This is the way casual games end. Not with a bang, but a whimper.
I will not decry Seth Fischer’s comment. Believe me, I want to. The problem is, he’s doing his job. He is the founder of Oasis Management. It’s a company dedicated to risk management is getting the biggest possible return for their clients. His company has funds in Nintendo, so if he didn’t write the letter, he wouldn’t be doing his job. He sees an opportunity and he wants to go for it.
Fischer wants Nintendo to go after the casual gamer market far more aggressively. Casual gamers are the ones who play games on their mobile devices. They don’t play video games for hours on end like hardcore gamers. Rather, they pick a game up and play it for a few minutes before moving onto something else. These gamers used to play NES games back when they were younger. So chances are, if Nintendo were to put them out there, casual gamers would play them.
But he isn’t talking about just selling them on mobile devices. He’s talking about using a free-to-play model where all the money is made through micro-transactions. The gamer wouldn’t pay $9.99 for the right to play the game. He/She would pay close to $50 with dozens upon dozens of $0.99 transactions. While there’s nothing wrong with making money, there does seem to be something troubling with what he is suggesting.
When I think of the games that I own, or have played, for the NES, it is easy to imagine how micro-transactions could fit in:
- Punch-Out: Pay $0.99 to restore Little Mac’s health between rounds.
- Super Mario Brothers 3: Pay $0.99 for seven p-wings.
- Tecmo Super Bowl: Pay $0.99 for all players of your team to be in ‘Excellent’ condition for one game.
- Castlevania III: Pay $0.99 to unlock Alucard, Sypha, or Grant.
- Metroid: Pay $0.99 to play as Samus without armor.
- Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: Pay $0.99 to unlock Michelangelo, Raphael, or Donatello.
- Contra: Pay $0.99 to acquire body armor for Bill or Lance.
That’s just off the top of my head. Some of the ideas are forcing the gamer to pay for what used to be included in the game. Other ideas are an extra cheat in order to make games easier. You can give it a try too. I bet you can come up with a hundred different ways to introduce micro-transactions to some of your favorite childhood games.
At one point, the relationship between video game company and gamer was a very good one. The developer created a game and then the gamer purchased the game. It was straight-forward, like purchasing any other item. But things changed along the way. First, there was a small, but frustratingly visible, population of gamers that stole games. They have been around for as long as video games have been here. Video game companies see these people as lost revenue, as they are effectively using their product without compensation. This led the companies to try to find new ways to combat this behavior. Micro-transactions was one of several ways to do that.
This has proven to be quite lucrative. Companies found ways to use micro-transactions to with free-to-play models. This type of model was used with mobile games, opening up the market to casual gamers. Casual gamers happily flocked to it and everyone was happy. There were console games for the hardcore gamers and mobile games for the rest of the gaming population.
Something went wrong. Something always goes wrong.
In this case, video game companies started getting greedy. They saw how profitable micro-transactions were and wanted to try to bring it into console games. Suddenly, gamers needed to purchase DLCs in order to get the entire game (Alan Wake, Asura’s Wraith, etc). Or gamers had to spend a dollar here or dollar there to unlock characters and options that were normally available to them (Street Fighter, Sim City, etc). This has been met with subdued anger among the gaming community. Console gamers were used to paying for their game upfront. This business model was not sitting right with them.
This brings us to today.
Steve Henn, a writer at NPR, made an interesting observation in a 2013 article he wrote. He pointed out that video game companies are intentionally designing games in such a way to get the gamer to stay on longer and get them to spend money. If you don’t believe me, here is a comprehensive article talking about a trick known as “fun pain.” It’s just one of many that companies use.
Look back at what Seth Fischer said in the beginning. Try to imagine what sort of tricks he may be referring to with the games. Paying to get Mario to jump higher? Perhaps. Maybe some of the ideas that I listed earlier? Maybe.
Casual games are dying a slow and painful death. Yes, they are ungodly profitable right now. But they are still dying. Just listen to the people who play the games. They are frustrated about having to spend the money they are spending. This underlying frustration will not go away, I guarantee it. Not as long as people like Fischer are able to have a say in the industry.
Why are casual games dying? It’s not enough to just say they are. There has to be a reason why they are. I believe they are dying because casual games are no longer games. Games are a set of rules where a player can engage. The rules define the game, justify what the player can and cannot do. The micro-transactions are adding to the rules, putting a fine on the player for attempting to follow what they believe are the rules. It is a form of a punishment, one that the gamer has to pay in order to get rid of.
Fischer wants gamers to pay for Mario to jump high. Even if that’s an expression of some sort, this sort of move shows a desire to make gamers pay for things they would normally expect to get within the basic rules of the game. And as you punish gamers, eventually you will drive them away.
It’s basic human nature.
Casual games will stick around in some form. But there is no way it will be the juggernaut that it is today.