Arts & Events

Casual gaming thrives as popular entertainment

Assuming you have had any amount of spare time since the late 90s, you have probably logged more than a couple of hours in simple simulations of matching jewels, numbered minefields, virtual crops and cattle or (most likely) green pigs and fowl-flinging slingshots.

The upstart industry of “casual gaming” continues to enthrall the masses, mystify the diehards and rake in loads and loads of cash—love them or hate them, “casual” games like “Farmville” and “Angry Birds” have earned both economic and pop culture relevance.

From Microsoft’s “Solitaire” and “Minesweeper” to “Words with Friends” and “Zuma,” the “casual” philosophy is simple: accessible mechanics and quick gratification draw the user into the addictive cycle of trial and reward that makes social obligations seem dramatically less pressing.

What you might not know is just how lucrative the industry is: the games might be banal, but the business is anything but.

Consider Seattle-based game developer PopCap Games, creators of the seminal “Bejeweled,” “Peggle” and “Plants vs. Zombies.” PopCap, a company that deals exclusively with “casual” gaming, garnered so much attention—and revenue—that industry overlord Electronic Arts acquired the company for $750 million in 2006.

Impressive as PopCap’s success is, few games have made as much of an impact on the cultural consciousness as the tower-toppling bird-bowler that inspired production of plush dolls, Halloween costumes and countless parodies—Rovio Entertainment’s “Angry Birds.”

According to Rovio general manager Andrew Stalbow, “Angry Birds” boasts a staggering 350 million total downloads—that’s about one download for every person in North America, 75,000 more downloads than North Americans with Internet, or about one download for every six people with Internet service on Earth.

“Angry Birds” clocks in at 300 million minutes of logged play per day: that’s about 570 years of collective playtime per actual 24-hour revolution of the planet.

Rovio Entertainment (rumored to be worth about $1.2 billion by an Aug. 12 Bloomberg report) has announced tentative plans to enter into publishing—as Justin McElroy of Joystiq observed, “the company must either start throwing money into publishing or shoveling it into a fire.”

The industry can be treacherous, though, because what brings developers like Rovio such astronomical success is usually what betrays them in the end—namely, the unpredictable spikes and dives in popularity characteristic of projects that rely heavily on word-of-mouth.

Touch-screen and social network-based games are enjoying their runaway success, though it is merely the final chapter of a golden age, argued PopCap CCO Jason Kapalka in a 2010 interview with Kapalka claimed that as competition becomes more diverse, developers will no longer be able to depend on the bandwagon effect that produced such unprecedented profits.

That could potentially spell doom for Zynga, developer of Facebook monoliths “Farmville” and “Mafia Wars”—Zynga’s profit decrease from $27.2 million in Q2 2010 to $1.3 million in Q2 2011, a 95 percent drop, implies waning interest from devotees, or at the very least the end of their unchallenged dominance.

Kapalka argued that PopCap is more or less immune to these tribulations because their releases remain inventive and varied. Thus, “Angry Birds” and Rovio, while hugely popular, might not survive the culling of the genre, narrow as their offerings are.

Whether we remember “Angry Birds” as a classic one-hit wonder or share Rovio’s future offerings with our kids, the game’s monumental popularity will always mark the arrival of a medium.

The relative ubiquity of smart phones and social networks makes for a truly massive market, and as competition levels out, casual gaming might leverage its economic influence and outgrow its corny trappings to emerge as a creative force worthy of respect—and if they don’t, we’ll still sell our souls for one more fix.