Whenever the topic of casual games comes up, I always question who exactly these ‘casual gamers’ are, and I think the term itself is a little misleading. I think ‘casual player’ is more accurate. Gamer to me, be they casual or not, indicates someone who is interesting in gaming itself, rather than someone who just plays something like Angry Birds because they heard about it like they would have heard about a new TV show or movie.
A gamer (casually) plays games, while a player will occasionally (casually) play a game. (I believe a subset exists that will play one game very hardcore (the super cow clickers), much like someone can be casual about movies but know every last details about the SW films, or not really love music but be crazy about one artist)
I would consider my father a casual gamer. He has been playing games for as long as I have (we played Shining in the Darkness together, drawing dungeon maps on graph paper, good times), yet does not have the time/interest to jump into something like EVE (though you should dad). He has played WoW longer than most of you reading this though, and he would never consider anything from Zynga worthwhile. I have no doubt that there are a LOT of gamers just like him out there (more on that in a bit).
A game like Angry Birds, and to a lesser extend Zynga games, are not aimed at gamers, but gamers will play them under the right circumstance (on the move, little time, etc). Angry Birds is popular not just because it allows casual players to pick it up, but also because the design is solid-enough to get positive word-of-mouth from gamers. Zynga games, on the other hand, are popular because they do a good job of spamming (and previously, scamming) casual players, much like certain TV shows do a solid job of ‘spamming’ you with advertising. Gamers know that Zynga games are garbage, but the casual players that the games are aimed at don’t hear that negative word-of-mouth buzz (think movie tie-in games selling despite being awful 99% of the time), nor do they ‘get’ gaming enough to quickly identify the shallow and horrid ‘gameplay’, and fall for the marketing ‘hooks’ that really drive the games.
What often gets lost in all of this is how the overall population breaks down, and just how many gamers are out there, their resources, and what exactly they are looking for. The whole “casual = more” thing might not be as true as so many just seem to accept, at least not to the level of ‘casual’ that is suggested.
Back in the late 80s, early 90s, kids played consoles, most people did not own a computer, the Internet was not up, and gaming was far more niche than TV/movies/music. If you played games back then, you were most definitely a hardcore gamer, and the games reflected this. Mario, the ‘for everyone’ game was incredibly hardcore by today’s standards, and most games were much harder than Mario.
But gaming has exploded in popularity, in large part thanks to Sony and the PS1, and has continued to gain market share in the entertainment world. At some point, gaming became as accepted as going to the movies or watching TV (would you rather admit you play games, or watch Jersey Shore/Kardashians to your co-workers?).
And not only is gaming extremely popular now, it’s not just popular with kids. The ESA tells us the average age of a gamer is 37 (and age 41 for people buying games), and that the average gamer has been playing for 12 years. 12 years ago was 1999, where Silent Hill, Soul Calibur, Quake 3 Arena, FF VIII, EQ1, Counterstrike, and Unreal Tournament dominated. Raise your hand if you transitioned from Soul Calibur to Farmville? And how many of those EQ1 players do you think consider WoW too hardcore?
‘Hardcore’ games like Halo and CoD:MW dwarf Zynga games (and everyone else) in profit. Far more people are online with an Xbox playing ‘hardcore’ games than people who are logging in to click a cow. Is anyone really surprised that the most popular game on Xfire is a ‘hardcore’ PvP game (League of Legends)? And short of a zombie apocalypse, people are not going to regress and go back to playing simple games in the future.
Point is, gamers today ‘get’ gaming and demand more from their gaming than the bare minimum. This is only going to increase as time goes on. More and more people are going to grow up with gaming being as much (if not more) a part of their lives as TV or movies. The kids growing up on Club Penguin today are not going to transition from that game to Farmville. As they grow up, they are not only going to seek more mature titles in terms of theme, but also in terms of gameplay.
Once the millions of “MMO noobs” learned WoW, they no longer found the basics of an MMO “too complex”. To capture that crowd going forward is not going to take a more casual WoW, but rather a better WoW, one that builds on the core that worked and expands it. WoW’s worst enemy is WoW, because as it gets dumber, its playerbase gets smarter, and the pool of ‘dumb’ gamers to replace those moving on is shrinking.
To me the whole ‘social gaming’ fad is the minority of the population who are NOT gamers catching up. Facebook games are just a very thin primer for those who were not gaming in 1999, and as the trending is showing, as soon as that crowd takes just a few steps forward, they are going to be looking for something with a little more gameplay than a cow clicker. Most will not continue the journey all the way to something like EVE, but they will certainly be closer to it then what we call casual games today.