SGS2010: Casually Becoming Social

casualsmileySocial smoshal.. it’s all the same.. right? Panelists gathered yesterday to discuss the nebulous distinction between casual and social games and the impact of ‘social’ on the industry. One thing was clear, however: those who ignore social risk monetary and growth bereavement. The panel was moderated by James Au of Ohai and joined by Richard Fields of Mindjolt, Jeff Revoy of Real Networks, Dennis Ryan of PopCap Games, and Mitali Pattnaik of Playfirst.

The discussion fired up around the distinction between social and casual gaming. The panelists, being of the latter category, attested positive results in their ‘social’ incursion. Although a universal definition of ‘social’ was not contrived from the conversation, all panelists claimed making strides in adding social elements to their games to encourage viral growth and deeper engagement. I even asked a question following the talk, conveying my displeasure at the amorphous nature of the discussion that might have confused the crowd further.

Mitali elaborated, stating, “Playfirst does not see themselves as confined to any specific space but to be in the business of making great games that delight our players.” With 5 years of experience under their belt, Playfirst seems to be optimistic as a publisher venturing into the social space, although they admit being ‘late to the market’. Mitalli doesn’t feel all is lost, stating that, “the late arrival will allow them to take a more strategic approach while learning from the mistakes of others.”

Dennis of PopCap Games took a proactive approach in answering James’ (moderator) questions, specifically about the impact of social gaming industry growth on the casual players. Dennis reported that both PopCap revenues over along with its PC/MAC customer acquisitions have grown over 50% over the last 15 months. This success is partially attributable to the popularity of games like Zombies vs Plants and extensions to other platforms like iPhone and Facebook, the latter driving big growth specifically for their Bejeweled Blitz title.

Since the casual gaming industry is older and larger, they also earn significantly more revenue than the social gaming industry. Casual games have specific qualities that distinguish them from hardcore games and can be found on many flash games portals and as downloads, not to mention having a prevalence on platforms like xbox live.

As the social gaming industry matures, there’s key lessons to be taken from the casual industry, with focus on good gameplay being the most important one. All panelists admitted to the use of analytics and metrics to improve game play although each person described a different strategy. Ryan of PopCap foresaw the future of gaming as one with a focus on brand manners and device agnostic delivery. Although PopCap doesn’t iterate on the core of creating a franchise, they do take a very adaptive approach when porting their games to specific platforms.

Richard and Jeff of Real Networks and Mindjolt, respectively, shared their insights and experiences from embracing a portal/publisher strategy whose aim provide social features while allowing the developer to focus on what they do best. Real Network’s latest play, GameHouse, has seen tremendous outreach from the developer community since opening their platform and is also available as an app on Facebook. Mindjolt is also growing steadily since Myspace acquired them with the addition of 11 more employees bringing the total to 15 and taking more data-driven approach.

No matter what the strategy, a social approach will be necessary and it will be exciting to watch these players compete against the established players in a space filled with strong M&A activity.