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Critical Hit: The Return of Casual Gaming

Critical Hit: The Return of Casual Gaming

It’s been a busy year for the games industry, for both the right and wrong reasons; record-breaking sales, studio closures, title delays and the release of console lifespan-enhancing peripherals. A lot has happened since those cold, dark, and snowy nights in January…

This week has seen Microsoft and Sony both release initial sales figures for Kinect and PlayStation Move, providing the latest opportunity for those ‘my console is better than yours’ slagging matches we love so much. While both camps will no doubt defend their respective consoles of choice, the figures – 4.1 million shipped units of Move and 2.5 million units sold of Kinect – will no doubt be welcome news during what remains a largely difficult time for the industry.

There’ll be some saying Sony has taken the early lead in its latest battle with Microsoft, but it’s worth pointing out that units shipped aren’t the same as units sold. In fact, one industry analyst has estimated the actual sales figure for PlayStation Move to be roughly the same as Kinect. So a dead-heat to date then? Wouldn’t that be interesting.

Critical Hit: The Return of Casual Gaming Critical Hit: The Return of Casual Gaming
Kinect sales likely have Microsoft jumping for joy

For me, the more important question is whether the sales performance of the two console-enhancing add-ons indicates a resurgence in the casual gaming market, or just the dogged determination of early adopting fanboys?

In the first couple of years since they launched, the Wii and Nintendo DS have dominated the casual gaming scene. Parents scrabbling for the little white box of magic were left paying high prices on auction websites just so they didn’t have to face the prospect of tantrums. These were probably the same parents playing Brain Training or, more recently, the Professor Layton series and who were tempted into gaming by a glut of ads fronted by daytime TV presenters. When the world was plunged into a deep, global recession in 2008 though, the bottom seemingly fell from under the perceived-as-casual console. Nintendo’s revenues plummeted as sales dropped.

Of course, that wasn’t the end of casual gaming. Since then we’ve seen an explosion of social games like Farmville capture the imagination of Facebook users the world over. So there’s still a market for casual gaming; people are still playing non-core titles, it’s just that they’ve migrated from the Wii to free-to-play alternatives accessible through either a web browser or smartphones.

Critical Hit: The Return of Casual Gaming Critical Hit: The Return of Casual Gaming
Haven't we seen this all before?

Another question that so far remains unanswered is whether those same casual gamers will return to their dusty Wiis once the financial environment improves. Nintendo is readying itself with the launch of the 3DS next year and offering some increasingly enticing bundle deals for both the Wii and DS at retail. Christmas is coming, but whether Santa will be bringing a new set of Wii-hungry casual gamers remains to be seen.

The problem for Nintendo is that both Microsoft and Sony are after the casual gaming market this time too, in a bid to extend the lifespan of their consoles. Speculation remains online that we’re still three years away from seeing the PlayStation 4 or Xbox ‘720’ – but, while both companies will stick to the PR line of being pleased with the sales performances to date, I can’t help but wonder. Might the price tags of both the peripherals (especially the £150 Kinect) put off casual gamers trying to keep to a budget, while equally riling the reliable hardcore gamers due to a distinct lack of new core titles?

And no, I wouldn’t say re-releasing Move-augmented titles from 2009 and 2010 counted as ‘new’ either – I’m looking at you, Heavy Rain and Resident Evil 5.

Critical Hit is a twice monthly column which explores recent events in and around the games industry.

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