I remember a time, not all that long ago in the grand scheme of things, when I feared for my favourite pastime. I had grown up playing games with the ZX Spectrum, the NES, SNES and the Sega Mega Drive (Genesis). I had enjoyed everything from Attic Attack to Zool. So what worried me so much? Solitaire on Windows 3.1
Our first home PC was my first real experience of the platform. Access to computers at school had been limited to the BBC Micro in science classes and Mac simulations that told me my ideal job was building houses in Africa. Windows and DOS games were a revelation. 256 colours seemed like all we’d ever need. I used it for drawing, point and click adventures and internet chatrooms. I also played Solitaire on it occasionally. But, and this is the important bit, so did everyone else.
There was a time when this was the most entertaining sight in my gaming world. But it didn't last long.
Videogames were ours. They were the thing our generation had nurtured and grown up with. Not being able to get a go on Sid Meier’s Pirates! after dinner because my mother was on a two hour Solitaire bender was not part of the plan.
I knew that Solitaire was a new kind of videogame – one which pretended it wasn’t a videogame at all. Even then, I knew that if I had noticed the wildfire spread of this game among those who were traditionally reticent to play videogames, so had the people who make those games. I thought that the balance shifting would mean more games made to target this new potential audience. I thought that would mean less games made to target me.
Of course, that didn’t really happen. Subsequent Windows releases brought a few new games and there were countless convenience store racks filled with Solitaire compendiums for PCs but my own beloved hobby continued to grow and deliver great new games for me to enjoy. Those casual Solitaire players didn’t go anywhere either and through the years of flash games, peculiar collections and eventually Facebook games, they’ve developed into a massive attraction for developers and publishers looking at ways to sell their products to as wide an audience as possible.
Today, the widest audience possible means games on Facebook and games on mobile devices. With those platforms and their enormous potential markets, developers have had to look to new ways of building revenue. It’s no longer the most profitable course of action to create a large scale game, get all of the content together on a cartridge or disc and sell it in a shop. Developers have found ways to deliver the seeds of a game and then keep delivering more once a user is hooked.
Facebook and freemium are the latest fad that developers are rushing to but it remains to be seen how lasting their impact will be.
From farm building on Facebook to tower construction on iOS, a compelling mechanic, coupled with the ability to pay small sums of money to unlock, upgrade and progress in a game, is what makes money these days and the big traditional publishers have noticed.
Whether it’s via mobile apps that further their flagship franchises or social media tie-ins that yield valuable free marketing, traditional videogame publishers are shifting focus to these new growth areas. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re moving away from large scale games, delivered on discs or cartridges, but it does demonstrate that a broader approach is seen as necessary in the marketing and launch of big games.
Should we all be scared for the death of videogames as we know them? No, I don’t think so. Rather, we should be excited for the extra material we now have access to. While social and mobile games certainly have appeal to a wide audience and they are irrefutably the fastest growing market at the moment, big traditional releases are still incredibly profitable for publishers and as long as we keep buying, they’ll keep making. Solitaire didn’t kill my pastime and neither will FarmVille.