The Casual Gaming Boom
Casual gaming has been around in one form or another for years. You might even argue that some of the earliest games like Pac Man could be classed as casual games. However, the genre has really taken off over the past decade. The increased use of social media and the ubiquity of Smartphones has created the perfect environment in which casual gaming has been able to flourish.
App Annie predicts that mobile gaming spending in 2021 is on track to surpass $120 billion. As a substantial chunk of that spend will be on casual and hyper casual games; the enormous size of the opportunities are self-evident.
So, are we experiencing a casual gaming boom?
Who is the ‘casual’ gamer?
A decade or so ago, if you asked people to describe a gamer, the image of a teenage boy playing Call of Duty late at night on his games console would likely have sprung to mind. Or, perhaps, they might be playing World of Warcraft on a desktop PC instead. But things have moved on a lot since then.
People who play casual and hyper casual games now include a great many gamers who never play either on a console or a PC. A significant number of these gamers have come to gaming more recently and, indeed, might only ever experience gaming on a Smartphone or, perhaps, a tablet.
This, then, represents a different audience of gamers from the traditional gaming market. It is a much more female focused audience and has many different likes and dislikes, hobbies and consumer preferences that would distinguish the casual gamer from someone who might prefer to play CoD on an Xbox or Cyberpunk 2077 on a PC.
The gaming market is no longer a single homogenous audience, but rather a collection of different (if sometimes overlapping) audiences. That means different channels, different media and very different commercial opportunities. Different audiences also provide very different opportunities in terms of the future potential for advertising and sponsorship deals.
But casual gaming is also a market that is still growing. So, the composition of this audience is changing and evolving each year.
The audience is not only different in terms of its composition. It is also clearly different in terms of what people are looking for from gaming.
The Casual Gaming Experience
Games like Assassin’s Creed and Cyberpunk 2077 are enthralling role-playing experiences. Many people play these games precisely because they like to get into the characters and absorb themselves in a fantasy world.
It is easy to sit down in front of PC or a console and lose yourself for hours in a highly engrossing escapist experience. In addition, it’s an experience that can be very intense, requiring sometimes lengthy periods of quite focused concentration. This can be quite a mentally challenging experience. It may also be quite difficult to dip in and out of – you often feel obliged to hang on just to get to that next cut-scene or to find a good place to save.
But casual and hyper casual games are far less demanding in terms of concentrated time. You can potentially play a game in 15 or 20 minutes. This makes it easy to fit your gaming in around other things. Play a quick game in your lunch hour, or a quick couple of games on the train on your commute to and from work. As one casual gamer put it on an online forum:
I play half an hour to an hour on my phone everyday. I don’t really have much to do while I’m on the bus or at lunch, so I’d just use to time to play video games on my phone.
Relax with a casual game
It’s because these game can be less mentally demanding that people are more likely to see them as relaxing. They deliver a means to wind down after a hard day’s work. As another gamer put it:
What I loved so much about Animal Crossing was how I could wind down and relax.
As such, these games lend themselves more to humour, light-hearted entertainment, and cartoon characters.
fun and utterly hilarious.
But, whilst it is possible to quickly fit in a game in your coffee break, it is still also possible for gamers to spend hours playing such casual games. Indeed, gamers can and do become every bit as a engrossed with games like Clash of Clans on their mobile phones as a console gamer might with Red Dead Redemption.
In a way gaming is becoming not that much different from television. TV producers have, for many years, understood that working within different genres means appealing to different audiences. The audience you might attract for an enthralling thriller is not the same as you’d get for a light entertainment programme.
So, as the variety of different gaming genres evolves, so too will the variety of audiences. And so too will the need to understand them independently from each other.
A Blank Canvas
Many of the new generation of casual gamers have come to gaming via the Smartphone and via casual games specifically. There are many amongst them who have never played a console game or even a PC game. Perhaps, they have only started playing games within the past few years. All this means that they are not constrained by any of the pre-conceptions that PC and console gaming fans might have. That means they represent much more of a ‘greenfield’ opportunity for the future.
This relative lack of ‘expectations’ is likely to mean these gamers are more open to experimenting with new things. Perhaps they are more open to in-game advertising, perhaps they offer the best opportunities for cloud. Indeed, any genuinely new innovation in gaming might find a more fertile ground for uptake amongst these gamers than elsewhere.
On the downside, it should be remembered that many of these newer gamers may well not be so familiar with concepts that gaming publishers and developers might ‘assume’ gamers know about. That means gaming companies need to be careful in using gaming jargon – these guys just might not understand it (or worse, misunderstand it).
Mobile gaming may well prove to be an area to watch in terms of cloud streaming services such as Google Stadia, Microsoft’s Ultimate Game Pass and Amazon Luna.
The mobile casual gaming audience includes many gamers who are not wedded to traditional console and PC gaming. They will also include many people who are comfortable with streaming film or music to their mobiles already, so cloud gaming won’t be an alien concept to them. But here, the cloud services need to get their content right. Content, after all, is king – demand will entirely depend on a wide enough choice of content.
However here again, gaming companies need to be careful. These people are not the enthusiastic, technically literate, hardcore of the gaming world. They may not even have heard of cloud gaming or even understand what makes it any different from other forms of gaming. They probably haven’t read any of the articles on the subject that appear in the gaming press. So, this raises the question – how best to market such services to such people?
Gaming has historically been financed by gamers paying for their games (either outright or perhaps by subscription). However, recent years have seen a growing proportion of revenues generated by microtransactions where gamers seek to buy in-game content such as upgrades to the game, additional equipment (some functional, some purely aesthetic) and so on.
There are many games available where you can play a basic version of the game for free and any revenues come purely from upgrades to a more complete version of the game and/or from microtransactions.
The free-to-play model has proven a successful option and in future I can see this approach extended to deliver an even higher proportion of content for free. Monetisation here will therefore be increasingly driven by the microtransaction approach and even by advertising and sponsorship deals.
TV is significantly financed by private advertising and sponsorship and this is now an increasingly important revenue stream for esports – it is surely only a matter of time before we start to see this proliferate across the gaming industry. The obvious route in will be through the Smartphone based games – and that means casual gaming is likely to be at the forefront.
However, to capitalise on these opportunities gaming companies will increasingly need to learn from the playbook of other entertainment industries (like TV) who have been playing the advertising and sponsorship game far longer. That means understanding audiences and knowing what advertisers and/or sponsors would offer a great fit for any given audience. It also means finding the best way to accommodate this without disrupting game play or without it becoming overly intrusive.
One potentially dark cloud on the casual gaming horizon relates to channels. At the end of the day casual gaming on Smartphones depends very heavily on two key channels – App Store and Google Play. This grants Apple and Google incredible market power.
The current legal dispute between Epic and Apple has highlighted the potential problem here – are these channels becoming so dominant that they can effectively squeeze the margins of gaming companies down to near minimal levels? This very fear has led Epic to invest heavily in its own store front. At the time of writing, it is yet to be seen as to whether Epic’s legal action with Apple will change anything.
Nevertheless, Epic’s move to develop its own store may yet prove to be a shrewd one for the longer term. You only need to look at food retailing in the UK to see that a relatively small number of dominant retail chains can seriously squeeze the margins of the food producers.
There is little doubt that we will continue to see continued growth and diversity emerge in the casual gaming market over the next couple of years. New audiences will continue to emerge and evolve as a result.
The challenge for the gaming companies will be to find ways to best capitalise on these audiences – and that will require a detailed understanding of them, plus, of course, how they continue to evolve.
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