E3 Review: Game Biz Loves Casual Games

wii_fit_source_nintendo.jpgSanta Monica, California – If there was one buzzword at this year’s E3, it was “casual gaming” in all its synonymous varieties: family-friendly games, games for everyone, usability, intuitive controls, and accessibility, to name a few. Almost every game maker in attendance had casual gaming on their briefing agenda, even if only name-dropping the idea.

There’s no need to be coy; Nintendo’s Wii is directly to blame for the recent surge in interest of casual gaming and its much larger audience outside of hardcore gamers. Interestingly, that reality is transcending consoles, something that is sure to excite independent developers looking to avoid unfavorable licensing terms. Highlights from the E3/casual gaming convergence after the break.
Electronic Arts, the world’s largest video game publisher, dedicated its entire press conference to what it suitably called its Casual Games division. The 60 minute media showcase not only profiled several games for Nintendo’s hugely successful Wii, but mobile phone software and Internet-based games as well. The company called casual gaming “the fastest-growing area within all of gaming.”

Ubisoft, world’s third largest game publisher, did pretty much the same at its presentation, spending a sizable amount of time (roughly half) on what it called its Games for Everyone initiative. In addition to showing several new Wii games, the company displayed its new line of My Coach games for Nintendo’s DS, including My Word Coach, My Spanish Coach, My French Coach, and My Life Coach, which aim to offer self-help training while simultaneously entertaining busy adults. Ubisoft expects its casual games unit to drive 20% of total revenues this year, more than double what it did last year. Considering the success of the similarly-themed Brain Age for the DS, that’s a plausible estimate.

Even Microsoft promoted its upcoming line of “family-oriented” games, complete with a big-buttoned controller similar in look and feel to a Wii remote sans motion-sensing technology, while Sony showed off casual titles like EchoChrome, basically a black-and-white perspective puzzle game. On top of that, Midway, Activision, 2K, and THQ all touched on casual games, be them for consoles, mobile phones, or web browsers.

But the sustainability of casual games’ is still being questioned despite their recent popularity.

“Nintendo seems to be the one company that’s expanding the gaming market, but there’s some cause for concern there because who they’re attracting is the casual gamer,” said analyst Van Baker in an interview with Reuters that also examines the rising popularity of casual games. “That’s something that someone picks up and does for 15 to 20 minutes and then they put it aside. The question is, in three months or six months, is the Wii going to be sitting in the corner forgotten?”

But that same argument was being made only months after Nintendo launched Wii last November, and here we are nine months later and it’s still running circles around the competition, namely Xbox 360 and PS3. Nintendo’s newly announced WiiFit, easily the most disruptive showing this year (though technically not a game), will predictably only deepen the company’s reach– not to mention its pockets.

With the biggest names in gaming fully behind both audience and content expansion, the casual play extends far beyond just core gamers and their systems now. Did I mention everyone’s invited?

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