Casual Game, Serious Profits

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If you want a case study in the economics of casual games, look no further than Diner Dash, the game franchise which has sold, as of this month, a million units. No flashy effects or “game god” designers, just an inviting, easy-to-learn light game about a waitress struggling to keep all her customers happy. Published by Playfirst and largely sold over the web for $19.95, Diner Dash was developed by the New York-based gameLab for an estimated $100,000-200,000. The big PC and console games, by contrast, cost tens of millions to develop and promote, and like Hollywood, must become international blockbusters to turn a profit. (Though unlike Hollywood movies, games have far less ancillary markets to recoup costs.) While the consoles battle it out for dominance and billions of dollars are burnt in that struggle, the smart money looks to casual games, where the damage from under-achievers is minimal, while the potential profit margins are huge.
That in mind, I fired off some e-mail questions to Eric Zimmerman, co-founder and CEO of gameLab, about bringing one of gaming’s biggest hits to market.

Creating Diner Dash…

Eric Zimmerman: [It’s] the result of ideas we had been kicking around GameLab for years– specifically, the idea of doing a game around food. Originally it was called Bust a Gut and it was about sushi. The diner setting emerged as we developed the concept for our publisher PlayFirst…

Nick Fortugno, who led the game design, worked closely with Peter Lee and the rest of the project team to shape the overall player experience. They focused on making a game that rewarded the player in some way for every mouse click. Although the process of seating and serving customers is very stylized, it is still somehow extremely intuitive, and so players pick up on what to do very quickly… And of course the great characters, designed by comics artist Amy Ganter, were key as well.

Why Diner Dash Succeeded…

EZ: [It] was released at a time when there were far fewer “casual games” in the marketplace. [In 2003 – ed] Even now a few years later, it is much more difficult to release a new game and keep it on the top 10 lists of the major portals. However, Diner Dash bucked a lot of received industry wisdom about the casual game audience. For example, the game is quite hard– most players seem to hit a difficulty wall in the second out of five restaurants. This is different than most casual games, which err on the side of letting players win and win and win. I think this only demonstrates that there are many different approaches for creating a succesful game.

Learning from Diner Dash…

EZ: Many in the casual game industry create shameless copies of existing games. This can be a viable short-term strategy, but the biggest selling games like Diner Dash more often than not offer something genuinely new. As a longtime advocate of innovation in games, I would encourage game developers everywhere to take risks and invent new ways to play. The medium of digital games is only a few decades old, and there is so much more that games can do in terms of form, content, aesthetics, and how they intersect with and
impact the lives of players.

Plus, it’s more fun to make new kinds of games! And isn’t that why we’re all here?

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