2008: The Year Of The Casual Gamer?

While some console manufacturers may have claimed that 2008 was going to be their year, the past twelve months may be remembered for the year the casual gamer won the market. And like it or not, it may have been the best thing to happen to the video game industry.

Admittedly, 2008 has seen some growing pains, especially tender for hardcore gamers who cringed at the E3 debuts of Nintendo's Wii Music and Microsoft's You're In The Movies. We've shifted from a glut of brain training games, but at what cost? Fortunately, the release of Wii Fit outside of Japan may have helped spawn a new generation of gamer.

The casual market has also seen what may appeared to be some growing pains with two notable transitions at Electronic Arts: the merging of EA Casual with The Sims label and the closure of EA Blueprint.

Chip Lange, vice president of EA Casual, however, says that EA's commitment to casual games is "stronger than it has ever been." With tens of millions of The Sims games sold and what Lange calls "a successful transition to consoles" with the My Sims brand, bringing the two divisions together is "huge."

The real casual star of the year, still being heavily marketed by Nintendo of America, is fitness program Wii Fit.

Since its original release in Japan in December, Wii Fit has sold over 9 million copies worldwide.

"If someone new to video games tries a game like Wii Fit or Brain Age, that breaks down one barrier. Then maybe the person will be more inclined to try a more traditional game like Mario Kart Wii, which can get everyone in the family playing together," said Denise Kaigler, Nintendo's vice president of marketing and corporate affairs. "You might look at these so-called 'casual' games as a way to introduce millions of people to a new hobby."

Wedbush Morgan analyst Michael Pachter sees the Wii Fit hardware as more than just a peripheral. He says that it borders on being its own platform, normally the sort of thing you'd hear from pseudo-platform holders themselves.

"I think Wii Fit should be viewed as a separate console, so it will succeed or fail based on the software written for it," Pachter said, adding that the success of peripheral enabled titles like Wii Fit aren't just good for Nintendo's bottom line — they're good for everyone.

"If there are a lot of games (Tony Hawk, for example) made that take advantage of Wii Fit, you'll see the non hardcore market exposed to a greater number of games, which is good for the industry," Pachter said.

The Wii Balance Board has already been quickly accepted, with titles like EA's Skate It, Ubisoft's Rayman's Raving Rabbids TV Party and Majesco's Wii Fit-alike Jillian Michaels' Fitness Ultimatum supporting the hardware.

While EA consolidated and Nintendo focused on its marquee casual software, Ubisoft took a different approach, throwing its voluminous product line at the wall to see what would stick. Last year, the publisher announced it was expanding its casual market efforts, an endeavor it ultimately called its "Games For Everyone" brands.

This year, it pumped up its Petz label with an impressive thirteen releases in the U.S. alone, with some titles going multi-platform for an even wider product line-up. In some markets, it spun-off the brand with the Planet Rescue label. Ubisoft further expanded the brand with manufacturer Commonwealth Toy to release plush versions of its pixelated furry friends. UbiPetz brand stuffed animals hits retail stores in November.

Add to that nine games under published its Imagine label — targeted at pre-teen girls — and another three in the Ener-G brand aimed at girls a few years older in the so-called "tween" demographic.

Ubisoft also beefed up its My Coach line, a product brand aimed at the older end of the market spectrum. For older teens, there was My SAT Coach. For those (hopefully) much older, My Stop Smoking Coach with Allan Carr.

So how is Ubisoft faring with its shot at making "Games For Everyone"?

"Ubisoft is performing best [in terms of expanding its casual audience], and its wide reach is actually quite brilliant," Wedbush Morgan analyst Michael Pachter thinks. "They will see what works and exploit it, while giving the casual audience a lot of choice. The cost is minimal, and profits have been great."

Financial reports would agree. The company noted in its first quarterly earnings that Games For Everyone titles accounted for 33% of sales, triple what it did in Q1 2007.

EA Casual's Lange thinks that his competitor's strategy might not work in the long term. With Ubi flooding stores with more than forty "Games For Everyone" releases, the majority of which hit during the holiday quarter, it may be overcrowding the market.

"Retailers are not going to be able to process all that," Lange said. "We could do that too, but that's not where we're going. Our plan is a little more sustainable."

That plan, Lange says, involved a "harmonious blend" of licensed and original titles, including homegrown IP like Boom Blox and Henry Hatsworth, plus already established brands like Nerf and Littlest Pet Shop, both from partner Hasbro.

"We've got our eye on the ball to launch new original IP," Lange said "but launching new IP in this space is brutal."

Fortunately for those invested in the "space," the market seems to just be warming up. Nintendo's Denise Kaigler sees the market as "very strong right now."

"Especially in the current economic climate, everyone is looking for good deals for the holidays," Kaigler said. "Families want to buy a gift that can be enjoyed by everyone in the family, and both Wii and Nintendo DS fit that bill. If you look at NPD’s best-selling games of 2008 through the end of October, you’ll see the casual market is well represented."

"That said, it’s important to point out that we here at Nintendo don’t really categorize games into rigid columns like 'Core' and 'Casual,' " Kaigler noted. "Games like Wii Fit help us with that goal because they appeal to some people who might not otherwise consider buying a video game system."

"We’ll keep making games for cores, casuals and everyone in between."