by Bob Reinhard
I’ve often seen casual gaming compared to “fast food” by the gaming community, and I can’t help but find myself irritated by this obsessive need to shun the casual market. What is it that drives the core gamers to dismiss such a large part of the current state of the industry?
Fast Food? More Like Good Food Fast
It’s an old saying you hear when restaurants try to tell you that they’re not “fast food”. The kicker is: it sort of applies to this better than to the food scenario.
Fast food is often looked at as low-quality, but easy access. While the latter can easily be said as true for cellphone games, as they are indeed easy to access quickly, I’d argue that the quality issue isn’t true in the least. This somehow paints the belief that large-budget games are somehow always going to be better. That’s like saying a Michael Bay film is going to be better than a low-budget indie film, in my mind.
The cellphone game market, and the casual market in general, is one that is often scoffed at or out-right dismissed by the core console gaming community as a collection of mediocre or bad games. And it stems from the concept that we, as gamers, don’t see the need for smaller, “lesser” games. However, the games are not marketed towards us, and that’s where this view of those games becomes skewed.
For instance, take the oft-bashed Farmville as a good example. Most console gamers find the very thought of Farmville laughable and stupid. We consider it a “poor” game and make fun of those that play it or get addicted to it. But Farmville has quite a large budget going for it now, considering it’s casual origins. And frankly: It’s NOT that bad of a game! I may not play it, but I’d never dismiss it as a bad game because it wasn’t developed by a huge-named studio for millions of dollars.
Speaking Of Numbers
I’ve heard the argument that there is a higher ratio of bad games to good games in the casual market than there is in the console market. I’d argue those numbers are actually incorrect, when looked at from a slightly different perspective. If I pay 5 dollars for a bad game on my iPhone, I’m simply out five dollars. If I pay 60 dollars for a bad game on my PS3, I’m out 12 times that. Look at the amount of money that went into producing that 5 dollar iPhone game vs. the money that went into producing that stinker PS3 game. Something tells me it would be substantially more than 12 times the amount of production money. Same goes for time and man power.
This can also be applied to the good games. A great console game could cost upwards to millions of dollars, hundreds of people, and a few years to develop. Whereas, some great cellphone and casual games could only take a couple months for a handful of people to develop with barely any money at all. This can easily tie back to the fast food/restaurant concept. But in this case, it doesn’t dismiss the fast food as poor quality, which is again where most console gamers see the casual market.
We’re not keen on the fact that big-name companies such as Square-Enix are spending more and more time developing and producing games for the cellphone and casual market. They’re cheap to make, easy to market, and can make the company millions. I’d say this benefits us in the long run, as that money could easily be used to support these companies and allow them to take more risks in the console market. Money going into gaming from any direction is a good thing. It means there is more money to be put out. If I want to use the metaphor we have going, It would be like a big-named chef who runs an expensive restaurant also owning shares in a fast food chain.
I liken the cellphone and casual market to the online indie market of console gaming. In fact, games like Plants vs. Zombies made the move from cellphone to console using these markets. This is a game that a lot of core console gamers have played (myself included) and enjoyed quite a bit. Does that mean that this “fast food” game somehow made itself into higher quality? Or could it be an exception that proves the rule?
Speaking of this indie market, have you ever taken a good long look at PSN? Those “Minis” that are for sale sure do look familiar. It’s because that huge group of games are pretty much the same as casual cellphone games. Low-budget, tiny, quick pick-up-and-play style. Another heaping helping of fast food at our supposed high-quality sit-down restaurant. And yet, those must sell! They wouldn’t be there if people didn’t want them. And that would be us. We’re those people. Xbox and PS3 owners are buying those. We love our fast food, just as long as it’s on a familiar plate it would seem.
The Best “Bad” Food?
Speaking of games like Plants vs. Zombies, let’s take a quick look at Nintendo’s recent consoles. The DS and Wii both have a decent sized library of mini-game collection and casual games. Games that, when you get right down to it, could have easily been cellphone games. These are often written off as shovelware and the like, and that wouldn’t be too far off. But the issue is: they cost more. Your sit-down restaurant is now peddling fast food at higher prices and writing it off as real food. If half these games were made with cellphones or downloadable markets in mind, perhaps they’d cost less and be viewed better?
And now let’s move to the indie and downloadable market. Games that take only a few people a few months to make with smaller budgets. Games like Limbo, for instance, don’t exactly scream “large budget, high-powered console game”. I could easily see a game like Limbo existing only on a cellphone.
Let’s take it down another peg. What about something like a puzzle game? I have a few on my PS3. I have a few on my 3ds. These are games that could easily be played on Cellphones as well. Does that make them bad? They’re fast food being.
Every time a gamer actually gets into a cellphone game, it’s kinda looked at as bad by the rest of the gaming community. Draw Something is one that, in particular, took a lot of core gamers in. Do we sit down and write this game off as a fluke? Or does it show that these “poor quality fast food” games can still be just as good, just as addicting, and just as well-done as console games?
Final Fantasy. One of the biggest names in gaming, and has been for a good long time now. If I told you that there is currently a Final Fantasy in production for cellphones, what would you say? You’d dismiss it as a crappy version to cash-in. And if I were to tell you that a PSP game like Final Fantasy Tactics: The War Of The Lions was remade for iPhone? A pretty popular and well-respected franchise, made for your phone. And only 16 dollars?! They even dropped an HD version on the iPad. Proof that high-quality stuff can easily be put onto iPhones and iPads.
This Has All Happened Before…
Of course, the biggest concern is that somehow these big-bad cellphone games are going to tread in on our territory. The belief is we’re going to see more and more companies stop making big-budget expensive games, the ones we play, and leave us for the casual market. As I said before, it’s cheaper and easier to make money off of.
That sounds familiar. Oh yeah, that’s right: It’s the same thing PC gamers have been saying for decades now! Our precious console games have often been looked at as the lower quality version of the PC gaming library. The belief is that more and more companies are leaving to produce games for consoles, or even watering down PC games in order to make them work on consoles, and it’s been slowly ruining the PC gaming community.
But now we have to look at PC gaming, and it’s “fast food” games. These casual market cellphone games can be likened to the flash game market. Perhaps we can even take one more step up and look at the library of Free-To-Play PC games such as I Want To Be The Guy or the recently spotlighted Slender.
Let’s talk about that last one real quick. Slender was made by one man. It’s super low budget and low quality. Perhaps even more so than most of those cellphone games. And yet, it’s considered a great game. Are we going to say that things like that, subtle, simple concepts, can only work on the base of a PC or console? I’d pay five bucks to play Slender. There are plenty smaller games like that on sale for a few bucks on Steam or various PC markets. Does the ongoing theory about casual games being bad mean that these games are also bad? Of course not. So why would we say that about games on a different device?
Why Does This Matter?
If there is one thing I want you to take away from this, as gamers, it’s that these supposedly bad “fast food” games are not going to destroy your world. As long as you exist, game companies will continue making games for you. You aren’t playing Cellphone games, and my mom (who plays Farmville, just like everyone elses mom!) isn’t playing PS3. Two markets.
And while you want to go ahead and laugh and down-talk the other market, the fact of the matter is: it’s still people making video games for people. Just because you don’t like them, doesn’t make them bad. Just as not every high-budget super-expensive Xbox game is good, not every cheap, small-budget cellphone game is bad.
We have to allow these things to exist. When you get right down to it, it just means more people are playing video games. I don’t know about you, but I think that’s great! Video games have been a huge part of my life, and I’ve enjoyed them for over two decades. If more people can experience that, even on a “lesser” level, that’s fantastic. I applaud any effort to make gaming accessible to more people.
The gaming community has to let go of it’s high-horse mentality when it comes to what games they consider high-quality vs. cheap piles of crap. Cellphones will only advance. And with it, cellphone gaming will advance as well. Look at the old versions of Cellphone “Worm” vs. what is available on the App store today. Do you think it won’t continue to grow in quantity and quality? Pretty soon you won’t even be able to tell the difference between a handheld game and a cellphone game. We’ll see more cross-over stuff. Perhaps a Draw Something that lets you play with your iPhone or your Wii U?
So, I can only ask of you: Stop dismissing the casual market with such broad analogies. Stop thinking that somehow console games are the “good” market, while cellphone games are the “cheap” market. Just because you don’t play games on your phone, doesn’t make the existence of cellphone games bad. All of those thoughts? They make us gamers seem petty and defensive. It’s not a matter of “Fast food” vs. “sit down restaurant”.
It’s a matter of fun and games.