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Birdmen and the Casual Fallacy

by Sean Malstrom



Centuries ago, men attempted to fly by putting wings on their arms and flapping really hard. Logically, in their minds, it should have worked. Birds fly. Birds have wings. Therefore, having wings should mean man will fly.

The gentlemen, puffed with pride, failed every time. Had they examined the nature of flight, as opposed to the nature of birds, they would have realized the concept of lift (as Bernoulli did). One must examine the physics of the flight rather than putting feathers on one’s arms in imitation of birds. The descendants of these birdmen are with us today. In the gaming industry, they represent some of the highest gaming executives and esteemed analysts.

Nintendo is flying high. Rather than examine the nature of this flight, the birdmen are mesmerized by the feathers. The analysts and executives do not see the concepts of disruption and don’t even understand the Blue Ocean principles (though they think they do). The feathers they see on Nintendo’s ascent are casual games. Therefore, they surmise, if they make casual games then they will be flying high with Nintendo.

There is nothing new here. Years ago, when Grand Theft Auto 3 hit big, all the birdmen began putting out Grand Theft Auto 3 clones. Years before that, it was first person shooters. More years before that, it was bloody fighters. One can find the birdmen back in the 8-bit generation making platformers. They would look at Super Mario Brothers and go, “Oh, I get it! We just need to make a game with cute music, colorful world, and upgrades like the magic mushroom!” Slapping wings on their arms, these games flopped. Amazingly, despite how many times the birdmen fall down, each generation they are ready to put on feathers and jump off a cliff.


How the Casual Fallacy was Born

The game industry was, and still is, distinctively hardcore. They generate their profits from sequels and big blockbuster games. The developers are all hardcore. The publishers are generally hardcore as well.

When a hardcore gamer looks at a hardcore game, he sees sophistication, magnificence, and, most important, art as if it were a mirror image facing him. When a hardcore gamer looks as a casual game, he sees simplicity, non-art, easiness, and, in sum, a retardation of gaming. Hardcore view casual games not as progress in gaming but as games tailor made for gaming retards.

“Retards!?” says a shocked reader. “Surely you can’t say what you mean!” Why not? When a casual gamer picks up the standard dual shock controller, he gets confused. He doesn’t have the patience to wade through these elaborate 3d worlds or memorize fourteen button combinations. While the hardcore call him “stupid”, he retaliates by calling gaming “stupid”.

Anytime you read ‘casual games’ in the news, just replace ‘casual’ with the word ‘retard’ and you will get how it is truly perceived by the industry. “There is a casual gamer boom!” should translate to “There is a retard gamer boom!”. The “EA Casual Games Division” really is translated to “EA Retard Games Division”. “Why are you calling casual gamers retarded!?” thunders one reader. I am not. I am saying that the hardcore industry is the one who thinks this way. ‘Casual’ is just a nice way of saying ‘dumb’ in their eyes.

The reason why hardcore gamers’ hearts sink when a company says they will make the game include ‘casuals’ is because they know that all the edge, difficulty, and passion will be ripped out to make a generic, easy, and soul-less game.

Despite every company and their dog making these ‘casual’ games, the so-called casual audience is not buying them (just as they didn’t buy the platformer clones of the 8-bit generation, the fighter clones of the 16-bit generation, the GTA clones of last generation, and so on). When seeing their ‘casual games’ flop while seeing Nintendo’s ‘casual’ games in the bestsellers, the third parties growl and say, “IT IS ALL NINTENDO’S FAULT! People only buy Nintendo games! Third parties can’t succeed on this platform!”

The problem is not in these companies’ execution of their plan. The problem is their world-view. Their perception is totally off, and it is costing these companies millions upon millions of dollars. Don’t you think, guys, that it is time to think about things a littler harder before you waste more millions?




There is No Casual Gamer

“What!” echoes someone from the balcony. “If this is true, then what will we use for this generation’s meme? What will our editorialists write about? We have spilled so much ink on this subject and apply the ‘casual gaming’ template to every story that comes out. How can we exist without it?”

I do not know nor do I care. Hopefully, you birdmen can become a little more original.

Take the industry of home speakers (as many gamers are familiar with it). There is a wide range of product lines, is there not Mr. Reader?

“That is so,” replied Mr. Reader. “There are very basic, bargain based speakers to the mid range. Then, there is the more expensive high range.”

Very well… So the higher one goes, the more expensive it gets?

“Yes, Mr. Malstrom. Upper tier speakers are EXTREMELY expensive.”

Now tell me, my figment-of-my-words, how does user knowledge act along the product line?

“Well, knowledge is the defining characteristic of the tiers. The more knowledge one has, that means the more audiophile one is, the more likely he or she will reach for the upper tier. At the bottom, the users know little about audio and do not care to know. The ones at the top are very passionate about their audio and will pick out separate speakers and subwoofer just to maximize their experience.”

Are you saying the people on the bottom tier are stupid? Are they just casual listeners?

“Only an upper tier person would define them as ‘casual’. They just don’t have that much passion about audio so they don’t have much knowledge.”

And what creates this passion?

Mr. Reader smiled. “By having audio they want to listen to.”

If there is audio they want to listen to, they will start buying these speakers, become more knowledgeable, and keep upgrading those speakers as they move up to the higher tier?

“Yes.”

The Upmarket and the Downmarket

There is no casual gamer. There is no hardcore gamer. There is only the downmarket and the upmarket.

In any type of product, there is a set of obstacles that need to be realized before the product can be enjoyed. Some people, especially technical savvy, can get through these barriers sooner than others.

Compare the above graph to users’ experience in game software. The simple games of the Atari days have undeniably become more complex. To those who grew up with video game consoles, they were able to stretch their user peaks. These current players, who call themselves the hardcore, became the upmarket.

Many people did not grow up with video games or kept playing them after the Atari 2600 and NES. Look at the above graph and think of their reaction to playing games today. Obviously, they will be frustrated as they look in the manual, swear at themselves, and generally conclude that gaming isn’t for them. Someone content with Pong is not going to ‘jump in’ a huge 3d game world.

When the upmarket views the so-called casual games or even games of the past (such as the classics on the Virtual Console), they are on the left side thinking “Nice, but I wish I could do more…” The games are not elaborate enough for them. In Wii Tennis, the upmarket keeps saying, “The game is nice but I wish I could move my player around myself” or “Wii Play is nice but I wish the games were more elaborate” or “Downloading Mario Kart 64 is nice but I wish I could play it online with new tracks…”

Obviously, the pleasure thresholds of upmarket and downmarket differ (with a variety of different users in the middle). But for simplification purposes, based on these two areas, we get two different paths to user experience:

Let me ask you an honest question. Take your favorite games or, rather, the games that put a great first impression on you. How soon were you kicking ass in these games?

Most likely, very soon. Richard Garriott, aka Lord British, revealed many years ago (back when Origin Systems still existed) why Diablo and the RTS games such as Red Alert and Warcraft 2 became so popular. With Diablo, it is because you level up extremely fast at first. You feel like a badass early on which encourages you to go further. The RTS games did the same with the first missions of Warcraft 2 and Red Alert as extremely simple (the first Red Alert Soviet mission had the player just point and click to tell planes where to bomb). Anyone who has played World of Warcraft will realize how fast the game makes one feel like a ‘badass’ in the first ten levels of the game. Other MMORPGs start off much slower which would explain their slower sales.

These downmarket users, if properly treated, will travel upstream to become upmarket users. World of Warcraft novices often become the most die-hard raiders. Many had Command and Conquer or Warcraft 2/Starcraft as their first RTS. They played the simple levels and moved upstream to more sophistication. (It should be noted that World of Warcraft, Warcraft 2, Red Alert, and Diablo are set up to take advantage of this. The first units or choices the player has are small but it branches over time and becomes more complex.) Miyamoto was surprised that the Touch Generation games on the DS had users go upstream to play Mario Kart DS and New Super Mario Brothers (both of which broke sales records).


The Upstream Games

When you think back to the great classics of gaming, one finds games such as Pac-Man, Super Mario Brothers, Sonic the Hedgehog, Mega Man 2, Dragon Quest, Legend of Zelda, among other software. While all these games are obsolete in technological terms and, perhaps, even in genre terms, significant talent was used to build them. Some may argue that the talent in those games is even superior to today’s games! While these games were much simpler with less features, they still required the same amount of talent and force of creativity that today’s blockbusters do.

The current generation, the High Definition generation, ups the ante with offering different visual displays for different television sets. Considering most people do not really know what ‘high definition’ means (or even how to hook up their consoles to the internet), it is clear that gaming’s complexity is advancing further than most people can adapt.

Today, what is considered an “8-bit game” would be considered a “casual game”. Evidence of this is seen with 8-bit and 16-bit spiritual sequels emerging only on handhelds while the consoles stay near the more complex games. Ports of Super Mario Brothers, Sonic the Hedgehog, and The Legend of Zelda have appeared on handhelds. What used to be classics have become damned as “casual” games. This is the current industry hive-mind view. This is the hardcore view. But what is the reality?

The reality is that all industries, including gaming, exist in a series of tiers. While the tiers of gaming are debatable, I have provided a sufficient list for this discussion:

Click to enlarge."

Let me give examples of these tiers:

Tactical RPG/Strategy- Fire Emblem, Final Fantasy Tactics, Master of Orion, Command and Conquer, Warcraft, MMORPGs
Epic RPG-
(‘epic’ meaning very story based) Later Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest games, Ultima, practically most JRPGs
Tactical Shooter-
Ghost Recon, SOCOM, Counter-Strike
First Person Shooter-
Halo, Unreal Tournament, Call of Duty
Third Person Shooter-
Gears of War, Grand Theft Auto 3, Resident Evil
3D Action Adventure-
Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Eternal Darkness
3D Platformer- Super Mario 64, Super Mario Galaxy, Rayman 2
Basic RPG-
Early Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. (Likely) Dragon Quest IX
Action Adventure-
Legend of Zelda, Metroid
Adventure-
King’s Quest, Monkey Island
2D Platformer-
Super Mario Brothers, Sonic the Hedgehog
Mini-Games / Arcade Style-
Wii Play, Centipede, Galaga, Pac-Man
Puzzle-
Tetris, Dr. Mario
Non-Fiction Game-
Wii Sports, Wii Fit, Brain Age, Nintendogs, cookbook software, how to learn English, etc. Flight Simulator, Sims

Most of these tiers are self-explanatory. The further upmarket one goes, the more one gets drawn into another world. (Before someone writes me and says, “WHERE IS THE RACING TIER, MALSTROM!???”, realize that the list is not intended to be perfect but just show the difference of segments from upmarket to downmarket.) The non-fiction games do not attempt to pull the player into a fiction world. Games such as Brain Age or even Flight Simulator cater to the players’ interests of the real world. Brain Age promises to make you smarter, Wii Fit tries to get you more ‘fit’, and so on. Wii Sports is popular because people actually BELIEVE they are using the same exact sports skills in the game as opposed to just pushing some buttons and playing ‘make-believe’.

The problem is not that games have become more complex over the years; it is that lower tiered games were becoming less and less made. This meant less new gamers and that gaming became less exciting to the mainstream. Games have become more expensive to make which means publishers have huddled toward the upmarket. Meanwhile, the downmarket was being unused until flash games and online simple games caught on big with computer users.

"There are more Flash installs available in people's homes and even on mobile devices than all of the sold consoles of the last two generations put together. It is everywhere…”

-Raph Koster, president of Areae and designer of Ultima Online and Star Wars: Galaxies, gamesindustry interview.
These downmarket tiers became abandoned and became a ‘Blue Ocean’ where no one was fighting over. Nintendo aimed to become dominant on these lower tiers, the Blue Ocean, first.

Since these lower tier games were the most critical for Nintendo, they put their first string teams to make games such as Nintendogs, Brain Age, Wii Sports, Wii Play, among others. Birdmen, who mistake the downmarket for ‘casual games’ (i.e. retard games), keep putting their third or fourth string teams to make these type of games.




The above picture illustrates the Casual Fallacy well. Wii Sports is a game stuffed with complexity (of its physics), replay value, and many game modes. It is what people want: a friendly but powerful game. Consumers want more games like Wii Sports but they get the plastic dog instead. Sure the game is ‘friendly’, but the power behind it is gone. It is a neutered game castrated from any purpose.

If the reader happens to be a member of the NES Generation, compare the games of youth of the so-called ‘kids games’ you got on the computer to Super Mario Brothers and Legend of Zelda. The tailor made ‘kids games’ then ended up plastic dogs while the Nintendo classics ended up being the real dog. Western publishers were stunned that the 1980s children were abandoning their specialized ‘kids games’ to play these ‘Japanese games’.

If the reader happens to be a hardcore player (oh, that word!), compare games like Grand Theft Auto 3 and Halo to wannabe GTA and Halo clones. The wannabe hardcore games will put in gratuitous violence or sex or space aliens to ‘give the game the edge’. These wannabe games end up the plastic dog which annoys hardcore gamers to no end.

Birdmen can only make plastic dogs. In order to make the real dog, they would have to study the concept of flight instead of studying the wings. Passionate developers also tend to create passionate products (which is why Blizzard puts on any business contract that its developers will be free to make the games they want). Will hardcore developers have a passion to create downmarket products? They certainly didn’t become game developers to make competitors to Peggle and online flash games. What we will end up with are more plastic dogs.

Why does the industry not treat the downmarket well? Outside of developer passion, the answer comes down to money. The upmarket games are far more profitable. It is a sure thing that the upmarket will buy the next first person shooter or epic RPG. And since the upmarket games take the most time and are costly, publishers will only put their first string teams on those games. The downmarket, that the industry thinks are its worst customers, sees these games as less profitable and cheaper to make. In their mind, it is perfectly logical to assign their fourth string teams to do these games as if they mess up, little harm is done.

Nintendo considered the downmarket to be the most important and put their first string teams to make games such as Wii Sports. The result is an explosion of sales with these low tier Nintendo titles. The industry looks at this and, idiotically, says, “Oh! A casual gamer boom! Quick! Let us all start making casual games to ride this wave!”

The problems with this worldview are:

1) The lower tier market has always been around. It was just overshot and abandoned as generations passed on. The high growth of online flash games showed this market was always alive and well.

2) The industry still is putting their fourth string teams to work on these games. When they make a Wii game, they make it for ‘casuals’ which means they attempt to make the game playable for retards (in their minds). They dumb everything down, put cutesy generic art and music in, and ultimately make a flash game on steroids. Dull! Dull! Dull!

Don’t take it from me. Miyamoto has told them personally:
 
"If there's only one piece of advice that I could give to the managers of third party companies, it would be that a lot of times it seems that when they're putting games out on Nintendo hardware, those games are being developed by their third-string team or their fourth-string team. Maybe that's because they see those products as being unique projects or somewhat smaller-scale projects. But when Nintendo puts out a title that is designed to really support and sell its hardware, that title is always developed by one of our number one teams. And so I think that when it comes to the question of trying to compete with our software, I would really like to see the parties try to do that with their number one teams rather than with the third- or fourth-string teams. [Laughs.]"

-Shigeru Miyamoto, Gamespot Article:

The ‘Flight’ is in the Developmental Process

As someone studying Nintendo recently, I have noticed how the games Nintendo produces are of a very different vein than third parties. Third party games tend to be more hit and miss while Nintendo games almost assuredly have some sort of quality there which makes their games easy buys (and builds up tremendous customer loyalty). Some companies are able to replicate this same effect such as Blizzard. Also, interesting, the Nintendo/Blizzard games tend to hit both upmarket and downmarket users. What are they doing differently?

”People buy Nintendo and Blizzard games because of their franchise worlds.” But other third party games have as rich of a franchise world. “Nintendo and Blizzard have the money to delay their games and perfect them. Most third parties do not have that luxury.” While this is true, it raises the question as to how Nintendo and Blizzard got to where they are. They started small like everyone else and, at a time, also didn’t have the money.

I have found a major clue to the ‘flight’ is in the developmental process.
 

Most third parties have the development cycle of the waterfall pictured above. Production is King to them. They focus on utilizing their assets in the most effective manner. Western companies are under more pressure to deliver quarterly results which often results in more rushed games. This approach is not ‘wrong’ as effective production does lower cost and create profit. This also explains the parade of sequels and ‘samey’ type games.

Nintendo and companies like Blizzard use the Spiral where customer satisfaction is King. This leads to delays in production, projects pulled entirely, and constant testing. The result is a product that creates passionate users.

The third one, the question mark, is where the User is King. Many companies know their current ‘waterfall’ production based method has a future of rising costs and declining passion so they are turning to the Internet to make the User as King. These include episodic gaming as well as downloadable content. Will Wright is moving in this direction. The idea is that development cycles begin moving extremely fast as now the user is directly or indirectly involved. Companies are confusing the User as King to mean Customer Satisfaction is King.

”But Malstrom, what is the difference?”

The market did not need Super Mario Brothers until Miyamoto created it. Then, the market could not live without it.

Blizzard studied MMORPGs like Everquest and realized there were too many barriers in the game that kept many people from ‘kicking ass’. “How do we fix this?” the Blizzard developers asked. The market did not need World of Warcraft until Blizzard created it. Then, the market could not live without it.

When Will Wright made The Sims, he did not focus on the ‘waterfall’ effective production method. The market did not need The Sims until Wright created it. Then, the market could not live without it.

When Capcom (back in the good old days where small development teams could harness their passions) made Mega Man II, the market did not need it (Mega Man did not sell well). But once it was made, the market could not live without it.

The difference between Customer Satisfaction and letting the User in control is the matter of surprise which is critical in entertainment. It is ridiculous to ask your customers what surprises them.

High definition games are just pushing development more in the ‘waterfall’ model more due to the rising cost of art assets. With more emphasis on the production model, this will create less interesting games (and explains why the Industry got into a rut as development costs went up over the generations).

It should also be noted that analysts tend to gauge the market based on production methods. You never will read Pachter talking about customer satisfaction but about the production model in the software or hardware company. He will talk about lowering component costs but not the behavior of the customers themselves. Until Third Parties re-tool their development process away from the production based ‘waterfall method’, they will never equal the success or the passionate customers created by Nintendo, Blizzard, and others.



Why are independent games suddenly becoming more appealing than big budget games? Why do retro games hold appeal while their huge budget ‘re-imaginings’ become flops? Why is pixilated Super Mario Brothers revered while slick and voiced modern Mario merely tolerated?

There are diminishing returns with production values. For some reason in entertainment, if the production values are too high, the customers react unfavorably. This phenomenon can be seen in movies and music as well. I personally believe that if the customer senses too much production value, he or she will sense the product attempting to be more style over substance. The customer will then feel ‘cheated’.

Wii Sports is an interesting case example. When the game was previewed, gamers said, “OMG! They have no legs! What is with these low poly-models?” Yet, undeniably, that leads to part of the product’s charm.

While the so-called ‘casual games’ were overshot, it should be understood that production values are turning gaming more and more into style over substance. Even the hardcore gamers prefer the ‘good old days’ of Tetris over substance-less games with bloated production values. In order for companies to focus on the ‘flight’ as opposed to the ‘feathers’, they will need to examine to see if their production values are overshooting the market.


Advertisers, Not Consumers, Want Casual Games

”But Malstrom! But Malstrom!” you say. “Reports are coming out which say Casual Games are booming! How can the Industry ignore such a trend?

The answer is that the Industry has ignored these simple online games for quite a long time.

”I do not believe you! You just make up stuff to support your arguments.”

You want proof? Then you shall have it:

2006

”While sales of boxed PC games at retail are on a steep decline -- 38 million games sold in the United States for 2005 compared with 47 million games sold in 2004, according to retail marking consultant the NPD Group -- casual games are now enjoyed by an estimated 100 million PC users, according to comScore Media Metrix.”

-CNN.com, Tech Column

A couple of years ago, even CNN was doing stories of the rise of so-called casual games. What were our Industry managers saying at this time? Oh yeah. They were saying that Wii was a joke and the future was with high definition graphics and top box media functions. It is amazing how the Industry ‘discovers’ casual games only when the Wii succeeds despite signs of popularity of low tier games everywhere at this time period.

2005

”’Casual’ games have been getting some serious attention lately. Just last week, the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) – a large independent, non-profit organization for game software developers – announced the formation of the Casual Games Special Interest Group in response to new opportunities in the casual gaming sector. Over the next few weeks, the Game Initiative – a leading producer of game industry events – will be hosting two separate conferences focusing on the casual games market. Microsoft’s Casual Games group will be a major sponsor of both conferences.

-Microsoft Press Release. SOURCE:
Microsoft was singing the praises of ‘casual games’ back in 2005, sponsored conferences on the subject, and considered it to be the reason for new spectacular growth for them. Today, in 2008, Microsoft says that it was taken by surprise by the ‘casual boom’ with Wii’s success, but we know this is categorically a lie. Microsoft always knew about the ‘boom’ of ‘casual games’.

2004

”Lyon and Richards are among the millions - mostly women 35 to 54 - who play casual games online. It's a gray market that earns companies $450 million annually, largely through advertising (less than 2 percent of players actually pay to subscribe). That number will triple by 2007, according to tech research firm IDC. And talk about sticky: Pogo's players spend about 24.8 million hours on the site each month, says Nielsen/NetRatings. ‘Checkers is a big pickup scene,’ says Frentzel. ‘And there's one guy who's written in thousands of times requesting that we update our statistics for hearts.’

‘Casual games are tapping into a Middle American audience like few services on the Web do,’ says Erick Hachenburg, senior vice president of global publishing for EA. His company is locked in a bitter fight with Microsoft and Yahoo! to serve this market. All three are expanding their design teams, courting third-party developers, and releasing hundreds of titles. But they all know there's only one surefire way to win. As Pogo game producer Todd Kerpelman puts it, ‘Make the next Tetris.’”

-
David Kushner, “The Wrinkled Future of Online Games”.

The use of games as a pick-up scene might be the catalyst of Nolan Bushnell deciding to make uWink. Anyway, even back in 2004, four years ago, there was much talk about the casual gaming boom.

2003

”At Yahoo Games, the leading online game site, Nielsen/NetRatings reports more than 8.5 million visitors each month. Daniel Hart, the site's general manager, said that its visitors spend more than 5.5 billion minutes a month playing its casual games -- an average of more than 20 minutes a day per user.

“‘Casual gamers represent a substantial part of the overall game audience if you include every possible game outlet and genre,’ said Jay Horowitz, an analyst with Jupiter Research who follows the video game industry. ‘In terms of audience, 70 percent of the online community play casual games.’

But he and other video game experts say the surge in casual gaming is about much more. Rising costs and production times for sophisticated games for hard-core players have helped give companies like Gameloft, WildTangent and Hexacto incentives to produce more and better casual games. So have improved wireless services and handsets, advanced gaming software formats, and firmer pricing structures for the sale and delivery of games online. And as those already drawn to games grow older and have busier lives, they are looking for less time-consuming diversions.”

-Michel Marriott, “The Un-Doom Boom”, Published: June 26, 2003.


Near the beginning of last generation, stories (such as the above New York Times article) were coming out about the boom in casual gaming. With more than five years to see the trend of increased desire in lower tier games, how could so many game industry managers miss the boat?

Malstrom motions you to come closer. “Shh…” Malstrom whispers. “The real reason why so many in the Industry have rallied about casual gaming since the domination of the Wii is to escape blame for piss poor decision making. They talk of casual gaming like it was a ‘new trend’ despite it always existing and its increase on PCs were generating newspaper articles half a decade ago. By describing ‘casual gaming’ as an unforeseen explosion, they save their necks from investors who would have rightly penalized them for making bad business decisions. Pre-Wii, Nintendo talked about appealing to non-gamers and former gamers. Casual gamers are neither of those two.”

The truth is that regular PC games and console games have begun overshooting the market for quite some time now. What is described as a ‘casual game’ used to be the ‘bread and butter’ of the Game Industry not too many years ago.

The big problem with current research methods is that they are polling active gamers. What about the non-active ones? And are the more hardcore game genres in true decline or are the games overshooting the market and generating more and more former gamers? (It should be noted that Nintendo focused their market research on non-active gamers including non-gamers and former gamers. Nintendo never aimed at capturing ‘casual gamers’ in the same context that birdmen speak today.)

The most important thing to keep in mind with ‘casual gaming’ on PCs is that revenue is generally made from advertisements. Currently, there is an advertisement crisis as less and less people watch television or read newspapers. Consumers now have greater control on being able to edit out advertisements. Advertising agencies are desperate to reach people. It is no surprise that advertisers are rushing over one another to get to these ‘casual games’.

The problem is that advertisers will want these games more than the consumers will. “But look at the growth, Malstrom!” Trends are double edged. It is good to be in front of them but bad when one is on the wrong side. Low tier game growth will not go on forever especially with everyone treating it like a new gold rush. Soon, advertisers will be pushing these games more than consumers demand.

While Nintendo accurately interpreted the growth in low tier gaming on PCs to mean the traditional market was overshot, this ‘Blue Ocean’ would allow Nintendo to perform the nastiest business move conceived. It will be Microsoft and Sony’s worst nightmare.

Difference Between World-Views

Nintendo’s worldview is simple: aim at making hits on the downmarket to make the Wii platform dominate the lower tiers. Then slowly move upmarket.

The rest of the industry has a completely different worldview: view the ‘explosion’ in downmarket games as a unique phenomenon (in this case, the fictional “Casual Games Phenomenon”), and then assign many teams to make these ‘casual games’. Instead of trying to understand Nintendo’s flight, they are putting on wings and trying to flap. Wii gamers become frustrated while Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 gamers laugh and say, “If you want to play REAL games, buy a real gaming console! Hah! Hah!”

Go back in time and look at the DS which was hated by the industry (who analysts referred to it as Nintendo doing another Virtual Boy). The industry did not understand the platform and just dumped many PSP ports or mini-game collections on it. While this was going on, Nintendo focused on the downmarket with games such as Brain Age and Nintendogs as well as a few tiers above that with New Super Mario Brothers. After a year on the market, Super Mario Kart DS and Animal Crossing DS came out. As you know, games like Brain Age and Nintendogs became huge hits which attracted new gamers. And these new gamers then swam upmarket to turn Mario Kart DS, New Super Mario Brothers, and Animal Crossing DS into huge hits (than they would have been without those lower tier games). The installed base for the DS surged which attracted more third party support but mostly meant support for upper market games such as Dragon Quest IX and the Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest remakes. As the DS swam upstream, the uppermarket games that were coming on the PSP began to be stolen by the DS.

The Wii is advancing in the same way. Nintendo focused on the downmarket with games such as Wii Sports, Wii Play, and Wii Fit which all became hits. Third parties become confused and made mini-game compilations. After a year, slightly higher tier Nintendo games come out such as Mario Kart Wii and Super Smash Brothers Brawl and Super Mario Galaxy. These games will become bigger hits because of the success of lower tier games such as Wii Sports sending new consumers upstream. Just as the DS has become the darling of hardcore gamers, so too will the Wii as the system moves upstream.

The birdmen eventually understood the DS. They realized it wasn’t about making retarded games (what they nicely label ‘casual games’) but hitting different tiers. They could make a simple RPG or a puzzle game to satisfy those customers on that tier. They realized casual gaming does not necessarily mean passion-less gaming.

While the journalists and analysts parrot one another with “casual gaming” speeches and rhetoric, keep in mind Nintendo’s plan. The strategy is to start with the Blue Ocean, seize and dominate the lower tier (which the industry doesn’t really care for anyway), and then slowly move upstream.

What happens when Nintendo moves upstream? Competitors have two choices:

1) Flee. Many companies will gladly ‘cede’ this new market. After all, this new market is not very profitable to the competitor and, besides, the competitor clearly is getting tons of money through the upmarket. While this choice works for the short term, the problem is that the encroaching company will swim upstream and begin to take customers away. Fleeing to the upmarket means ceding more and more of the market to the newcomer. Eventually, the competitor will have nowhere else to flee and will go out of business or be reduced to a niche.

2) Fight. Some companies realize that fleeing will ensure their demise so they stay and fight the newcomer for that market. However, the newcomer is patient for growth but impatient for profit. The competitor will likely be unable to defend that tier due to the newcomer gaining more profit. The battle becomes attrition until angry investors let the company’s managers know they do not enjoy them wasting so much money fighting over a market that has little profit in it. The investors will say the upmarket has plenty of profit to satisfy the company’s needs for growth. So, eventually, the competitor will decide to flee upmarket.

Imagine Nintendo using The Blue Ocean Strategy to gain a foothold in the market, attract new gamers, former gamers, and dominate on the downmarket. Once successful there, Nintendo slowly moves upstream with superior business models which prove more profitable than the competitors (that attracts more and more third parties). As Nintendo moves upstream into the upper markets, Sony and Microsoft either fight or end up retreating upstream. Since Nintendo has a more profitable business model, they will win any fight over a tier with Microsoft and Sony. As Sony and Microsoft retreat upmarket, Nintendo follows. Eventually, Sony and Microsoft either become niches or leave the gaming market entirely.

“NOOOOO!!!!” a hardcore gamer screams in sudden realization.

You see it, don’t you? You now are suddenly seeing the Big Picture. Now, when you hear Sony says that they think Final Fantasy XIII or Metal Gear Solid 4 to ‘save them’, you realize they are relying on the upmarket. Just now, Nintendo announced paid online services and even download content. “What does this mean?” asks a reader. It is a sign that Nintendo is moving upstream into the upmarket, into the more hardcore areas.

The tsunamis were just the beginning. Malstrom puffs on his cigar while standing in knee-deep water. He points to you. Remember this room? Here are the statues of all of gaming’s heroes. Malstrom held up out his palm, and you see a drop of water fall into it. You look up to see the roof leaking. “The water is rising!” you shout.

Yes. The Old Era will soon be gone. Enjoy its last gasp. We are in the midst of a huge shift where little will be as it once was.

But my hope is that people will stop being birdmen. Instead of looking at Nintendo’s games, their marketing, or their online and say, “Oh? That is for casual gamers! This means they are going for people who don’t normally play games! LOL! I AM SO INSIGHTFUL!!!” they will instead look at Nintendo starting at the bottom of the tiers and moving their way up.

A thoughtful reader asks, “Malstrom, this is an interesting and, indeed, ingenious strategy Nintendo is using of creating a very profitable business model, aiming to dominate the lower tiers, and then move up. The competitors cannot compete because they will not be as profitable so they will lose the attrition wars and can only retreat upmarket. What is the name of this strategy?”

It is called Disruption.

I could find only one voice that appeared to see the disruption for what is was. Unlike others, who in hindsight described the Wii-mote as the ‘Nintendo disruption’, he recognized it in the software as far back when the DS hit its stride:

“Ultimately, what is happening is an entirely unexpected and unlooked-for resurgence in the concept of the games console as a vector for "edutainment" and reference software - and one which could shape much of the future of our industry. Just as disruptive technology is set to prove vital to the coming console generation, so too will this disruptive trend in software be key - and the ability of publishers and platform-holders to embrace this trend could help to decide the winners and losers of the coming years.

-Rob Fahey, 06-2006 Commentary
The console market revolves around software, not hardware. While it is understandable to see the Wii-mote or the touchscreen as the disruption, we should remember that both are nothing but pieces of plastic until software comes into play. People only buy hardware to get to the software.

Casual game phenomenon? No. It is a disruptive game phenomenon. Despite all the talk about ‘casual games’, do you ever hear Nintendo (whose games are creating the big so-called ‘casual’ boom) join the ‘casual games are the future’ chorus? Of course not! It is because they are following the path of disruption, not the path of casual games (whatever that means). If there is a fad, it is the Industry’s sudden romance with ‘casual games’ for they see them as easy money (which they will soon discover that there is no easy money in this business).

”Mr. Iwata has been focusing on these key thoughts truly for about the last three years. These are excerpts from a variety of these speeches whether it’s at Tokyo game show, GDC, even our own E3 events. They are all focused on creating disruptive technologies, approaching the market in a different way offering new news and innovation to the consumer. We can't simply expand the market. If that's all we try to do, slowly this industry will die. It is our responsibility to make games for all skill levels. Technology can't advance the business.

-Reggie Fils-Aime, November 4, 2005 SOURCE:
Not only does Reggie say that Iwata and he are focused on the disruption strategy, he even says that Nintendo’s aim is not to simply expand the market. Yet, despite this clear statement, the conventional wisdom is that Nintendo’s success is due to only to ‘expansion’ and ‘aiming at the casual gamers’. All skill levels mean all tiers, not just the ‘casual’ ones at the bottom.

I admit I find myself in astonishment. This is the process I am seeing:

Nintendo:
“We are following the strategy of disruption!”
NPD:
“Nintendo wins!”
Journalist:
“How are you winning, Nintendo?”
Nintendo: “We are following the strategy of disruption!”
Journalist: (ignores Nintendo) “What is going on here, analysts and third parties?”
Analyst: “It is a casual gamer boom!”
Third Parties: “OMG! Easy money! Quick guys, everyone start making casual games!”
Nintendo: “We are following the strategy of disruption!”
Journalist: (philosophically) “Will casual games cause the downfall of the hardcore games? Let me write many editorials about this!”
Analyst:
(philosophically) “Is the casual game boom a fad? Let us pontificate over this.”
Third Parties: “Hey guys! How you like my casual games? They sure are snazzy! I will make millions! I am such the business whiz!”
Nintendo: “We are following the strategy of disruption!”
Journalist: (scratches head) “You hear something?”
Analyst: “It was just Nintendo speaking. They are saying the same thing.”
Journalist: “Yeah! Haha! Same old marketing speak. I am so much smarter about business than Nintendo. In my next interview with Iwata, I’ll give him some business lessons.”
Third Parties: (cries) “Oh no! My casual games are not selling!”
Journalist: “Obviously, this is because people buy Nintendo consoles for Nintendo games.”
Analyst: “Nintendo needs to assist these third parties in getting their casual games to sell.”
Third Parties:
“That’s right! They need to do what WE want them to!”
Nintendo:
“We are following the strategy of disruption!”
Journalist: (yawns) “Is that all they say? (becomes excited) Ohhh! Look! A new hardcore game is being made with fresh textures.” (runs off)
Analyst: “Obviously, Sony and Microsoft are branching with casual games themselves. Poor Nintendo. Too bad they are out of tricks. I expect Playstation 3 to be surpassing them in a year or two. The market revolves around technology you know.”
Third Parties: “My casual games aren’t selling? Why!? I do not understand!”

Is it not amazing how everyone talks about the casual gamer boom except Nintendo? Instead, Nintendo keeps talking disruption while everyone either ignores these quotes or misinterpret ‘disruption’ to mean ‘change’ or ‘innovation’.

”Our adventure is still ahead of us. Nintendo is committed to creating an environment where all of your work can prosper. I began today saying that disruption is not just a strategy for Nintendo.

-Satoru Iwata, GDC 2006 “Disrupting Development”.

What is Iwata saying here? He is asking for game developers to focus on making disruptive games, not casual games. ‘All work’ means even the higher tiers.


The Low Tier Train has Already Passed

”But Malstrom!” you say. “If the lowest tier was passed over, then isn’t it good that all these companies are aiming at it? This abandoned tier is now priority number one.”

Fool! It is a gold rush. There is a saying: there is not much gold when everyone fishes from the same stream. There is also a saying that when a business opportunity hits the newspapers, it is way too late for investment.

You can only sell so many products to the same customer. The games industry has done a good job growing the core customer, but when you start looking at the casual landscape … you’re really looking at everybody.”

-Chip Lange, general manager of EA Hasbro Studio. SOURCE
If Mr. Lange would put his words to their natural conclusion, he would realize that he is doing what he condemns. The low tier customers cannot absorb tons of products. No tier can.

“Everyone is mimicking everybody else.”

-Michael Pachter. SOURCE:
Go! Go! Captain Obvious!

Even Sega has pointed out the worrying trend:

”But I do also believe that a lot of Western publishers are only looking at the Wii for casual and family gaming, and I think that's a mistake – I think there's a lot more opportunity there on the Wii. The Wii isn't just about Wii Tennis and Mario & Sonic; it's about so much more."

-Simon Jeffrey, President of Sega of America. SOURCE:
“But Malstrom! If this is the wrong path for publishers, what should they be doing?”

Friend, realize that Nintendo did not make a Nintendogs 2. While they did make a Brain Age 2 and Brain Age Academy, the brain games have stopped. There is no Wii Sports 2 or Wii Play 2. Outside of novel approaches, such as Wii Music and Wii Fit, what else is Nintendo making in the Tier 1?

”That is all we know….”

Nintendo is already busy putting out Tier 2 and Tier 3 titles. The Wii Zapper and Wii Wheel are the ‘bridges’ to move Tier 1 gamers upstream.

”Reggie feels Mario Kart Wii is a ‘bridge game.’”

-Matt Cassamassina in an IGN podcast.
I’m surprised that people miss a big clue being the wheel that comes with it. “No, Malstrom! Wheels come with games all the time!” Silence! I have had enough of you.

The solution is for these publishers to create bridge games and aim more at Tier 2 and Tier 3 titles rather than have all of them aim at Tier 1. This strategy… no idiocy, of them all aiming at the same person is going to backfire. I haven’t seen this stupidity in this industry since… well… since them all making PS3/Xbox 360 HD games because “Top Box systems are the next wave, Malstrom! LOL!”

Some developers do understand the bigger picture event though they aren’t familiar with the disruption label.

”The way I look at casual games...I think a lot of people view it as a threat…

”I think, what it is, it's a nice gateway drug. It makes people understand the principles of gaming.

”Let's not kid ourselves. When I grew up playing on Atari - those are the casual games of today. Pac-Man is a casual game, Centipede...All those things would be considered casual games now. Tetris is a casual game. There was no concept of a casual game back then...

”I think it is a nice gateway drug. I think it is going to strictly expand the market, which doesn't scare me very much.

“I think what BioShock did was, we said if we're going to have a complex game we have to invite the gamer to explore that complexity rather than just throwing it in their face and saying ‘Deal with it.’

”Nothing on the scale of a Wii Sports, but again, Wii Bowling is like the ultimate gateway drug and God bless them for figuring that out because there is no barrier of entry. ‘Hey, can you go like that?’ [swings arm] That's what you do in bowling, that's what you do in Wii Sports.

“It's not that [casual gaming] scares me. It excites me.

”I think there's a much better chance of people who wouldn't normally be interested in games going in and thinking ‘I'm interested in the history of Rome. I'll buy that strategy game,’ whereas before they would have been overwhelmed by the very concept of it.”

-Kevin Levine, Creative Director for “Bioshock”. Interview by GameIndustry.biz.


Mr. Levine, drawing on the experience of the 80s, understands the concept of upstreaming (or as he says ‘gateway’ drug). Even back then, ‘hardcore’ games such as Defender sold which no one thought was possible and plenty of ‘hardcore’ RPG and strategy games were blossoming on the computers (from the upstream of arcades and the home console gamers).

What no one is pointing out that this deliberate upstreaming process, of ‘gateway drugs’, is the big picture of Nintendo’s strategy. The hardcore gamer, enraged that all these “non-games” are coming out and his beloved HD consoles are struggling, screams “This is madness!” No, it is disruption. Nintendo is winning not because it is attacking at the top and going on down but by attacking from the bottom and moving up.

One game journalist sniffed the truth and shuddered:

“Bridge games,” reads the release, “let video game novices and veterans play and have fun together.”

“A few weeks ago, “BioShock”’s Ken Levine called “Wii Bowling” “the ultimate gateway drug.”

“But is it? Bridging casual and hardcore gamers implies each is approaching a game from opposite directions — but having fun on a common ground. That doesn’t mean the “novice” will ever end up crossing to the other side. “Gateway games” and “bridge games” may not be one and the same.

“Nintendo’s announced definition of a “bridge” game isn’t necessarily Wii specific, either. Does a “bridge” game mean another player has to be a part of the action? I had several friends watch me play through “Resident Evil, simply because the game was so immersive, even to a viewer. They never played it, but they experienced it.

“So far, the gameplay of “bridge games” falls on the simpler side. Could Nintendo make a “bridge game” out of “Pikmin”? And how would you make a more accessible version of “The Legend of Zelda?” without scaring off the hardcore?

“Do they need to?”

Patrick Klepek, MTV gaming post.
You can smell the fear. Klepek connects ‘bridge game’ and ‘gateway drug’ and becomes alarmed. Why, if Nintendo made bridges for low tier users to go upward, it would destroy the Hardcore Kingdom. Instead of facing this fear head on, Klepek attempts to rationalize this possibility of upstreaming away (similar to how everyone said, before launch, Wii would just sell to Nintendo fans and have three year lifecycle max to not deal with the fear that Wii could reshape the market like DS did). He says ‘gateway drugs’ and ‘bridge games’ may not be the same. But what is he basing this on? HIS OPINION.

”What’s wrong with that, Malstrom? Are we not allowed to have opinions?”

What is wrong is that this is the business strategy arena, not ‘is this game fun?’ arena the journalists tend to reside in. Opinions don’t matter in the business strategy arena. Strategies mean outcomes. Klepek doesn’t ask anyone at Nintendo. He attempts to rationalize the possibility of upstreaming away.

Since hardcore love ‘immersion’ games, he attempts to pin bridge games on people watching him play Resident Evil. Then, he attempts to try to dismiss it further by saying Nintendo could not possibly make a bridge game out of Pikmin or The Legend of Zelda without scaring off the hardcore. Unfortunately for Klepek, Nintendo did just that with Zelda: Phantom Hourglass. The next Pikmin is practically guaranteed to be a ‘bridge’ title as well. (I sent an email to him asking him his thoughts on the DS simple games being the gateway drugs to the bigger games to eventually stealing the precious ‘hardcore’ titles like Dragon Quest 9. He never replied.)

As you can see from above, ‘disruption’ will not be the conclusion in anyone in this industry for Nintendo’s success. They will, instead, mistake correlation for causation, see these ‘casual games’, and think all they need to do is make ‘casual games’ for instant money.

You can tell much about someone by their criticisms. The Industry criticizing the Wii because it is a “fad” aptly describes the Industry. That is all they do, chase one fad after the next. Now, my birdmen, what is the fad are you going to chase once the ‘casual games’ have run their course? Why would someone invest in an entertainment company that is doing exactly what everyone else is? Imitation is suicide, and mimicry is the masking of the talent-less.

"There's going to be a lot of dead bodies in the side of the road in casual gaming. If you're a developer, beware the glut, because there's a lot of content coming...We're about to emerge from this cocoon, and there will be all different kinds of butterflies."

-PlayFirst CEO John Welch GDC 2008: "The Promise of Casual Games."

More like moths to a flame. The fad was not in Nintendo’s strategy but in third parties (incorrect) interpretation of Nintendo’s strategy. Trying to escape their hardcore labyrinth, many are donning waxy casual wings to fly over the vast Blue Ocean. Those wings will melt and many millions will be lost as they plunge into the deep.
 



-Disclaimer-

-The more colorful graphs were created by Kathie Sierra, writer of The Passionate User blog, and former game developer for Virgin, Amblin’, and MGM.

-Analogy of the birdmen to put on feathers rather than study flight was graciously taken from Professor Christensen of Innovator’s Dilemma fame who uses it to describe businesses trying to ride a disruptive wave but do not know it is disruption.


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