Nothing Casual About This Game Obsession

Marketers Take Note: Time Spent on Casual Games Has Gone Up and the Average Age of Players Has Gone Down

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Credit: Illustration: Martin Kozlowski


SAN FRANCISCO (AdAge.com) -- They do it at the bus stop, at the doctor's office, in line at the grocery store. They do it everywhere they can.

The number of people playing casual games and the amount of time they spend playing is unprecedented. "Angry Birds" alone sucks in users for 200 million minutes a day and Zynga's CityVille entices close to 100 million people a month. This no longer sounds casual.

The reason people have become so committed is easy to identify: the proliferation of the mobile device that's always in their pockets. The Casual Games Association reports the industry earned $3 billion in mobile revenue in 2009. Mobile devices and social networks have resulted in more people playing more games, giving advertisers an opportunity for innovation and huge new audiences.

"Casual games have been growing thanks to the explosion of mobile -- largely the iPhone -- and social networks, primarily Facebook," said Mari Baker, CEO of PlayFirst, creator of the Diner Dash games. Ms. Baker said casual doesn't refer to the relationship of the player to the game, but means that the game is easy to learn, can be played in short bursts and is relatively inexpensive and fast to develop. "Angry Birds" cost Rovio $100,000 to make and is bringing in more than $2 million a month.

Mobile devices have also had an impact on who plays the game. "Demographically the other thing that's happened with Facebook and iPhone is the average age of the casual game player has gone down from 35-to-55 to 25-to-45," Ms. Baker said.

The reason these games are so attractive to today's consumers is the fact that they can get in and out in five minutes or less, making it appealing to busy people who are running around but have their mobile devices with them. Unlike games such as "World of Warcraft" or "Grand Theft Auto," which can consume hours a day or more to complete just one stage of the game, casual games give gamers the satisfaction of completing a level without a huge time commitment.

So what can advertisers do with this incredibly huge audience and its love for quick and easy games? Peter Vesterbacka, creator of the "Angry Birds" game, said brands first have to let go of the idea that they need their own game. "We get a lot of requests like 'You made 'Angry Birds,' can you make a game for us?' Sure we can. But the smart brands are the ones who will work with the apps that have the audiences already and create experiences that will be integrated into the app."

Mr. Vesterbacka added, "We have the audience, and we get contacted by some of the biggest brands who get it, who want to see how they can integrate their brand into the experience." He said it was too early for him to discuss any plans "Angry Birds" has with brands for integration, but that 2011 will be a big year for the "Angry Birds" franchise.

Mr. Vesterbacka also noted he is looking to TV as an advertising model for casual games. "In TV, there's free-to-air, there's cable, there's ad supported, there's pay-per," Mr. Vesterbacka said. "This is still early days, but we will be much bigger than TV."

A good way for advertisers to integrate with casual-game content is to sponsor items inside the game. Unlike several years ago, when casual games were mostly for sale, gamers have more choices for free games than ever before.

"That's a huge shift in gaming," said David Madden, CEO of game marketer Wild Tangent. "It used to be a software business, but now it's a content-access business, and users are paying for items inside the free content."

Mr. Madden said his company creates campaigns for Clorox, Axe Body Spray and Dove. For interacting with a brand inside the game, players get virtual goods that would normally cost money. "In the social-game space, less than 3% of users are spending real money, so there's a 97% opportunity here for advertisers to sponsor social-game access," Mr. Madden said.

Another opportunity to innovate with casual games is merging online and offline experiences. PlayFirst's Chocolatier game created a campaign for Charles Chocolates during which users could opt to purchase real-life versions of the chocolates they made in-game. Players have since created 135 million pieces of Charles Chocolates for their virtual shops -- that's not bad name recognition for a small San Francisco brand.

Ms. Baker, who worked on the Charles Chocolates campaign, said the most important thing for short bursts of game play is that the ad doesn't get in the way. "You can't be in the middle of breaking down the wall in 'Angry Birds' and have something pop up as an ad," Ms. Baker said. "The principle of advertising has to be not to interrupt the game play."

What's next for the birds?

When "Angry Birds" released its version for the PC at the Intel app store last week, it slowed the site down to a crawl. Without the holiday numbers factored in, "Angry Birds" has been downloaded more than 50 million times on Apple and Android devices.

"We don't have the numbers yet, but we saw a four-fold increase in downloads on Apple since Christmas," said game creator Peter Vesterbacka while on vacation in Finland, where game developer Rovio is based. He said the game easily makes $1 million a month on the Android ad-supported version with an equal amount in iPhone and iPad downloads—that's $2 million per month on a game that cost $100,000 to make.

So what's next? Can Rovio repeat such success? "We don't want to replicate 'Angry Birds' but to expand the franchise," Mr. Vesterbacka said. "We have some big announcements planned for this year that will keep the franchise fresh."

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