The next day at Casual Connect, I had less time to go to presentations since my schedule was split between general events and meetings. However, the highlight of the presentations I did manage to take in was most definitely "Fairies and Dragons", given by Brian Robbins of Fuel Industries.

The games were on CD and packed with a figure. Available in the UK and on eBay.

Basically a postmortem of sorts, Brian's presentation told the tale of how a chance meeting led to the opportunity for Fuel to partner with McDonald's Europe in delivering casual-style gaming to kids all across the EU via happy meals. Listening to him explain the design process of a game intended to keep a five-year-old child happy for 15 minutes was quite unusual in this era of high-octane blockbusters and fathoms-deep player experiences. Also unusual was the positive outcome of Fuel being able to retain rights to their IP after such a project.

An interesting factoid from Brian's talk: According to McDonald's, 33% of happy meal toys never leave the restaurant, and of the 66% that do, 33% never leave the floor of mom and dad's car. From a Toy Story perspective, it seems more than a little sad to me that only a third of those smiling pieces of plastic ever make it home.

Somewhere, Buzz Lightyear is mounting a rescue effort.

The rest of the day was something of a blur. Being that Casual Connect is not open to the general public, there was no massive show floor or hordes of sweaty casual game fans to plow through. Consequently, many of the talks given were business-focused with a separate track devoted to mobile (phone) gaming.

Interestingly, many discussions were almost of a "how-to" nature with words of wisdom and anecdotes meant to give guidance to people who develop on a small scale. Several of the panelists and attendees who actually made the games came from studios of five people or less, so there was much discussion of the pros and cons of developing through ‘virtual' offices, hiring outside contractors for graphics and sound, and comparing different business models.

Carrying this microscale, intimate theme forward, in the foyer of Seattle's Benaroya Hall and the common spaces of the event it was quite clear that many of the attendees knew each other, a pervasive small-world atmosphere easily detectable. Discussion of who was working on what, and which studio had job openings where were often overheard amidst of the constant susurrations of the media and business-side people talking numbers and sales.

As I mingled through the crowd and spent time in the rooms, one thing that occurred to me over and over again was that casual games are in a massive state of flux along with the growth spurt they've been experiencing in the last few years, and everyone is still trying to figure out what's going on.

Far from being the corporate monoliths and impersonal studios that are traditionally on display at larger trade shows like E3's of years past, the people at Casual Connect were just that — people. There was very little pretense or corporate façade to punch through; it was more a matter of simply walking up to a person, saying hello, and interacting on the spot. With such a warm atmosphere and everyone quite eager to talk, the overarching attitude and dynamics of the event were worlds apart from what would be considered normal in the console sphere.

Will it last? I hope so.

Due to some previous commitments, I was not able to attend the third day of the conference. However, I did manage to squeeze in a few more social events before leaving Casual Connect behind.

The first was a small mixer put on by Big Fish Games. The two hotel rooms that were rented out filled up quickly, people queuing up for the free drinks and sushi catered by Dragonfish. Big Fish are great hosts, but speaking from a culinary perspective, I don't have much respect for Dragonfish itself… it's positioned as a hip, upscale eatery, but I've always found the quality of the food to be lacking. But, I digress…

Yes, this sign is actually IN the water.

Afterwards, I made my way to the Spongebob-themed party put on by Nickelodeon at the Seattle Aquarium. The entryway where tourists usually gather was filled with cocktail tables, a DJ, and three open bars within eyeshot. Already impressed, I wasn't expecting the entire space to be open and accessible… partygoers were free to wander the entire aquarium and never had to go more than a few feet between refreshments. Bartenders hung out next to the tidepools and jellyfish while waitresses made regular rounds with a variety of foods like "kelp" fries and, of course, Krabby Patties. The highlight? Deep-fried pickles… absolutely delicious.

The weather was perfect as the sun went down on the decks overlooking Puget Sound behind the exhibit area, and the constant flow of food, drinks and music ensured that everyone was having a fantastic time. Absolute class, from top to bottom. I can't imagine how much it must've cost Nickelodeon to put on a party of this quality and magnitude (the alcohol cost alone must have been insane) but the king's ransom they must have paid was well worth it—it was a perfect way to end my time at Casual Connect.

Here's to you, Nickelodeon… That was a world-class shindig.

Read more at Drinking Coffeecola blog.

Brad Gallaway
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