Some might argue that's because social gaming is so hot – there was no point in showing up unless you had something to say about the matter. Whether or not that's the case, it suddenly seems clear why casual games don't get the respect they deserve – it's all too fragmented to present a united front.
Despite the lack of mind-blowing moments at Casual Connect this year, there were a few common threads running throughout the three days of talks, all of which will likely impact your casual game playing experience for the rest of the year.
Everyone's obsessed with going social
About 80% of the conference was focused on social games, with discussions about how to keep your social game alive or how to turn an existing game franchise into something that's Facebook ready. PopCap made the jump with iterations of its popular PC games – first, with Bejeweled Blitz then Zuma Blitz (available in a few weeks). Big Fish Games made the jump with My Tribe and Treasure Quest; Playrix is doing the same with Fishdom. If you're favorite casual games haven't made the jump to Facebook yet, it will most likely happen sooner than later.
Everyone wants to figure out how to entice you to buy items in 'freemium' games
Freemium games are great for consumers – you can play for free and then – if you feel like it – you can spend anywhere from $1 to $10,000 buying additional items for your game. People who spend, spend big, but the majority of players refuse to part with their dollars, which is leaving everyone on the inside wondering what kind of new virtual doo-dads they can create to entice you to part with your hard earned cash.
Social games are seeking life beyond Facebook
Right now, Facebook is the hot place for social gaming, but publishers want to spread the love around on other (or any) platforms, whether it's another social network like MySpace or Hi5 or a big gaming portal like Yahoo or the upcoming Google Games. Scrappy start-ups such as HeyZap were also at the show, offering publishers a way to port their games somewhere other than Facebook.
Lots of talk for 'innovation' in casual games, but not many real examples
"We can do better." That's how ohai founder Susan Wu started out her talk at Casual Connect this year, challenging social game makers to go beyond creating pet sims and farming clones. That was a common thread that was touched on throughout the week, both for social and casual games. Outside of some larger theories (like Playfish US General Manager Dan Fiden's touchy feely talk on creating emotions with games), there weren't too many solid examples of innovation in games outside of the 'I Love Bees' meta-game that was used to promote Halo 2 several years ago. There was also a game built around an augmented reality mobile app that involves tagging real-world places and then viewing them using your cell phone camera. It seems like most of the real innovation was on new ways to make money, and not the actual games themselves.
For a video game veteran like myself, Casual Connect was a great way to get a feel for what's happening in this fascinating, but largely unappreciated, segment of the gaming industry. In a year, we'll see if 'social' is still the big trend or if everyone will move onto the next big thing.
Oh yeah -- don't let the name fool you -- even thought it's called Casual Connect, we didn't spot anyone hanging around in a bathrobe or loungewear (though I did spy PopCap co-founder John Vechey in a sweet red tracksuit).