media.” “Top 10 Social Game Metrics.” “The Next Frontier: The Future Beyond Social Games in the US and Europe.” “Metagaming: The Gamification of Life. Exploring Game Mechanics Outside of Games.” “Cloud-Powered Social Gaming.” “Competing for the Social Games Dollar.” “Casual Game Revolution.” “Going Social—How We Did It.” “The Year in Social Games: 2009-2010.” “Extra! Extra! Big Casual Game Distributors Go Social!”

The session names don’t lie. This year the hot topic at Casual Connect was undoubtedly the convergence of social media and casual gaming, forging a new social gaming genre primed for a mainstream audience. All three days whispers echoed that casual gaming and social gaming, as industries distinct from one another, is an outdated concept. The two sectors have now essentially merged.

“In the future, all games are going to be social,” Matt Hulett, the chief revenue officer at Seattle-based GameHouse—which rolled out its own social gaming platform in May—said in a presentation entitled the “The Not-So-Casual Journey to Mainstream Entertainment” on Tuesday. And GameHouse isn’t the only one. Many local game developers have made the move to social and mobile over the past year, including casual leaders Big Fish Games, WildTangent, and PopCap. Why? Because games have always been social historically, according to Lloyd Melnick, the general manager of international operations at Mountain View, CA-based Playdom.

“It’s actually a 6,000 year old trend,” he said in a lunchtime session Thursday entitled “Learn How to Bend and You Will Never Have to Break.” During the seminar Melnick chronicled how Playdom—already successful in the casual gaming space—made the decision to “abandon casual” and refocus on social gaming.  And by virtue of being social, rather than solo-player, social gaming has the capacity to reach everyone who engages with others in the cloud, not just gamers.

Just look at the viral success of San Francisco-based Zynga, and it’s immensely popular lineup of games integrated right into social platforms like Facebook, MySpace, My Yahoo, and mobile iPhone applications. Its hit FarmVille game has paved the way for a number of follow-ups like FishVille, PetVille, and FrontierVille. It reminds me of the classic PC-based game of my childhood, The Oregon Trail, only on social and mobile steroids. The big difference is the old game was played solo. Today, you’d share the experience on Facebook, or through your smartphone, with your friends in real-time.

“I can’t think of a demographic—except for two-and-a-half to three-year-olds—that aren’t on Facebook,” Melnick said.

As I made my way through Benaroya Hall on the third and final day of Casual Connect yesterday, I noticed that it wasn’t just the industry that was “going social.” Everywhere I looked there were people: big gaming suits with ties and briefcases, and startup reps clad in jeans and old sneakers. The one accessory they all shared was a social connection. Everyone was armed with a cellphone—usually a smartphone. Some gripped an iPhone in one hand, and an iPad in the other. There were more laptops and gadgets than people. It was almost like a uniform every attendee sported, along with their badges.

And everyone was plugged in. Outlets were coveted the way watering holes are in the Sahara. People sat through seminars typing notes on their laptops with one hand, tweeting 140-character snippets from their phones on the other. Maybe this intensity of technology is typical for a gaming conference. But there was one thing I didn’t doubt: the presenters were right—”social” just may be the new “casual.”

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Thea Chard is a correspondent for Xconomy Seattle. You can e-mail her at theachard@gmail.com or follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/theachard. Follow @

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