What’s in a Name: Core/Casual Debate of the Game Industry

A piece has been circulating around my news feed out of GDC 2016 regarding mobile development and the consumers of the Game Industry. During the presentation, Spry Fox founder Daniel Cook said that if you own more than 10 games on Steam, then you don’t matter in the eyes of developers.

The discussion talked about the argument over casual vs. core gamers and what they mean for the industry and the growing mobile market. While there is an important discussion to be had about defining consumers, I think that a few points of the discussion were dangerously short-sighted about the consumer base and what it means to be a consumer in the Game Industry.

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Casual vs. Core:

The Game industry is the only industry at the moment that has/had a major perception issue with defining their audience. We’ve been having these discussions for years now: Going back to the Console wars, PC vs. Console and now mobile vs. other platforms. The industry continues to have trouble with even defining the audience with the words “casual” and “gamer” being used as insults in some cases.

As with any consumer-driven industry, the consumer base is made up of different levels of consumers: From the mainstream or general market, to the hardcore niches of dedicated fans. The argument from the panel was that the growth of mobile gaming was so huge compared to the other markets and that developers should focus on them instead of people who focus on Steam and other platforms.

The general consensus from the panel was that it wasn’t right calling console or PC gamers “the core market,” when the mobile scene has been growing, and this has been a conversation that has been going on since the rise of smart phones. To be fair, we’ve talked about this on the cast several times and how it’s not right to call mobile or social game fans “casual,” just like how you can’t say that someone is hardcore because they play X title.

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There are no specific games that determine whether you are a gamer or not

There are hardcore fans of mobile games just as there are casual fans of complicated games. A successful video game market needs both; something that multiplayer designers have known about for years.

The general audience is the foundation that gets the word out to help get people interested, while the hardcore who spend the most money are the ones that provide the income to the developers and makes the game attractive and interesting to the general audience.

Going back to the presentation, I have two very big problems with their line of thought about the importance of mobile development and how they’re not seeing the forest for the trees.

Rating the Audience:

People have been asking the question: What is a gamer? For many years; it has been something people have been talking about and writing very lengthy articles about. Many forums even have debates about what quantifiable elements you need to have to be considered a “gamer,” and these discussions have been a part of the exclusivity issue facing the industry today.

Personally, I think anyone who plays video games can be considered a fan of Games or a Gamer, but we’ve yet to establish the proper agreed upon title after things became toxic as of late.

The point is that trying to label a set of behaviors as what makes up a consumer or someone worthy of being sold to is idiotic; I could go into a rant about this kind of issue with DC and their branding of shows and comics to their audience, but I digress.

The major bullet point that has been repeated and cross posted from the article was the 10 games or more on Steam speech, and I find that to be a worthless remark. I can tell you that the number has no basis in reality or research, which in fact is part of a larger and separate issue with the Game Industry.

Thanks to game devaluation and the rise of sales and bundles, it’s very easy for someone to own 10 games or more on Steam. Hell, you could spend $12 on the current Humble Bundle (Jumbo Bundle 6) and get 10 games in one fell swoop.

Saying that someone doesn’t matter because they own an arbitrary low number of games doesn’t work in today’s market. There is probably a number where that matters and when we get to the niche audience, but I can tell you that it’s going to be a lot more than 10 games.

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The barrier of entry is so low these days to Steam and playing games compared to 10+ years ago; it’s very easy for anyone to own a good number of games these days

With the ease of buying games both from sales and digital distribution, it’s allowed people to experience a greater variety of titles than they would have been able to ten years ago; experiencing games that they might not have purchased otherwise, but now became fans of the genre and company following the sale.

The problem with this ease of purchase is that game devaluation has lead to the general market losing touch with game development and developers and vice versa.

It’s hard for consumers to put a value on games when they can be buying games for a few dollars or even free; just as it’s hard for a developer to know who exactly their audience is when their game is a part of a bundle or on sale for $5 or less.

And understanding their audience takes me to the second problem with this presentation and the panel’s thoughts on the mobile audience.

Brand vs. Market Loyalty:

A major point and one that we hear from a lot of mobile developers praising the market and is how much money is coming in and the size of it; leading to talking about the mobile market becoming bigger than the other platforms. The mobile industry has been incredibly fast growing, thanks to social games and the rise of freemium design.

We’ve all seen the numbers of companies like Zynga, King and other major names in mobile and social game markets. No one is disputing that games like Candy Crush Saga, Game of War or Kim Kardashian’s Hollywood made a lot of money; my question however is how many of those fans are playing and spending money on other games/genres?

This is the difference between someone being loyal to a brand vs. an industry. Brand loyalty means that someone is only interested in a specific brand or part of a market; being loyal to a market means that they are interested in multiple facets of an industry and are generally considered enthusiasts in most cases.

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The Mobile Industry has examples of top earning games, but will that consumer base be drawn to other genres and titles?

Football is a good example of this phenomenon. Raise your hand if you ever encountered a super fan of a football team; living in New Jersey, I can certainly vouch for this.

There are people who dedicate themselves to a single team; they will buy every piece of merchandise, go to every game or watch it on TV and they will follow any and all news related to that team.

While they may care for their specific team as a part of the sport, they don’t care about the other aspects not relating to that brand. An Eagles fan couldn’t care less about what’s going on with the Dallas Cowboys (unless it involves the Eagles.)

This means that any money and profit earned by those fans is based on their preferred team; it’s the same thing with fans of video games, but with one major exception: No matter who buys what merchandise or follows which team, the NFL collects all the money. Another point is that it becomes the NFL’s best interest to then support all the teams in order to make sure that they’re making maximum revenue.

Someone who would be interested in the brand of football would be someone who wants to be a part of it, either as a player, coach or broadcaster. While they enjoy the game as much as the people who are brand loyal, they also dedicate their time to learning more about the ins and outs of what goes into the game beyond just one team.

With the Game Industry, it’s the difference between someone who just plays video games in their spare time, and the people who pay attention to the goings on of the Industry as a whole; which includes anyone who is reading this post. Taking this back to mobile game development and the consumer base, I’m very curious to see the numbers on people migrating from one game to another and switching brands.

I just don’t believe that someone who gets hooked on Angry Birds or Farmville or any other big name game, is going to A: Switch to another game or play multiple games, and B: Spend  as much money on another title.

This reminds me a lot of the MMO craze of the 00’s; where developers were saying it was the wave of the future and pointing to big names like Everquest and World of Warcraft as examples to follow. Guess what? The vast majority of developers who chased after the big names either crashed and burn, or barely managed to make a dent against World of Warcraft.

In this way, it’s my opinion that the majority of mobile consumers and the ones playing the above mentioned mobile games are those that fall under brand loyalty; making them very hard, if not impossible for other developers to try and attract.

One of the best things about the other platforms is the variety of designs and titles. It’s very rare to find two games with so similar designs (outside of multiplayer or genre specific titles like MOBAs and MMOs,) that the audience becomes divided over what game to play.

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There is enough variety between games on other platforms to create a sustained and varied market for consumers and developers

And that’s what has me worried about people rushing to the mobile market with the intent of sharing the wealth of the games already mentioned.

Apple doesn’t need to support all the developers and games on the IOS store, when they’re getting top dollar from the bestselling and well known titles; this is also an issue with Steam and game visibility, but that’s for another post.

The continuing success of the Indie market is showing both developers and publishers that there is money and room for a variety of titles, and that includes seeing Indies getting a greater console presence.

And again, because of the variety of designs that are afforded on these platforms, it’s less likely for a few games to dominate all the money coming in and controlling the market.

A Rose by any Other Name…

With discussions about defining the consumer base of the Game Industry and the changing acceptance of the term “Gamer,” I do agree that we need to move away from using the casual/core term when trying to put a label on someone’s knowledge level of the industry.

More importantly, we need to pay attention to what parts of the consumer base are sustaining the market vs. those that are sustaining one specific game or brand. It doesn’t matter calling someone a gamer or not when you’re trying to decide whether to enter a specific market. And while we have certainly seen big names and income from the mobile market, I’ve yet to see or hear talks about that wealth being spread around.