I was playing Hexic HD last night on my XBox 360 (trying unsuccessfully to beat Diego's high score) and it dawned on me that I was using a $400 cutting edge video game console (plus a ton of expensive extras) to play what is essentially an elaborate Flash game. Hexic is really fun, so didn't mind, but it started me thinking. Almost all of the games in the XBox Live Arcade so far fall in this lightweight Casual Games category - easy to pick up and start playing immediately. Geometry Wars has a little bit of zing, but the other games are definitely pretty much what you'd see on any web gaming site. In fact, here is Hexic online via MSN Games right now (though you need a Windows machine it seems so I don't know how good it is).
Casual games rock. When I'm sick of PGR racing, WWII combat or Halo, puzzle games like Hexic are perfect. Actually it's the other way around, most of the time I actually prefer puzzle games - Tetris, Lumines, Bejeweled, Polarium, etc. - rather than 3D action games. Multiplayer puzzle games are even better, though just being emailed a link to a high score is pretty good as well, it's almost "asynchronous multiplayer" (to put new terminology on what is the oldest way of playing video games!). Yeah, you can add a lot of eye-candy and effects to these types of casual games, but at their heart, they're generally simple and fun to play, often with surprising depth and don't really require a lot of computer horsepower to play. This has been a hot-topic recently, especially in mobile, but it's interesting for me to grok the whole idea again when it comes to your living room (which is probably reverse of how most people come to the idea, I'll admit).
There's a few things popped into my mind about this. First is context: When we talk about Internet-delivered video, the thing that's really going to drive adoption is when we can get that video from our PCs where it's normally downloaded and managed, to the living room where we normally watch video. Until the tech companies find an inexpensive and easy way to do this, people will continue to buy additional boxes to put next to their televisions instead like TiVos or PlayStations. Along these lines, casual games are also a perfect fit for the living room as well. Remember back in the Dark Ages when the TV had three local channels, and some UHF stations that came in kinda fuzzy? We used to use all that extra time to play card games, board games, Trivial Pursuit, etc. maybe on the kitchen table, maybe on the coffee table. There were tons of fun and easy to play games - and if there were video games in your house back then, those too for the most part were casual games like, god, Pong or something and your Mom wasn't behind the couch wincing as you fragged your friend and cursing him out over a headset, she was there next to you kicking your ass at virtual squash (the one with the wall and undistinguishable paddles on the other side). This is what Nintendo is trying to recapture with their new Revolution console and innvovative new controller, right? The demo video has a grandfather playing a fishing game with his grandson, that sort of thing.
So considering this, it dawned on me to reverse the question that everyone always asks the console makers. Instead of, "Will your new video game console play DVDs and download video?" the question can also be, "Will your new Media Center solution play casual video games?" It makes sense, no? The same technologies that are going to make it possible to watch Internet video on your TV, will also easily allow casual gaming using the same box. Windows Media Center has this capability already,, but it seems like a tack-on to what is essentially a PC and media console. What if instead, it was a main focus?
Imagine for a second if Apple's rumored new Mac mini with the media center capability also included the ability to play casual games as well? Add another section to the iTunes "Music" Store called "Games" and you have the equivalent of XBox Live's Arcade, no? But the key would be if Apple introduced their own, innovative simple controller integrated into the whole experience (or they could even just work with other peripheral companies to do that stuff as well - I've got a USB Logitech controller for PC-based games which is *really* nice and works great with my mini) it'd be a no brainer to come up with something like that for a new Apple media center. This makes perfect sense in my mind: Apple doesn't need to be an expert in video games to offer this, any more than they're an expert in pop music or popular television shows. They provide the integrated experience and a focused message: casual games are fun and simple. Fits perfectly with their whole branding, in my mind.
But this brings up another question - why do we need to rely on third parties to decide on which casual games I can download and play on my living room television screen? Why do I have to wait until Microsoft decides to put another game in the Live Arcade (it's been 3 weeks already with the same half dozen games or so) or wait until Apple put games on iTunes. If there was an open system attached to my TV, I could browse to any game site out there - say Yahoo! Games - and play many of these types of games just as easily - especially if they were designed to be played on a television screen.
I think this really goes back to my thoughts on an Airport Express for Video that I had earlier this year. It seems that if your PC could control your television screen in the same way that you control a monitor attached to your laptop's external VGA port, you could do some cool things. Especially if there were some remote control/controller options as well. Let the PC do the processing, downloading and all that, and let the TV be used for viewing. No need for Yet Another Box sitting next to my TV. This way, anyone could create content for your TV: video podcasts, casual games, etc. and it wouldn't be whoever was able to get the best end-cap display at Best Buy, and you wouldn't be limited by what the cable companies and dedicated subscription services decide you wanted. I want Tetris on my XBox Live Arcade, oh, I have to go get the old XBox title in CD form? But I want it now! Nope, can't have it. This wouldn't happen with an open media center...
Apple seems to be close with their FrontRow software, allowing you to consume the digital media on your PC while sitting on your couch. But I think that Casual Games actually fit in there as well. Not a full-blown gaming console (no need to get into that escalating war with Microsoft and Sony), just a system which allows you to play the same sorts of casual games you can download right now over Live Arcade. Considering the time I've spent playing that stuff rather than the cutting edge titles, it seems like an obvious route to take. Like 50%+ of the 360's value proposition, plus a more integrated media experience as well.
And again, the opportunity is out there for an open system which does all of the above - not a whole system that sits next to your TV, just the software and peripherals that allow you to consume and interact with your PC from your living room. I wonder which company will come out with a WiFi based remote control and controller first? Set up a WiFi Access Point, walk out into your living room, plug in your TV into a little box, and start watching Internet video and playing downloadable casual games (or more - Valve's Steam system is pretty amazing for cutting edge games as well). Seems like a no-brainer to me.