A brief history of casual download games

In this blog post I’ll talk about what casual download games are, how they were/are sold and about the decline of the market.

What are “Casual Download Games”?

These days if I say “casual game” people immediately think I mean a mobile game such as Candy Crush. Many people don’t seem to realise that all those type of games used to be $20 downloadable games sold via “casual portals” like Big Fish Games etc. So I often use the term “casual download game for desktop” to clarify now.

Some people also used to call Flash games “casual” because you could play them online in short bursts and often with just a mouse. However, many of those games were action-oriented and not the sort of traditional casual game genre like match-3, hidden object game, time management game (e.g. Diner Dash), card game, word game etc.

When did the casual download portals appear?

Back before Steam indies sold their games from their own websites and from sites like and other shareware sites.

It was very tough to make a living from that and so when some larger sites started to collate and sell decent quality games to larger audiences in the early 2000s, many devs rushed to get their games on those sites even though the developer rev share was often AWFUL (see below).

What are the main casual portals?

Here are some of the main ones:

– Big Fish Games (the biggest)
– Game House (was originally called Real Arcade)
– Zylom (they are owned by Game House and has localised versions of games)
– iWin (they bought Oberon Media and Pogo and more sites in the past I believe)
– Shockwave
– WildTangent Games
– GameFools
– Exent
– Alawar (Russian)
– Intenium/Gamigo (German)
– Boonty/Nexway (French)

Some of those sites also have/had Flash and Java games for people to play online, but most of their business is via downloadable casual games.

It’s also possible to sell casual games via Amazon, and the Apple App Store (for Mac), and other smaller sites. I’ve tried out a lot of sites over the years but many of them just weren’t worth it. Also some sites that were once good have become unreliable over time.

Developer Revenue Share

The best revshare I knew of was 40% (TO THE DEVS) for an “exclusive” deal, but 30%-35% was common and I have even seen less than 25%! Though in recent years I managed to snag a 50% deal for an exclusive which was pretty good. Remember that Steam, Apple, Google, Amazon offer 70%(ish) to developers, and some like Humble and offer even more!

However, due to the sheer volume of sales on the bigger casual sites it was once possible to make ok to good money from a casual download game when the market was booming, but only if you made the right type of game (more on this in a moment) and controlled the budget carefully.

What type of games do casual portals sell?

Early on you could often find arcade games on the casual portals as well as casual games. Reflexive (bought by Amazon in 2008) used to have platform games, brick beakers, and shoot ’em ups on it for example. It was a really cool time in which I don’t recall casual games as being looked down on, but perhaps I have rose-tinted spectacles.

However, devs soon realised that the type of games that made the most money weren’t arcade games, but were match-3 games (e.g. Bejewelled), bubble poppers (e.g. Zuma), time management games, card games and so on. I realised this around 2005 and ditched a kung fu platform game I was working on and started making match-3 games instead! And the rest, as they say, is history…

Some genres didn’t exist in the early days, such as the Hidden Object Game (HOG) genre which was basically invented/made popular by Big Fish Games (I know the developer of the first big Hidden Object game, Mystery Case Files). Eventually HOGs evolved into Hidden Object Puzzle Adventures (HOPAs), and some of these are really good. In fact many casual games are excellent but most modern press and gamers totally ignore them, which is a shame.

Big Fish Games hired me as a contractor in 2007 to work with a designer who worked there called John Cutter on a game called Fairway Solitaire. That game was super-popular and ended up spawning many clones and variations over the years.

Other games like Build-a-lot started a new genre, and also My Kingdom for the Princess, and no doubt others did too. Farming games (in the Time Management genre) were pretty popular at one point before Farmville became huge on Facebook.

The holy grail back then was to spawn a new popular genre because you’d be leading the pack and people would measure new games in the genre against yours. Though it was incredibly difficult to do because the audience often viewed new experimental mechanics with suspicion and they almost always flopped.

What is good about the casual portals?

– They are curated stores and only take games in certain genres of a certain quality and only launch one a day max. Some launch less frequently. This means devs get front page coverage and a newsletter mention and even advertising paid for by the bigger sites!
– They set up a page for your game with screenshots and text, and some sites even make a video trailer for you. So it’s not much work for devs.
– Some do free localisation in exchange for a timed exclusive. Localised games can make decent money; at least I’ve always found it to be worth doing.
– Some others even did retail deals though I expect these have dried up now.
– Discounted sales used to be rare and were not deeply discounted (max 50% off iirc). They might be more common now but I haven’t checked for a while.
– The bigger site have dedicated customer support teams (and forums) so you don’t need to deal with support issues.
– The bigget sites QA games and make sure they adhere to minimum tech and usability standards.
– Some sites have a “launcher” for customers to keep track of all their games with, like the Steam app.
– Games seems to have a long tail on the casual portals. My 10 year old games still make money every month.
– Every developer has a developer relations rep, which is very handy for many things!

So basically they do a lot for their monstrous rev share.

What is bad about the casual portals?

– Because they are curated stores and they only take certain viable genres of games, you can’t just put any old game on there. Many indies wouldn’t want to be constrained by the type of games you have to make to sell on the casual portals, but I didn’t mind that in my early years because a) I enjoyed making and playing those games and b) they earned me money for my family.
– They choose your release date and sometimes it can take months for them to launch.
– You can’t update your game very easily. You have to have a decent reason for an update (like a major bug fix) in order to get it processed and online, and that might take months.
– The rev share sucks, but we already covered that.
– You cannot have any external links in your game such as to your site or your newsletter.
– You have to put THEIR splash screen in YOUR game 😮
– They own the customer details/emails etc. This is no different from Steam, Apple, Amazon to be fair.
– They often have a high minimum payment theshold of $500. This sucks if your game doesn’t make much money on there as you may never get paid!
– There is no real-time reporting. Mostly you have to wait months for a royalty report. Sometimes those reports have errors on them!
– They are mostly slower to pay than Steam and other indie game distributors.
– They might give away your game for free to customers! I found out that site gave away thousands of copies of Regency Solitaire as part of a customer loyalty scheme but I couldn’t do anything about it because it would have meant removing my game which was making decent money there.
– In recent years as the market, and sites, have continued their decline I have found some sites to be unreliable with a) royalty reports, b) payments, and c) getting replies to emails.

There are probably more things that aren’t great but that’s a pretty good list for starters.

Ultimately, despite the downsides, I have done pretty well from making and selling casual games over the years. None of them have made me rich because it’s not that sort of market where hits make millions, like Steam, but done right a decent career could be forged.

Demo versus subscription model

A bit like the old Shareware model, most casual download games can be downloaded for free but only run for an hour before they get shut down by special DRM and the player is encouraged to buy the full version. Essentially it’s a “pay wall”. Their saves are kept intact.

Back in the day it was said that a conversion rate of 100 downloads to 1 sale (1%) was good, but actually some of the best games could get double digit conversion rates if they were constructed well and left the player addicted and wanting more. One of mine once converted at 18% during launch month!

Some of the casual portals started a subscription style service where players could play whatever game they wanted for a fixed fee each month and developers would get a share depending on how long their game was played for. This actually worked out pretty well for my games because some of them have median play times of 5-10 hours (based on Steam stats), and that results in a lot of minutes played. One of my games had over 4 million minutes of play in the first month on a site.

However, my main concern with the subscription style model is that it ultimately devalues games imho and discourages people from purchasing them instead, which is what I’d prefer as an old-skool dev.


Believe it or not, casual games used to sell for $19.99 on all the distribution sites! It was glorious. Games were valued decently.

Then after Amazon bought Reflexive they dropped game prices to $9.99 and all the casual portals followed suit. [EDIT: It’s possible that Big Fish Games dropped their price to $9.99 first and Amazon and the rest quickly copied but it’s hard to verify.]

Then some sites introduced discounts for “club members” who paid some kind of regular fee via credit card. This meant games could be bought for only $6.99.

To be fair, Big Fish Games later tried to address the low price of games by introducing “Collector’s Editions” which are $20 games with a bit more content than “Standard Editions”, though there were cheaper for club members of course.

So when you see indie games for $9.99, basically that price point came from a price war between the casual portals! It was their fault. Without them trying to capture market share, maybe indie games would be $20 still, or maybe mobile and F2P games would still have driven down the price anyway.

Market decline

It’s hard to say when the casual game market was booming but I’d say from like 2006-2013ish. Since then it’s been on a long slow decline. I say this based on talking to other casual devs about how their recent game launches have gone.

Why did it decline? Well I think that many players went over to Facebook when Farmville was big and eventually migrated to mobile and F2P games. Some hardcore casual gamers still use the casual portals and download games, but not in the same numbers as before.

Also another issue is that basically the quality bar kept rising, and as we’ve discussed, the price went down, and many players left for other platforms. This made it really hard for developers to make a profit due to the costs of making higher quality games and lower revenues. I know of multiple casual studios that closed down in recent years. The result is that, in my opinion, there’s less innovation and fewer really good quality casual games launched on those sites now, and maybe the customers have also become apathetic.

Steam and casual gamers

I enjoy shipping games on Steam due the tools (and being able to update easily), the decent revenue share, the real time reporting and so on. And so my hope is that casual gamers will eventually migrate from the casual portals to Steam.

However, Steam isn’t very appealing to casual gamers with it’s dark “gamer” theme and the inability to easily view old-fashioned casual game categories like match-3, HOG, card game etc. on a single landing page. If you browse “casual” on Steam, you’ll get a huge variety of games including “naughty” visual novels.

If Steam fixed that and basically made a really nice CURATED casual game landing page I think could poach a huge amount of sales from the casual portals. Remember that Big Fish Games sold TWICE for nearly $1B. That’s how big the market is, though admittedly a lot of that valuation has to do with recent mobile gambling games.

Anyway, I guess that’s it for now. I could have waffled about this stuff for considerably longer, but I’ve got some games to make.

Also, just to remind y’all, please go and buy my casual games here direct from us so that no third party gets a giant cut. Thanks!

One Response to “A brief history of casual download games”

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